Personal diplomacy: Dwight Holton, left, and Art Balizan, shown in Corvallis after a mosque arson following the Pioneer Square bomb plot.
  • Associated Press
  • Personal diplomacy: Dwight Holton, left, and Art Balizan, shown in Corvallis after a mosque arson following the Pioneer Square bomb plot.
Okay, I'll say this about the guy: U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton is charming. And earnest. And, like any good litigator who makes a living convincing people of his fundamental correctness, he knows his crowd.

When he took the floor last night at a Human Rights Commission forum—one of the first public sessions on whether Portland should rejoin the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force—he made sure to get this out of the way before making his case:

"This is a hard conversation. That's why I moved to Portland, because we care and think about things here. I take this very seriously.... Liberty requires a healthy skepticism of government power, and that's why this conversation is so important."

(And, providing a chuckle for those in the know, Holton even managed to get off something of a gentle swipe at Dan Saltzman, who had agitated for a decision on the task force in early December, but lost out to Mayor Sam Adams' more reasoned, longer-term approach: "There were some people who wanted to rush in and try to get a decision made. Art [Balizan, the FBI's top Oregon agent,] and I were not about that.")

Did he sway anyone? It's hard to say. And he and Balizan had to walk a fine line on questions of "fear"—trying not to imply that not rejoining the task force would make Portlanders less safe. But one thing was clear: The two-hour discussion, at turns frank, tense, funny, and enlightening, offered an interesting sneak preview of a citywide town hall planned for next Thursday, January 13.

Click past the cut to read more about Holton's arguments, the ACLU's response, and what community members had to say. Like I said, it was a long, dense meeting. So I'll forgive you if you skim a bit.

In considering whether Portland cops should be embedded with federal agents, there are three key questions (and, yes, several smaller ones):

Will cops be asked to violate a state law that prevents gathering information in the absence of criminal activity? Will the city and the police bureau be able to oversee their activities to make sure that doesn't happen? And will any data that is collected be kept on file, also in defiance of state law, even if no criminal activity is ever turned up?

On the first, Holton attempted to play down concerns by calling it a myth that cops joining the task force are allowed greater latitude for investigation than what's provided under Oregon's constitution. As evidence, he cited the U.S. constitution and his office's own guidelines—plus his "moral compass." At one point late in the session, he and Andrea Meyer of the ACLU had brief words on that point—she disagreed.

Holton acknowledged the FBI's screwup in the mistaken arrest of lawyer Brandon Mayfield in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, but blamed it on a fingerprint analyst—even though, Meyer noted, the affidavit's foundation was built as much on Mayfield's allegiance to Islam. And he pointed to strong efforts by the Justice Department's inspector general to publicize FBI misdeeds in reports that, ironically, served as a source of ammunition for his critics.

"I can't tell you we're not going to make mistakes," he said. "Brandon Mayfield is great example. ... I can guarantee that when we do make mistakes we will report them and we will hold people accountable."

Meyer, addressing the room before Holton, made sure to explain that Mayfield wasn't the only error made by the FBI. She plopped down the FBI's lengthy files on the ACLU, recapped the Portland Police Bureau's long history of spying on political groups, even into the 1990s, and reiterated that new FBI rules have loosened standards for probable cause when agents are compiling paper on someone—a step shy of actually investigating them.

She also offered strong rebuttals to Holton's assertions that all the bad shit in George Bush's Justice Department—waterboarding, torture, warrantless wiretapping (all of which he called "despicable")—had faded. She mentions more recent cases in which FBI and JTTF agents had raided homes of Mideast peace and antiwar activists.

"We know that we have history," she said, "and some of it's not that historic."

Holton did manage some points on oversight, explaining that most of what Portland officers would be doing wouldn't be classified and that their supervisors also could receive clearance if they desired—and that officials like the mayor and police chief could sign nondisclosure agreements to learn sensitive info on a need to know basis.

He also stressed that a new JTTF agreement wouldn't have to look like the old one—so long as it achieves his goal of speeding up investigations (more hands assembling the puzzle pieces) and easing communication barriers (knocking down divider walls). He said it would be fine if the city negotiated provisions that explicitly ban officers from violating state law and require those slights to be reported to city officials. Or, he says, if there's anything legally dubious about whether an officer is asked to do, then that officer wouldn't be allowed to do it.

"I have no problem with that," he said. (Of course, that would require everyone actually minding the law, which, at least nationally, has been an issue in the first place.)

Balazon, following Holton, summed things up this way: If Portland rejoins, "Perfect. Then we'll have a much stronger team." If not? "Perfect. We will continue to operate the way we've been operating, and we'll continue to share information with the of Portland whenever the city has a need to know that information. That's what what we did in the most recent case [in Pioneer Courthouse Square]."

As I've said, it's a tough line, balancing what they see as an urgent need for Portland to rejoin with not coming off as trying to scare the bejeesus out of everyone.

Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman wasn't buying it. "This thing that didn't happen down in Pioneer Square was all about making us afraid and making us rejoin the JTTF."

Attorney Steve Goldberg handed Balazon's sentiments back to him: "Would events have unfolded differently? Probably not." And, he said, although the Obama administration might not have approved warrantless wiretaps, they're still defending them in court.

"It's the Obama administration that took up the torch to fight that case," he said. "The idea that things have changed under any particular administration... don't be naive."

Commissioners, who eventually will be asked to make a recommendation to the city council on the matter, also appeared skeptical.

Said one commissioner, "I'm not afraid I'm going to blow up tomorrow, because there's nothing I can do about it. But I am afraid about losing my rights, my freedom, and my country. There's an insidious piece of this that makes me say 'don't do that, don't do that.' It is simply what most human beings do when they're frightened."