In 2005, leaders in Portland, Oregon, angry at the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror, voted not to allow city law enforcement officers to participate in a key anti-terror initiative, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. On Friday, that task force helped prevent what could have been a horrific terrorist attack in Portland. Now city officials say they might re-think their participation in the task force — because Barack Obama is in the White House.
Reading the FBI affidavit describing Islamist terror suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud's plan to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square is a chilling experience. Mohamud, a Somali-born naturalized U.S. citizen who attended Oregon State University, told undercover FBI agents he dreamed of performing acts of jihad in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans would die. “Do you remember when 9/11 happened when those people were jumping from skyscrapers?” Mohamud asked the agents, according to the affidavit. “I thought that was awesome.”
In months of preparation with men he thought were co-conspirators but were in fact undercover agents, Mohamud backed up his talk with action. After initially making email contact with Islamist radicals in Pakistan, he took part in constructing what he hoped would be an extraordinarily powerful bomb, scouted the best location for the attack, parked the van containing the bomb near the Christmas tree crowd, and, finally, dialed the cell phone number he believed would detonate the explosives. “I want whoever is attending that event to leave either dead or injured,” Mohamud said of the 25,000 people expected to take part in the event.
That Mohamud was arrested and no one was hurt is a testament to good intelligence and law enforcement work. Having Mohamud behind bars has undoubtedly saved lives in Portland; had he not encountered the undercover FBI agents, he might have worked with actual terrorists to construct a bomb, or he might have simply gotten a gun and carried out “an operation here, you know, like something like Mumbai,” as he told the agents.
What is ironic is that the operation that found and stopped Mohamud is precisely the kind of law enforcement work that Portland's leaders, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, rejected during the Bush years. In April 2005, the Portland city council voted 4 to 1 to withdraw Portland city police officers from participating in the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. Mayor Tom Potter said the FBI refused to give him a top-secret security clearance so he could make sure the officers weren't violating state anti-discrimination laws that bar law enforcement from targeting suspects on the basis of their religious or political beliefs.
Other city leaders agreed. “Here in Portland, we are not willing to give up individual liberties in order to have a perception of safety,” said city commissioner Randy Leonard. “It's important for cities to know how their police officers are being used.”
Local officials were also angry about the FBI's mistaken arrest of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland lawyer and convert to Islam, for the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain. But well before the Mayfield case, Portland had a history of rejecting Bush administration efforts to fight terrorism. “Portland's decision would not be the first time the city has taken a contrary stand in the war on terrorism,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2005. “In the months after Sept. 11, city leaders refused to cooperate with federal efforts to interview thousands of local Muslims. In 2003, the City Council criticized and called for radical changes in the USA Patriot Act, the much-debated federal anti-terrorism legislation.”
In the Mohamud case, it appears that Portland's anti-law enforcement stand might actually have influenced Mohamud's decision to undertake an attack in the city. According to the FBI affidavit, the undercover agents asked whether he worried that law enforcement would stop him. “In Portland?” Mohamud replied. “Not really. They don't see it as a place where anything will happen. People say, you know, why, anybody want to do something in Portland, you know, it's on the west coast, it's in Oregon, and Oregon's, like you know, nobody ever thinks about it.”
Now, there are indications that the Mohamud case might cause city leaders to change their mind about the FBI and the war on terror. Current mayor Sam Adams, who says he was not aware of the Mohamud investigation until after Mohamud had been arrested, told the Oregonian newspaper that he might ask the city council to reconsider the decision to pull out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Because he now realizes the city was wrong? Not at all. “[Adams] stressed that he has much more faith in the Obama administration and the leadership of the U.S. Attorney’s office now than he did in 2005,” the paper reported.