A collaboration between local officers and FBI agents, the Task Force has drawn ire, suspicion, and paranoia from local activists. Many fear that the Task Force, formed only one year ago, has unbridled power to monitor, infiltrate, and disrupt local political organizations and unions.
But, set against the bleak backdrop of recent terrorist attacks, the debate on Wednesday arrived with a reverent sensitivity. As testimony for and against the Task Force volleyed back and forth--from an abortion provider whose clinic was burned down, to labor union members who claim they had been spied on--it became apparent that the Council meeting had, in fact, become a microcosm for a national debate over the balance between civil liberties and law and order.
But as the testimony raged on for three hours, a question specific to Portland emerged: Who's watching the watchers?
While advocates tried to paint a need for the Task Force, and opponents tried to argue against such surveillance, it became evident that few truly understood what the Task Force is up to on a daily basis. Many also expressed confusion about what allowances Task Force members are given when shadowing alleged terrorists.
Several speakers raised questions about what, if any, checks and balances exist so the Task Force does not overstep its surveillance duties and spy on peaceful political activists. Facing this skepticism, late in the meeting Mayor Katz spoke up to assure the crowded City Council chambers that there is plenty of oversight in place for the Task Force. She assured the crowd that the City Attorney's office is doing a fine job keeping them on a leash.
At that moment, local attorney Alan Graf stepped forward with a letter from the City Attorney which, countered that very claim. An outspoken lawyer who has represented local protestors and activists, Graf has on several occasions unearthed damning information on the intelligence gathering efforts of the police force. During one trial, he found a police document that detailed a local activist's political associations and activities--a major injustice. (Without a compelling reason, police are bound to limit their investigations to criminal activities.)
The judge in that case demanded an explanation, which came in the form of a letter from the City Attorney. The letter, dated February 2000, confessed that the City Attorney's office had not been monitoring police intelligence maneuvering and, really, that no one had.
On Wednesday, Graf had copies of the letter in hand. "I felt like I was Perry Mason," he said later. But as soon as he presented his smoking gun--and with it, a compelling argument for real oversight--Katz snapped at him. "Your two minutes are up."
Although speakers before him had rattled on for minutes, Graf stated in an interview with the Mercury, "it was so obvious that she just didn't like what I was saying."
In response to Katz's attempt at muzzling him, Graf volunteered to spearhead the formation of a civilian oversight committee. That suggestion has since taken on its own life. On Monday, an undisclosed criminal court judge allegedly offered to chair the committee and Council member Erik Sten had asked the city attorney for a legal opinion about whether judges could serve in such positions.
"Vera doesn't care about civil liberties in this town," added Graf. "She is ready to sign the city over to the FBI."
After three hours of anxious testimony, the City Council meeting was adjourned. With so many citizens showing up wanting to speak, the City Council had to postpone a vote on the matter until this Wednesday.