Portland retreats on civil liberties

March 10, 2015

Ryan de Laureal reports on the attempts by activists to prevent Portland lawmakers from restarting the city's participation in a federal counter-terrorism program.

ON FEBRUARY 19, the Portland, Oregon, City Council voted 3-2 to re-join the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a collaboration between the Bureau and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Since 2005, Portland had been the only major city in the country that didn't participate in the JTTF, a decision that came after the FBI wrongly accused an Oregon lawyer of being involved in a bombing in Madrid.

The city will now assign two Portland Police Bureau officers to the JTTF. Proponents of the move, including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who reversed his previous opposition and cast the deciding vote, cited the Boston Marathon bombings and recent terror attacks by Islamist militants in Europe as the motivating fear-factors for his decision.

"I'm ashamed as an American that we have been involved in wars without justification, in prisons without trials, and in torture," Hales said in a speech to the City Council before the vote. "I hate to even say those words...[Yet] I'm appalled by the radical evil that is loose in the world today...The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and Boston are incidents in which people, we call them terrorists, attacked their own communities and murdered their neighbors."

Victim of police entrapment Mohamed Osman Mohamud
Victim of police entrapment Mohamed Osman Mohamud

Hales didn't mention the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in Western countries, both before and after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year. These attacks have been largely ignored in the media hysteria surrounding "terrorism."

Taken together, hate crimes and attacks by xenophobic right-wingers in Western countries have been far more frequent in recent years--and often more deadly--than those perpetrated by people inspired by al-Qaeda.

"Today's vote to allow Portland Police Bureau to rejoin the JTTF will serve to strengthen that relationship [with Portland police] in a critical area--preventing acts of terrorism," said Greg Bretzing, the FBI's top official in Portland. "It is our mission to keep our shared community safe while at the same time protecting the freedoms we all enjoy in this country."

It is unclear whether Bretzing imagines those already most affected by hate crimes and police harassment--including Muslim, Black, and immigrant communities--to be part of his "shared community."

Nor is it clear if the freedoms referred to by the FBI agent include the many human rights--including the right to not be subjected to detention without trial, warrantless surveillance, torture and assassination--that have been frequently violated by the FBI and other security agencies in the years since the September 11 attacks.

MEMBERS OF Don't Shoot Portland, a group of local activists identifying with the Black Lives Matter movement, testified in opposition to the decision at the City Council hearing.

Teressa Raiford, one of Don't Shoot's lead organizers, spoke about the group's concerns regarding the vote and the implications it could have on Portland communities:

We were asking for them to stay out of the Joint-Terrorism Task Force because we didn't think that the Portland police system is credible enough to carry out such a task or to have that type of partnership. They've already proven, I think, with the Christmas tree issue, that they're more in line with creating the problem and the crime, just to create more opportunities for funding and resources.

The "Christmas tree issue" that Raiford referred to was a 2010 FBI sting operation in Portland in which undercover agents coaxed a Somali-American college student into a plot to blow up Pioneer Courthouse Square during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

FBI agents had maintained contact with their target, 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a U.S. citizen, for six months preceding the planned attack, posing as associates of a Jihadist recruiter in Pakistan and providing him with the money, inspiration and logistical assistance necessary to carry out the bombing. Mohamud hadn't conceived of carrying out such an attack until after talking to the undercover agents.

Rather than identifying Mohamud as a potential bomber and working alongside friends and family to steer him away from an attack that would claim innocent lives, the Bureau created an elaborate hoax, setting up Mohamud to be arrested on the day of the bombing. He was later sentenced to 30 years in prison under charges of attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.

The FBI has become increasingly reliant on such sting operations to catch supposed would-be attackers--and to bolster its reputation for keeping Americans safe from "terror." In most cases, the "terrorists" wouldn't have committed a crime had FBI agents, or informants working for the Agency, not recruited them to the task--often by luring them with promises of money.

A Human Rights Watch study entitled Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions examined 27 federal terrorism cases since 9/11 and found that federal agencies frequently violated their suspects' civil rights, attempting to entrap innocent citizens in elaborately planned conspiracies.

Such FBI-concocted terrorist operations indicate that the FBI is suffering from a lack of legitimate terrorist plots to thwart--presumably, the Bureau wouldn't need to resort to such deceitful tactics if it were busy dealing with real threats.

These largely fake operations are quite effective, however, at attracting media attention and feeding the idea that crackdowns on civil liberties are justified in the fight against "terrorism." They have the secondary benefit of helping the Bureau legitimize its work, thereby keeping its $8.4 billion yearly budget flowing.

WHILE THERE have been zero al-Qaeda organized attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 (and none in Oregon history), there have been many acts of violence against Muslims and those who are incorrectly perceived as being Arab or Muslim.

The recent anti-Muslim murders in North Carolina of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha are just the best-known example of the danger that Muslim communities face as a result of the hatred whipped up by the so-called "war on terror."

After the shootings at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris, mosques throughout France were attacked and defaced with firebombs, grenades, bullets and xenophobic graffiti. Similar incidents have occurred in the U.S. continually since 9/11.

Local Portland activist Sophia Kinhnarath spoke of her concerns for herself and others in the Muslim community after the JTTF vote:

This undermines the safety of all Muslims and all Americans. I oppose the Task Force because it is a way to target not only Muslims but anyone whom they believe to be Muslim. It's a legalized way to justify profiling, interrogation, and surveillance.

Inside the mosques, there are already undercover cops, FBI agents etc. There is already a disconnect with both the police and FBI and now it will only increase the mistrust... If there is a problem and somebody is swaying in their path, the community is the one who should be there to help that person. We do not need the Task Force to criminalize and entrap people in order to guide people the right way.

Kinhnarath helped to organize a recent vigil in Pioneer Square for the victims of the Chapel Hill shootings.

"It was important to do the vigil because many Muslims related to Deah, Yusor and Razan," Kinharath explained. "They were everyday Muslims. They could have been anyone you know. I did the event with the intention of showing the Muslim community that they have support from the larger community. I wanted to inform Muslims that is not just a Muslim problem, but this has been and will continue to happen to all communities until we each contribute and collaborate to eliminate the problems."

That type of solidarity among different sections of society--from the Muslim community to the Black Lives Matter movement to other social justice struggles--will be critical in the wake of this setback in Portland.

Further Reading

From the archives