PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon's attorney general recommended Tuesday that state investigators help the U.S. government with its investigation into recent terror attacks by questioning foreign visitors — a process that has come under fire by local police and civil rights activists.
"Oregon law does not prohibit Oregon DOJ [Department of Justice] criminal investigators from conducting such interviews as part of a criminal investigation to identify and apprehend people who have conspired or are conspiring to commit crimes," Attorney General Hardy Myers said in a memo to state officials.
Portland police have refused to cooperate with the U.S. Justice Department's request for help interviewing 200 foreign visitors. City officials said to do so would violate state law and amount to racial or ethnic profiling. Portland was the first city to refuse to cooperate with the anti-terrorism effort.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has sought assistance from local law enforcement officers across the country in conducting voluntary interviews of 5,000 people. Most are Middle Eastern men in the United States on nonimmigrant visas who hold passports from countries where the U.S. has identified terrorist cells.
Portland city officials also heard from the local district attorney, Michael Schrunk, who agreed with the state attorney general's conclusion. "We do not believe that [participation in the investigation] is prevented by the laws of Oregon," Schrunk wrote in a memo received by the city Monday. "Our office believes that there is no legal impediment to [the] proposed interview process and questions as outlined by the Attorney General of the United States."
The Justice Department has distributed a list of 5,000 men ages 18 to 33 it wants to interview about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Police in Portland denied Ashcroft's request for help in the matter last week, citing an Oregon law that says no one can be questioned by police unless they are suspected of being involved in a crime.
"The law says, generally, we can interview people that we may suspect have committed a crime," said Deputy Police Chief Andrew Kirkland. "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."
Arabs and Muslims have criticized the Justice Department's plan to interview the men on the list, and 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.
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," he said. "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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.