(11-21) 02:15 PST PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Portland police have refused a U.S. Justice Department request for help in interviewing Middle Eastern immigrants as part of its sweeping terrorism investigation, saying it would violate state law.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced earlier this month that the Justice Department had distributed a list of 5,000 men it wanted to interview about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an effort that has been widely criticized by civil rights groups. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland asked city police for cooperation last week, acting police chief Andrew Kirkland said Tuesday. The request was denied because Oregon law says no one can be questioned by police unless they are suspected of being involved in a crime, he said.
"The law says, generally, we can interview people that we may suspect have committed a crime," Kirkland said. "But the law does not allow us to go out and arbitrarily interview people whose only offense is immigration or citizenship, and it doesn't give them authority to arbitrarily gather information on them." Portland is believed to be the first city to refuse to cooperate with the Justice Department in its anti-terrorism effort.
Portland FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele said Tuesday she couldn't comment on the investigation. Justice Department officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday night. Charles Gorder, an assistant United States attorney in Portland, told The New York Times that the interviews would be completed, with or without help from local police.
Arabs and Muslims have expressed outrage at the U.S. Justice Department's plan to interview the 5,000 men, who are not suspected of any crimes. The list is comprised of men ages 18 to 33 who entered the United States since Jan. 1, 2000, from countries that have been linked to the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks or were waystations for the terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
Civil rights activists say the action constitutes racial profiling. The Justice Department acknowledges the men are likely to be Arab and Muslim, but says the list wasn't based on ethnic origin. Racial profiling is also against state law, Kirkland said. Kirkland, who is black, said profiling is an issue that hits home for him, but that's not why the Justice Department's request was rejected.
"I am sympathetic to that issue from a perspective of growing up African American. That doesn't factor into any decision to do this or not. We made that decision regarding racial profiling long before Sept. 11. That decision was made for us when the Legislature wrote the law."