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Should Portland Rejoin Terrorism Task Force?

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Last week, FBI agents arrested a 19-year-old man, accused of trying to detonate what he thought were explosives at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland. But the bomb was a fake, given to the suspect by undercover federal agents. NPR's Robert Siegel speaks to the mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, who didn't know about the sting operation because five years ago, Portland became the first U.S. city to opt out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

The mayor of Portland, Oregon, Sam Adams, was one of the last to know that he had a suspected terrorist in his city. On Friday, FBI agents arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud. The young man is accused of trying to detonate a van full of what he thought were explosives at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. But the bomb was a fake; it was given to Mohamud by undercover federal agents.

Mayor Adams didnt know about the sting operation because five years ago, Portland became the first U.S. city to opt out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Thats the anti-terrorism program in which FBI agents work together with local police.

Well, Friday's failed attack has Mayor Adams and city officials debating whether Portland should perhaps rejoin the task force. And Mayor Adams joins me now from Portland. Welcome to the program.

Mayor SAM ADAMS (Portland, Oregon): Thank you, glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, when did you actually hear of this young man's arrest?

Mayor ADAMS: I was told at 9:15 last Friday night.

SIEGEL: Which was not that long after the attempt to detonate the van.

Mayor ADAMS: Correct. The arrest had been made about 30 minutes prior to that, is my understanding.

SIEGEL: Now, to be clear, you were not mayor five years ago, when the decision was made to not be part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. But you were on the city council. You did vote to pull out of it. Why? What was the reasoning?

Mayor ADAMS: Well, a couple of reasons. One, I felt that the collection of federal policies and federal legislation, along with practice of the current - at that time - federal administration, that I could not, in good conscience, have Portland police officers involved, embedded in the FBI through the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and be able to protect Portlanders' right to due process.

You know, I believe passionately that we have to keep this city and this nation safe from terrorism and crime. But at the same time, I saw indications, and I saw policy, that risked wiretaps and in-depth investigations of American citizens without court oversight or sanction.

And I was concerned, and thats why we went a different route. We pulled out of our membership status in JTTF.

SIEGEL: Was the concern about racial profiling a part of your decision at all?

Mayor ADAMS: There was a concern about racial profiling, religious profiling, absolutely.

SIEGEL: Well, how now? Looking back on this, some would say in the argument over, say, where to try the Guantanamo detainees, that this whole problem is a rough fit with criminal justice to begin with. These aren't merely criminals. There are, admittedly, small groups or individuals who are willing to take part in plots to attack the United States and to...

Mayor ADAMS: That's right.

SIEGEL: ...kill large numbers of people. Does it change your calculation now?

Mayor ADAMS: Well, it's - we have a new administration, and an administration at the federal level, and new leadership at the local level - in the FBI and U.S. Attorneys Office - that I have a lot more trust in than the prior administration. Thats one reason to take a look at our status of membership in the JTTF.

The other is it's been five years, and this event happened. And our profile is now higher, globally, on this issue. I think it's time to look at our membership status in JTTF. Im going at it from a - sort of a fact-based approach. And I come at it in an objective manner, you know, with a focus on what is the best interest of keeping Portland safe? And what is the best interest of keeping Portland the open and embracing and fair society that we seek to be?

SIEGEL: When you voted on the city council in favor of opting out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, you were, as you said, very much concerned about civil liberties guarantees. There are people who look at the Portland case and the arrest of Mr. Mohamud, and there are civil libertarians who say that crosses the line into entrapment - that civil liberties were violated here. Do think there's any credit to that argument?

Mayor ADAMS: Well, I think thats an important dialogue to have. And if this investigation had led to anything other than a civilian trial through the normal courts, I would be passionately objecting. Because it is important that the accused have an opportunity to defend himself, to raise those issues. And that can only happen, I think, in as fair a manner as possible, in a civilian court.

So I think - and Ive not shied away from having that dialogue, you know, with my citizens and, you know, here in Portland, you know. And thats why we have the court system that we have, and it needs to brought forward. It is being proffered as part of his defense, and a jury of his peers needs to weigh all that, and make a decision.

SIEGEL: Well, Mayor Adams, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mayor ADAMS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Thats Mayor Sam Adams of Portland, Oregon.

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