From left, Andrea Meyer, David Fidanque, and Mike German of the ACLU.
  • From left, Andrea Meyer, David Fidanque, and Mike German of the ACLU.
With just more than week to go before the Portland City Council formally revisits its 2005 decision to distance itself from an FBI-led federal terrorism task force, commissioners this morning—for the first time since agreeing to study the issue—offered a substantive window into how they might vote.

Those hints came during a wonky public hearing in which commissioners invited in two panels of experts, one from the ACLU and another from federal law enforcement, for deep, in-the-weeds questions on some of the difficult legal issues underpinning the debate.

Update 1:47 PM: Mayor Sam Adams, in closing the hearing, suggested the council could vote next week to punt a final decision on the JTTF.

At issue is whether Portland should once more embed its police officers in the region's task force—an issue that flared anew after the Pioneer Square bomb plot last November. The city withdrew in 2005, led by then-Mayor Tom Potter and current Commissioner Randy Leonard, amid concerns about civil liberties and civilian oversight. Since 2005, the city and FBI have agreed to cooperate on a case-by-case basis, an arrangement that held even during the probe of the Pioneer Square plot.

Civil libertarians say the arrangement amounts to an invitation for Portland cops to violate Oregon code 181.575, a law that prohibits state cops from gathering information on political, religious, and social activities, or storing any such files, absent any hints of criminal activity. Law enforcement officials, like U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, have suggested that the FBI has mended its ways and that Portland, without trying to raise alarms, would be safer from attacks if the city rejoined.

Update 12:29 PM:
Scratch that "no alarms" bit. Holton just held up a cardboad-mounted photo of the World Trade Center that he snapped from his apartment window almost immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"As I stared out the window that day, as I took that picture, I made a promise. It's a promise we made to our family, to our friends, to the families of 3,000 people who died that day.... We promised them that we would do everything we could to try and prevent this from happening again.... We can keep that promise better if the Portland Police Bureau rejoins the Joint Terrorism Task Force." end update.

So far, the council has just returned a lunch break after hearing only from the ACLU panel—which included a national heavyweight: Mike German, a former FBI special agent who resigned in 2004 after raising questions about ethical violations during Bush-era terrorism investigations.

Keep reading for what commissioners have had to say so far, and stay tuned for updates after the full hearing. If you want more about the talking points of the two panels, click here and here.

Early on a couple of things were clear. Leonard remains just as concerned as ever about the lack of oversight Portland would have it it rejoined the JTTF, while Dan Saltzman, the lone vote against leaving in 2005, seems just as eager to rejoin.

Leonard struck relentlessly on one piece of fallout from the Pioneer Square plot—the fact that Mayor Sam Adams wasn't notified of the plot early on, in apparent violation of the city's current ad-hoc pact with the FBI.

"This is an incomprehensible failure," Leonard said. And "now we're being told, well, if you join the task force, these other things will happen for sure."

Meanwhile, Adams, who sided with Leonard and Potter, appeared early on to be seeking a justification for changing his vote, trying to lay out an argument that he might have more control over Portland cops if the city reversed course. And Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, who weren't on council last time, also suggested they needed more convincing.

Fritz asked if there was any way to strengthen protections in the current agreement with the FBI, while Fish pressed for an answer on the question of whether Portland really is any less safe under the status quo.

But in a raft of testimony about the Portland Police Bureau's long history of spying on peace groups, as well as the FBI's own litany of misdeeds, many of them summed up in a 2010 report by the Department of Justice's inspector general, it was German's testimony that stuck out.

"On their face, the FBI's polices are in violation of the Oregon statute," he said. "More important would be to study what the FBI's actual practices are... The way the guidelines are actually interpreted by the FBI in practice is actually worse than the base of what the guidelines require."

Update 12:47 PM: Holton brought an equally impressive panel, including two Justice Department officials from Washington who haven't previously been part of the conversation, to address concerns raised by the ACLU. Their names underscore just how much of a win the feds want on this issue. One panelist was Valerie Caproni, the bureau's legal counsel, who answers directly to its director, and the other is an assistant attorney general, Todd Hinney.

Caproni spoke at length about how the FBI conducts investigations and sought to rebut the ACLU's claims—offered in a raft of files showing confirmed cases of illegal spying stretching from the 1970s into the 21st century—that changes to agency guidelines in 2008 have made it easier for the government to violate civil rights and the First Amendment.

She argued that the changes were meant to streamline rules across the agency and that while they expand the range of permitted investigations, part of a bid to make sure the agency is more "intelligence driven," those probes must still not be based solely on First Amendment-protected actions.

"It doesn't mean were going back to the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover," she said.

Answering whether the city could negotiate "secret" clearance for Adams, Holton noted that out of 56 JTTFs and hundreds of elected officials serving in those jurisdictions since September 11, only eight mayors have had security clearance. "And two of them are named Tom Potter and Vera Katz. This is an exceptional thing."