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Environmental advocates file lawsuit against Oregon Justice Department over surveillance

Ka'ila Farrell-Smith, a member of the Klamath Tribes, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Justice's TITAN Fusion Center. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021.
Conrad Wilson
Ka'ila Farrell-Smith, a member of the Klamath Tribes, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Justice's TITAN Fusion Center. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021.

A lawsuit filed in Marion County Circuit Court on Tuesday alleges an Oregon-based fusion center violated protesters' rights.

Tribal members, environmental advocates and community organizers filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Oregon Department of Justice over what they allege is an illegal domestic spying operation.

In court documents filed in Marion County Circuit Court, attorneys for four named plaintiffs argue Oregon’s TITAN Fusion Center — a joint state and federal law enforcement operation meant to counter terrorism and criminal activity — is “an opaque and pervasive domestic intelligence program that is authorized by no statute.” They’ve asked the court to find the center is unlawful and prevent the Oregon Department of Justice from operating it. They also want a judge to force the state’s fusion center to destroy intelligence it has collected.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fusion centers popped up across the country as a mechanism for law enforcement agencies to share information and and thwart future attacks. Oregon’s TITAN (an acronym for Terrorism Information Threat Assessment Network) Fusion Center is one of the approximately 80 across the country.

“Over the past two decades, however, many of the agencies that administer fusion centers have expanded the intelligence priorities of these domestic intelligence clearinghouses well beyond terrorist threats, adopting instead an ‘all crimes/all hazard approach,’” the lawsuit states. “This change essentially sweeps any activity deemed suspicious into a fusion center’s purview.”

The lawsuit states that TITAN analysts surveil individuals engaged in peaceful protest. It cited articles published by The Guardian in 2019 that showed Oregon’s Fusion Center played a role in surveilling protesters who opposed the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project in Coos County.

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a member of the Klamath Tribes and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, strongly opposed the Jordan Cove LNG Project.

“We all knew we were being surveilled,” she said Tuesday in Portland. “Now that I’m learning the level of unfettered surveillance we were under by this TITAN fusion center. I’m terrified for everyone … Who else do they deem as a threat?”

Kristina Edmunson, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice, said the agency’s attorneys are reviewing the lawsuit. She added that the case cites years old examples that she said have been addressed.

“For example, the lawsuit references a Guardian news article expressing concerns that members of law enforcement were monitoring protests regarding the Jordan Cove project,” Edmunson said in a statement. “When we learned of the concerns, we followed up immediately and shortly thereafter placed the Fusion Center employee on administrative leave. After an internal investigation, we issued the employee a pre-dismissal notice and he chose to resign.”

Edmunson stated federal law allow only allows fusion center analysts to share information when there’s “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. She added the Oregon Department of Justice updates lawmakers every other year during session on the center’s activities.

Farhang Heydari, executive director of New York University School of Law’s Policing Project, is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs suing the Oregon Department of Justice. He said the agency and the fusion center are operating beyond their legal authority because there is no statute that allows for the surveillance.

“TITAN describes itself as pursuing not only all crimes, but all threats — and TITAN is the one who decides who and what is a threat,” Heydari said Tuesday. “There’s no statute that authorizes the Department of Justice to operate an expansive data gathering operation that pursues all crimes and all threats. There’s certainly no statute that permits this operation to occur in secret, with no transparency and no accountability.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.