Last week, Mayor Tom Potter, flanked by three city council members, stood in city hall and announced that an FBI agent had attempted to spy on city employees. It was an unsettling revelation—that the country has slid so far into paranoia that it was essentially spying on itself. But what was perhaps even more startling is that the attempted spying seemed so, well, expected. In this era, when the federal government is recording thousands of cell phone conservations, why should we not suspect that they are keeping tabs on city governments like Portland who speak out against the Iraq war, lobbyists, and—not least of all—the federal government.
In his press statement, Mayor Potter mustered up a feeble scolding, saying that the FBI's action "smacks of Big Brother." It was a sentiment that any English major flunky could have conjured. But beyond pointing out the problem, he failed to answer the question: What are you going to do about it now, Mayor Potter?
Over the past several years, Portland (and Oregon) has dug in its heels against the increasingly overbearing federal government. Of course, there is the decision to withdraw from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (after the FBI refused to allow the mayor full oversight of the police officers working in the JTTF). But there have also been more important and broader battles. Over the past few sessions of the Supreme Court, Oregon has been called in to defend both its Death with Dignity Act and its medical marijuana laws—two policies that clearly irk the Bush administration. By successfully defending those policies, Oregon has held the line against the federal government's intrusion into personal choices, lifestyles, and the rights of local governments to make their own decisions.
Now, Portland has an opportunity, if not a patriotic duty, to stare down and beat back the federal agents—and, in the process, help protect the cause du jour, privacy rights.
The FBI has defended its actions by claiming the agent did nothing wrong. In fact, the regional FBI spokesperson, Beth Anne Steele, explained that such practices are common. But what Steele did not refute is that such practices are morally, ethically and—perhaps—legally wrong. In Oregon, it is a well-established law that a law enforcement agent cannot gather information on elected officials or city employees without at least some suspicion of criminal behavior. The FBI has admitted they had no suspicions of wrongdoing in city hall, yet they tried to solicit an informant.
There is no gray area here: What the FBI did is wrong. Scream. Holler. Portland City Council, the country needs you!