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March 30th, 2005 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Looking into the Spyglass

Portland's Red Squad past plays into present-day terrorism debate.

     
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The City Council can draw from a long line of historic police-surveillance abuses as it prepares to reaffirm Portland's liberal-burg status by pulling out of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

With the council expected to vote tonight on a resolution demanding greater civilian oversight of the task force-a deal-breaker for the FBI-local activists point to parallels between the police who staff the 8-year-old JTTF and cops who kept tabs decades ago on union organizers and suspected Communists.

The two Portland Police Bureau officers now with the JTTF had previous assignments in the bureau's criminal-intelligence division, a unit that shadowed local radicals and activists in the 1980s and 1990s. Retired Rutgers University political-science professor Michael Munk has spent the past 10 years tracing the threads connecting the PPB's "Red Squads" to their more modern-day versions.

"The connection is a very direct one," Munk says. "The purpose is to discourage people from dissent." Among the documentation Munk has culled is a 1986 article in the police-union newspaper announcing formation of an intelligence unit with an officer to check on "Radicals and Subversives." That officer, Munk says, had a documented history of Red Squad activities, like staking out a rally for South American leftists.

Munk says the unit's predecessors infiltrated unions in the 1930s, chronicled movements of anti-war protesters in the 1970s, trailed the ACLU in the 1980s and followed police watchdogs in the 1990s. In 2002, the Portland Tribune uncovered dozens of police surveillance files on law-abiding, politically active Portlanders.

City Commissioner Randy Leonard says the Police Bureau's history of spying on citizens is a driving force behind the resolution, which will have a public hearing at 6 pm Wednesday, March 30, in City Hall. "It's born out of real experience."

Chief Derrick Foxworth has declined to weigh in, saying he will work with the FBI on a case-by-case basis or with the task force.

The JTTF officers have top-secret clearance, while their superiors on the city force do not-making it virtually impossible for the chief of police, the mayor or a lowly reporter to discover exactly how task-force police spend their time.

The FBI-which promises to reject the city's demands for more civilian oversight-won't shed much light on what JTTF officers do. The task force has assisted in several high-profile cases-like the investigation of accused eco-terrorist Tre Arrow (see Q&A, page 13) and the mistaken arrest of lawyer Brandon Mayfield. But FBI officials won't elaborate on what, if any, role Portland officers played.

Local activists believe investigators are still dogging protesters, even though Oregon law prohibits police from spying on the lawful activities of political and religious groups. In December, the Oregon ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests to discover whether the FBI has kept files on 17 local groups and individuals, ranging from Muslim groups to environmental activists. The requests are still pending.

Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman believes officers twice spied on his group's parent organization, Peace and Justice Works. "The only way you find out what's going on is if documents happen to surface in a court case," Handelman says.

In 1996, Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus ordered police to stop tracking citizens who aren't breaking the law. Two years later, when another document surfaced, Handelman unsuccessfully sued the police for violating Marcus' order.

 
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