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Portland decision highlights differing attitudes

Portland's acting police chief Andrew Kirkland  

(CNN) -- Police in Portland, Oregon, said they could not assist federal authorities in interviewing Middle Eastern immigrants as part of the sweeping federal terrorism investigation.

Andrew Kirkland, Portland's acting police chief, said his agency could not comply with the Department of Justice request because to do so would violate state law, which is more restrictive that federal law.

Portland is believed to be the first city to refuse to cooperate with the Justice Department in its anti-terrorism effort.

Kirkland said he was working with federal prosecutors to find some common ground.

Portland officials say they cannot fulfill the Justice Department's request to interview Middle Eastern immigrants. CNN's James Hattori reports (November 22)

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"We would hope that we could get to a point where we could help, but would not violate state law," he told CNN. The move came after the Justice Department distributed a list of 5,000 men it wanted to interview about the September 11 terrorist attacks, an effort that has been widely criticized by civil rights groups.

Because of the length of the list, and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's desire to complete the interviews within 30 days, the justice department enlisted the help of local police.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland asked city police for cooperation last week. The request was denied because Portland police said it violated an Oregon statute, passed in 1987, which prohibits local police from questioning immigrants when there is no evidence they are connected to a crime and international citizenship is the only issue.

Portland City Attorney David Lesh said the law also prohibits police from questioning people about their social, political or religious views unless they are reasonably suspected of criminal activity.

Lesh said police would still be able to assist federal authorities in many cases, despite the restrictions.

"The Portland police and all law enforcement agencies in the state of Oregon have the authority to question folks and ask them about criminal activity -- ask them about the September 11 attacks, ask them about any future attacks, about if they know any terrorists, if they have financing of terrorism," Lesh said. "It is my understanding the Portland police here have said they are willing to do that; we just want to be careful they don't violate state law."

Other jurisdictions across the United States expressed mixed opinions about the Portland decision. Bob Cummings, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Justice, said law enforcement agencies in his state were complying the Department of Justice request.

But a spokeswoman for the Ann Arbor, Michigan, police department, who declined to be named, said her agency had concerns similar to those in Portland.

The decision by Portland does not hinder federal authorities, who still have authority to question and detain people as part of their investigation.

Law traced to migrant worker issues

David Lesh  

Authorities in Oregon, a state known for its liberal political stances and a large migrant worker population, said the law was passed to prevent local police from conducting work more appropriate for federal immigration officials.

While many states and local jurisdictions have racial profiling laws, few states have laws similar to the Oregon law, said Thomas Morrison, associate dean for the George Washington University Law School.

"In general, that's a pretty good law," Morrison said, adding that cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement jurisdictions is generally the norm.

He compared the federal terrorist probe to investigations conducted by military police on military installations. Even though a crime may have happened in a local jurisdiction, Morrison said, military police -- acting as part of the federal government -- have the authority to conduct investigations on installations.

Max Williams, a Republican state representative who heads the Oregon House Judiciary Committee, said he has concerns about the denial to assist the federal probe, adding that if Portland police choose not to participate with federal authorities, state legislators may have to revisit the law.

"It's my belief that the law isn't a prohibition of helping federal authorities on this matter," Williams said.

U.S. probe continues

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, Muslims and civil liberties organizations have expressed concern over the 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 that entered the United States since January 1, 2000, from countries that have been linked to the hijackers in the September 11 attacks or were stations for the terrorist organization, al Qaeda.

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 was not based on ethnic origin.

Sweeping new powers

In late October, President Bush signed into law sweeping new powers for intelligence- and surveillance-gathering.

The additional powers include the use of much more international intelligence information and expanded wiretapping authority. The bill, called the Patriot Act, also strengthens penalties for those who help terrorists and lengthens the statute of limitations for terrorist acts.

The legislation's supporters said it would help federal law enforcement agents prevent future terrorist attacks, rather than simply respond with prosecutions after the fact. But others have objected to provisions in the law that allow for longer detentions of suspected terrorists who are not U.S. citizens.

"No one has violated the Patriot Act yet. It's fairly obvious that the federal government is more concerned about safety than personal rights," said Blake Harrison of the National Council of State Legislatures.



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