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Big Brother Bugs Portland | The Nation

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Big Brother Bugs Portland

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To George H.W. Bush, Portland, Oregon, is " Little Beirut." Downtown's omnipresent bicycle messengers call the city "Stumptown," and officially, the town is known as the City of Roses. In a move more befitting, perhaps, the presidential Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires circa 1982, and not the Rose City of Portland circa 2006, the FBI has been accused by Portland Mayor Tom Potter of "trying to place an informant inside the offices of Portland's elected officials and employees, in order to inform on City Council and others."

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Lapham’s...

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Since the end of the Age of Aquarius, when thousands of Californians began to migrate north to Oregon, Portland has never been particularly welcoming to the executive branch of the federal government--especially when said branch is in Republican control. Portland's two Representatives in Congress are Democrats, and Portland's county, Multnomah, voted for John Kerry over Bush in 2004 by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio. Moreover, in April 2005, the City Council voted, along with the mayor--and with overwhelming support from the citizenry--to withdraw Portland's participation in the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force project.

Upon Portland's withdrawal from the task force, NPR's Larry Abramson noted, "Portlanders seem proud of their bluer-than-blue reputation, of the bumper stickers that proclaim 'Keep Portland Weird.' So maybe it was predictable that the city mocked as Little Beirut by conservatives is considering a symbolic declaration of independence." And tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, with no Jerry Garcia or Kurt Cobain to worship, Portland has made its commitment to progressive politics the city's calling card. The mayor's seat is officially nonpartisan, and where major policy is concerned, the mayor has little more power than anyone else on the four-member City Council. With a robust public referendum system that presents voters with potential tax proposals, constitutional amendments and bond issues, Portland's political system does Montesquieu proud.

By state law, police officers in Oregon are barred from investigating citizens based solely on their political, religious or social leanings, and Portlanders will be quick to point out that it was the Feds, and not local cops, who erroneously arrested local attorney Brandon Mayfield in connection to the 3/11 Madrid train bombings in May 2004. After the bogus fingerprint evidence used to arrest him fell through, the only credible "reason" behind the police action turned out to be Mayfield's religion, which happened to be Islam.

"In the absence of any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing," wrote Mayor Potter in an open letter to the city, "I believe the FBI's recent actions smack of 'Big Brother.' Spying on local government without justification or cause is not acceptable to me. I hope it is not acceptable to you, either."

Of course, the FBI has a different take. In a press release coming on the heels of Potter's letter, the Portland office of the FBI stated, "It is entirely proper for an FBI agent to ask willing citizens to provide information when those citizens feel it is appropriate to do so regarding potential criminal conduct--whether that information involves a bank robbery, kidnapping, public corruption or other crime." Like most of America's major cities, Portland is rife with problems, many stemming from poverty and racism--but a Tammany or Richard J. Daley-style system has never taken root in City Hall at Southwest Fourth and Madison.

Few, including Mayor Potter, Portland's former chief of police, doubt the capability of information gathered in the field to further the prosecution of governmental graft. In Portland's case, though, there were and are no reasons to suspect corruption at City Hall. Indeed, when Potter first complained about the incident to the FBI on May 15, special agent Robert Jordan, head of the FBI field office in Portland, wondered if his man was merely hitting on the city employee.

With no evidence unearthed at City Hall to warrant a federal investigation, it's a "presumed guilty" situation. Potter acknowledges as much, writing, "When there is no information to indicate ANY public corruption on the part of City Council members or employees, the FBI has no legitimate role in surreptitiously monitoring elected officials and city employees."

If the NSA has claimed ordinary civilians as their own targets for surveillance, perhaps it's only fitting that the FBI is now venturing into the rotundas and council rooms of America's cities to find its own prey.

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