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Justice Department's 'digital surveillance' is troubling

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is taking decisive action to get to the bottom of the strange case of her own Justice Department's Criminal Justice Division monitoring Twitter hashtags as part of a "threat assessment" project. That's reassuring. The fact that Rosenblum apparently was completely unaware of this activity is not.

The surveillance came to light in a most embarrassing fashion last week when Erious Johnson, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, was told he was the subject of a threat assessment file because he had used the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The Black Lives Matter movement grew out of reaction to high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men. It turned out that a member of the Criminal Justice Division had used an online search tool to look for Twitter hashtags, including that of the Black Lives Matter movement, as part of the division's threat assessment work.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson, director of the Urban League of Portland and Erious Johnson's wife, released a letter detailing the surveillance sent to Rosenblum and signed by top labor leaders and civil rights groups. The letter demanded an investigation of what it said could be illegal surveillance and investigation of Oregonians "merely for expressing a viewpoint, or for being part of a social movement."

Rosenblum has told The Oregonian that the threat assessment effort was specifically looking for potential threats to police.

The letter also asked Rosenblum to address the matter as part of the Law Enforcement Profiling Work Group. The  attorney general named the work group in August at the direction of the 2015 Legislature. Coincidentally, the work group is holding its last meeting today and is scheduled to issue a report Dec. 1. Rosenblum acknowledged to The Oregonian that "There is a certain irony here."

Rosenblum announced Monday she has contracted with an attorney with the Portland firm of Stoel Rives, which specializes in employment and civil rights cases, to investigate the criminal justice division for "any improper conduct" involving monitoring social media and to audit the division and recommend policy changes.

Rosenblum has declared herself "shocked and appalled" by the tactics used by her department. We have no reason to believe she knew about or condoned the activity, but she is in charge of the Justice Department and is ultimately responsible for what happens there.

Assessing potential threats of violence toward police is a legitimate endeavor. But flagging individuals for scrutiny based on nothing more than the use of a social media hashtag is wildly inappropriate. The fact that the tactic identified a senior attorney with the state's own Justice Department is proof of that.

Rosenblum should make sure the investigation's findings are made public at the earliest opportunity, and commit to a complete and transparent explanation of the department's "threat assessment" procedures going forward.