Auditors: Oregon ranks high for domestic terrorism, Legislature should do more

Oregon is one of 16 states that doesn’t define domestic terrorism in criminal law

By: - March 30, 2022 12:17 pm

A proposal passed by a U.S. Senate committee aims to prevent another Jan. 6 insurrection. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

After a decade that included the occupation of a federal wildlife refuge, clashes between groups of protesters in Portland and a mob forcing its way into the locked Capitol, Oregon ranks sixth in the nation for violent extremist attacks, according to a new state report. 

The Secretary of State’s Audits Division called on the Legislature to define “domestic terrorism” and “domestic violent extremism” so prosecutors can charge suspects and on state police and the Oregon Justice Department to improve how they plan for and track incidents. 

Kip Memmott, the state audits director, said during a news conference Wednesday that congressional auditors have frequently looked at extremism at the national level but there’s not a lot of oversight at the state level. 

“Oregon’s risks are not theoretical,” Memmott said. “They’re actually actual risks that we’re facing that our office needed to move and pivot in and provide some information to the public and key leadership that hopefully can mitigate these risks.” 

The report said Oregon has endured high-profile domestic terrorism incidents dating back to the 1980s, when members of the Rajneesh movement contaminated 10 restaurants in The Dalles with salmonella and made more than 750 people ill in a bioterrorist attack.

More recently, far-right extremists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns for more than a month in 2016, ending in multiple arrests and the killing of one militant by the Oregon State Police. In August 2020, after a summer of protests in Portland, a far-left activist shot and killed a member of a far-right group who had participated in a caravan for then-President Donald Trump.

And in December 2020, while the Legislature convened to address pandemic relief, rioters broke into the Capitol with help from a state representative who was later expelled for his actions. The 31-page report starts and ends with a photo of a person in a puffy coat and red hat using a metal bar to smash a glass door of an employee entrance to the Capitol. Today, security guards and a metal detector sit behind those doors because of the attack on the Capitol. 

Only five states — New York, California, Florida, Texas and Washington — experienced more violent extremist attacks than Oregon between 2011 and 2020, according to the report. The other five are significantly larger than Oregon, ranked 27th by population. 

The report cites the FBI, which says the greatest domestic terrorism threat comes from individual people who are often radicalized online and target schools, businesses or houses of worship like chuches, mosques and synagogues. 

“The U.S. is facing domestic terror and violent extremist threats that have evolved significantly and became increasingly complex and volatile in 2021,” the report said. “Social media and online forums are increasingly exploited to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and activity; these threats are being exacerbated by the stressful impacts of the ongoing global pandemic.”

Auditors wrote that recent legislation may mitigate risks of domestic extremism. In 2021, lawmakers banned firearms in public buildings, reorganized the state Emergency Management Office and Homeland Security Council, required all law enforcement agencies to begin using a uniform background check for new hires and required officers to investigate crimes that could be motivated by a victim’s gender. 

But the auditors said more could still be done, including criminalizing domestic terrorism. Oregon is one of 16 states that doesn’t define domestic terrorism in state law, leaving questions about how state and local law enforcement investigate and charge such crimes and how they’re tracked at the state level. 

Casey Kopcho, the lead auditor on the report, said auditors didn’t know of any incidents that couldn’t be prosecuted because the state didn’t define domestic terrorism. But they found state and local agencies don’t have a consistent definition of what constitutes terrorism or extremism. 

Government responses to terrorism, such as the federal USA Patriot Act passed after 9/11, often conflict with civil liberties and individual privacy. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free expression, no matter how hateful or repugnant other people might find some ideologies, the report noted.

Kopcho and Memmott said they considered the conflict between security and liberty, and their recommendations include publicly reporting on incidents or threats of domestic violence in a way that wouldn’t violate anyone’s privacy. Ultimately, Memmott said, decisions about how to balance safety and civil liberties are up  to the Legislature and the laws it passes. 

“There has to be a balance between the right to speech and the right to privacy and the right to monitor violent extremists and that kind of stuff,” Memmott said. 

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.