The FBI has not designated the Proud Boys, whose members routinely appear at right-wing protests in downtown Portland, as an extremist group, Oregon’s top FBI agent said Tuesday.
The FBI never intended to do so when it briefed Clark County law enforcement leaders recently about regional threats, Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon said during a wide-ranging meeting with media at the bureau’s Portland headquarters.
His comments directly counter an internal Clark County Sheriff’s Office memo that suggested otherwise and drew national attention.
In the FBI’s slide show in Clark County, agents talked about the Proud Boys, white supremacists, militia groups and anarchists, Cannon said.
Started in 2016 by conservative writer Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys have billed themselves as “pro-Western fraternal organization” and have vigorously fought accusations by critics that members are associated with white nationalists.
Cannon said in relation to the Proud Boys, the FBI “tried to characterize the potential threat from individuals within that group.’’ The bureau doesn’t designate groups but does investigate violent conspiracies, he said.
“We do not intend and did not intend to designate the group as extremist,’’ he said.
But the FBI agents at the Clark County session also referred sheriff’s officials and other law enforcement officers to websites of other agencies for more information, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which does classify the Proud Boys as a hate group espousing white nationalist views.
“I can see where Clark County representatives came to that conclusion. That was not our intention. That’s not what we do,’’ Cannon said. “We will not open a case if someone belongs to antifa or even the Proud Boys. There has to be a credible allegation or a threat of violence before someone opens a case.’’
Cannon’s remarks came as he discussed the work of the agency’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI once again is pushing to keep Portland police involved in the multi-agency investigative force amid the recent election of civil rights activist Jo Ann Hardesty to the Portland City Council, who has been vocal in her opposition to it.
More from @FBIPortland Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon on FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force. If @PortlandPolice pulled out, ‘yes Portland is less safe. It’s going to slow down coordination’ between the city police, the FBI and other regional law enforcement, he said . pic.twitter.com/rxC28DADn1
— Maxine Bernstein (@maxoregonian) December 4, 2018
Hardesty is likely to be the swing vote on the five-member council. The city’s move to withdraw from the task force also would come as the city is struggling to respond to violent brawls that erupt downtown between feuding protesters, including Proud Boy members and black-clad demonstrators associated with the anti-fascist movement.
The task force has done 278 threat assessments so far this year, up from earlier years that ranged around 200, according to the FBI. It has examined threats of shootings at schools, explosives and bomb threats, crimes aboard aircrafts or threats against synagogues, mosques or churches. Only a small fraction of those assessments result in full investigations, he said.
If Portland police were removed from the task force, the city would be less secure, Cannon said.
The level of cooperation and information-sharing between the FBI and other regional police agencies with officers from Oregon’s largest city would be hampered, he said. The FBI also would lose ties to some of the mental health and social services resources that Portland police could refer people to in cases that don’t rise to full threat investigations but have a mental health nexus, Cannon said.
“Are we less safe if they’re not on? It’s a cord that gets cut. …The more cords you cut, the less teamwork we have,” Cannon said. “The more concerned I become. We’re better together.’’
Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Chamberlain said it simply makes sense to work together.
“We want to make sure Portland is kept as safe as we could make it,’’ Chamberlain said. “When they work side by side with us, it is a much more efficient, effective system.”
The FBI is paying attention to the violent brawls erupting in Portland’s downtown core, but can only pursue a case if there’s a federal offense, the agents said. For interstate rioting, for example, investigators would have to prove that certain people came to Oregon with the intent to riot, which is a difficult threshold to meet.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said he’s not surprised by Cannon’s remarks about the Proud Boys. “I think Cannon took pains to clarify the FBI’s stance not because FBI agents don’t recognize the extremist nature of the Proud Boys but rather in order to stress that the FBI does not keep lists of different extremist groups, nor does is it investigate extremists simply because they are extremists,” Pitcavage said.
Portland has had an on-again, off-again involvement in the task force.
San Francisco currently is the only major city that doesn’t have officers assigned to an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. Portland drew national attention in 2005 when the City Council voted to cut all ties with the terrorism task force.
A subsequent 2011 council vote allowed “as-needed’’ involvement. In 2015, the City Council agreed to have two Portland police officers return to the task force. They’re called to work full-time with the task force if a threat demands attention, but otherwise they carry on regular duties with the Police Bureau.
Cannon and Chamberlain arranged in September to meet with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler after the election in November as part of their regularly scheduled quarterly update on the FBI-led task force. They also were keenly aware that Portland police participation in the task force could change based on the outcome of the election for the council seat.
Cannon and Chamberlain said the mayor, who sits on the task force’s executive board as the city’s police commissioner but doesn’t regularly attend its meetings, has repeatedly challenged them to explain to the public what the task force does.
The two FBI leaders tried to address local concerns that the task force is engaged in immigration enforcement actions.
Officers with federal Homeland Security Investigations are on the task force and the task force may use immigration enforcement as a tool to combat a potential threat, but only in rare circumstances, Cannon and Chamberlain said.
While the task force doesn’t initiate investigations based on immigration violations, the officers can pursue immigration enforcement against a suspect if it’s the only tool available to address a credible threat, Cannon said.
Yet, according to the city’s memorandum of understanding with the FBI, the two Portland officers who work with the task force aren’t allowed to participate in any immigration enforcement.
They’re essentially “fenced off,’’ Cannon said.
If the FBI obtained credible confidential information that a non-U.S. citizen was involved in plotting violence but hadn’t committed a crime, for example, the task force might try to have the person deported, Cannon said.
Nationally, investigations by FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces have resulted so far this year in 176 arrests in domestic terrorism-related cases and 100 arrests from international cases.
The FBI agents said they couldn’t pinpoint what has accounted for the increased threats examined by the task force in Oregon this year. After the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, a spike in reported threats occurred in Oregon, Cannon and Chamberlain said.
“It’s hard to say,’’ Chamberlain said. “We’re all aware some of the discourse out there is a lot less civil.’’