The point man for those urging Portland to rejoin the Joint Terrorism Task Force is Dwight Holton.
The 45-year-old interim U.S. attorney for Oregon, Holton has been making the rounds, arguing that the value of participation in the law enforcement partnership outweighs whatever concern skeptical Portlanders might have about the federal effort.
Those with a short memory will be excused for forgetting that Portland was a member of the task force (which is, essentially, a collection of federal and local law enforcement officials who pool information about possible terrorist attacks) until 2005, when then-Mayor Tom Potter pulled the city’s police officers out of it. The city had been part of the JTTF since 1997 and was the only one of 100 member cities to withdraw.
An ex-police chief, Potter was angry that even as the mayor overseeing the Police Bureau, he couldn’t get the highest-security clearance that would give him access to all JTTF files. No other mayor had that access, and the FBI offered to give top-secret clearance at the time to then-Chief Derrick Foxworth. Potter said he wanted to ensure there was no return to the city’s notorious “Red Squad” of yesteryear, when cops in the criminal-intelligence division spied on political activists and ferreted out “communists” behind every Benson Bubbler. (More recently, in 2008, City Pages in Minneapolis reported JTTF had tried to infiltrate vegan potlucks to learn more about protests planned for the Republican National Convention.)
But after Nov. 26, 2010—when the FBI foiled an alleged plot to bomb the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square—Commissioner Dan Saltzman urged the city to rejoin the task force. The Portland City Council will vote on the matter Feb. 24.
Despite Saltzman’s support and the arrest of the alleged bomber, Holton has work to do. The other four members of the five-member City Council are wary about rejoining. And in this town, there are few political consequences for telling the feds to shove it. Nevertheless, the self-effacing Holton, whose brother-in-law is Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine, is willing to wade into the politics of this issue.
WW: Portland doesn’t seem to have suffered from being outside the JTTF. Why does Portland need to rejoin?
Dwight Holton: I know liberty requires a healthy skepticism of government power. I think you can carry your skepticism and still join without shedding that critical feature of democracy. There are law enforcement officers in the federal government, FBI and other agencies and local governments right now working on terrorism investigations. There are Portland police officers who are right now working on terrorism investigations. The goal and purpose of the task force is to put them in the same room, so the Portland officers are a part of the regular briefings we get, but also to provide local insight. We do this in almost every topic here.
So, to oversimplify, the current protocol is, the JTTF can contact Portland police when there’s something going on. But on an ad-hoc basis, where you guys get and share information, that doesn’t happen?
Correct. In a perfect world, we’d have a couple officers who come in and are there all the time.
How would the investigation into the Christmas-tree bomb plot have gone differently if Portland police had been involved early on?
I don’t think as much about that case as I do the next case where we have multiple targets, a couple of different targets identified as locations, a number of suspects where it’s not somebody with whom we have undercover contact. That’s where that deep and ongoing cooperation can be very important.
What’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard from JTTF opponents?
The best argument is also the worst—that if Portland police officers were to join, they would either be allowed or required to violate an Oregon statute that makes it illegal to gather information on someone on the basis of their religion, or political activities….If it were true, it’d be awful. It’s the worst argument because it’s not true. The task force does not gather information on anyone based on their religion, on their political view, on their union membership, on their organizational membership, period. We don’t do it for five reasons: One, it’s immoral. Two, it’s unconstitutional. Three, it violates federal law and federal guidelines. Four, it violates state law. And five, it’s a waste of time.
How do we know that, and what’s the check on that?
There is substantial oversight of the JTTF from the national level as well as from us locally. There’s an inspector general who keeps an eye on JTTF as well as a whole series of other oversight layers.
Are there accommodations you’d be willing to make given Portland’s concerns?
Put it in the agreement that they [officers] can’t violate the state law. And, if they see federal officers doing it, they have to report it. We want to make this work for Portland. Almost six years ago, when we got out, it was based at least in part on concerns about tactics on the war on terror—investigative techniques like unwarranted wiretaps or wiretaps without warrants, torture. I share these concerns. There were terrible, terrible things. They’re gone now.
Do you have any realistic expectation that this City Council will change its mind?
I think this is a city that cares about public policy…. I don’t have a political machine...but I think I’ve got the best public policy. And I think it matters in this town. So I’m hopeful we’ll bring folks back. If we don’t, that’s fine. We’ll keep doing all the stuff we’re doing.
You’ve said before that there seem to be more terrorism investigations or prosecutions in Oregon than other parts of the country. Why do you think that is?
I don’t have a good sense of that. I know I spend a disproportionate amount of my time on international terrorism and terrorism-related cases. I spend about half of my time doing that kind of stuff. And that is more like the U.S. attorneys in Manhattan and Chicago than it is like Seattle.
Is cybercrime on your radar?
Sure. I got an email right before Christmas from the mother ship [U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder] saying, essentially, don’t use iPads, don’t forward email to iPads, don’t take notes using iPads because they’re a security risk. I didn’t tell my wife. And, unfortunately, she got me an iPad for Christmas, which is [now] a very lovely and expensive gaming platform for my 6-year-old.
But the implication is the iPad is more of a security risk than a laptop?
That’s what my security folks think. And they say quit whining. People can mine information off these things in a way…because they are so connected. In part it’s because it’s so tempting to put everything on there in a way that everything might not be on your laptop.
What’s the one tool as U.S. attorney that you’d like to have that you don’t have?
The thing I have to do that’s hardest is try to tell when someone’s telling the truth. But that’s an imaginary tool because I don’t think polygraphs work all that well…I don’t have a good answer. I like the system. I think it works really well. This is what I never understood about the Bush administration’s approach to this—I welcome oversight by judges because we make mistakes. When I was a prosecutor in Brooklyn, I was investigating an awful murder. They stabbed this guy so many times that he had no blood in his heart by the time he got to the hospital. It was 10 guys, and the state caught five guys immediately and arrested and convicted them. Fast-forward four or five years, we catch a cooperator who can tell us something about that murder. And we wind up catching five other guys. And one of them tells us a guy who’s been sitting in jail for eight years, he didn’t do this. And we were able to put together some DNA evidence…the key blood evidence that was argued at trial against this guy…it was one of his friends’ blood, not the victim’s blood. He helped out one of his pals who got hurt. And he walked out after eight years in jail. It’s a long way of saying we make mistakes, and I get that.
How has the focus of your office changed from Bush to Obama?
There are new priorities. The environmental crimes program, which Karin [Immergut], my predecessor, started, has grown. That’s something that’s a priority for me. Our affirmative civil rights stuff has grown under me. Domestic violence, gun prosecutions. I was out in Crook County, talking to a deputy DA this summer at a rodeo out there, and she does domestic violence cases. And I asked, “Do you have guys that keep coming back and you wish you could take them away for a long time, who have assaults in their past?” And she said, “Yeah, sure.” And I asked, “Do they carry guns?” And she said, “Honey, you’re in Crook County, they all carry guns.” Well, we can help with that. We can put those guys away for a couple years. If you have a domestic violence assault, or you have a domestic violence restraining order, you’re not allowed to carry a gun. It’s a federal felony offense.
If the world was yours, would you focus your office more on one area and less on another than it currently is?
I have the authority to do that. So I’ve been shaping it. We’ve done more gang stuff here because it’s been a growing problem. . I’d like to get gang task forces up in two or three other localities around the state, because we have a growing rural gang problem. You know, Indian country is an example of something that’s a real priority for this administration and for this attorney general. So we’ve gotten a new prosecutor for Indian country.
How should Oregonians measure the success of your office?
Crime rate is a key part of it. If you want actual numerical metrics, I would say conviction rate. And volume of cases we’re bringing, but also quality of cases.… You’ve got to be taking on some real giants. Like we have in the mortgage fraud for a while. We’ve taken down some big cases. We’ve got other big cases cooking. Same thing with environmental crimes. We ought to be looking at big, complex cases. Same thing with gangs. One of the things I’ve asked my guys to look very hard at in the gang world, because we’ve got a growing, undefined problem here—undefined from my perspective, with gangs, is to look at a couple of RICO cases, a couple of racketeering cases. We haven’t done a racketeering case in this district in a long time.
What else is different when you talk to other U.S. attorneys around the country, what stands out here where they would say, “Gee that’s unusual?”
We do more environmental crimes than most places and we do more human trafficking than most places.
So was The Oregonian wrong when it reported that the statistics don’t support the idea that we’re “Pornland”?
I’m not sure. What I know is when we do national sweeps like human trafficking, then we end up with pretty big numbers compared to other districts. And I think it’s pretty significant problem that we see lots of kids from Seattle—swept off the streets there—out on 82nd…I think that part of what makes us a great place to live, part of why I moved here, is we’re a very open-minded community. But that open-mindedness can sometimes become confused—or misplaced, I should say. I think a lot of people think the open-minded, forward-thinking way to think about prostitution is “Oh, it’s just a business. And these people are autonomous, selling their bodies.” Well, that ain’t my experience. And there may be—what’s that movie, the Richard Gere movie [Pretty Woman]? But that’s not what we see. What we see is young women and children who are effectively coerced into this, either literally or sometimes more coerced through drug addiction or dependence of some other sort.