SALEM, Ore. – State Attorney General Hardy Myers is expected to offer an opinion Tuesday on whether Oregon police would violate state law by questioning foreign visitors as part of the federal terrorism probe.
Portland police have refused a request from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to interview foreign visitors -- the first police department in the nation to do so -- on grounds that it would violate state privacy laws.
The Oregon State Police are awaiting guidance on how to handle the request from Ashcroft, who 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 United States has identified terrorist cells.
A list of 200 names was given to Portland police.
Kevin Neeley, a spokesman for Myers, says the attorney general will offer advice to the State Police and state Justice Department investigators.
The attorney general by law gives opinions only to state agencies, but Neeley said he expected local police may take cues from it. Neeley said he didn't know of any local police agencies that had asked for Myers' advice.
Michael Mosman, U.S. attorney for Oregon, has said he believes the interviews are legal and will likely go ahead. Local agencies, however, have the right to refuse to help. The idea behind the request was to reduce the load on the FBI, he said.
Deputy Portland City Attorney David Lesh and Greg Chaimov, the Legislature's chief lawyer, have concluded that some of the two dozen questions that federal officials want asked likely would run afoul of state law.
They cited a law barring police from collecting information about "political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual" unless the information directly relates to a criminal investigation and there are grounds to suspect the person is or may be involved in a crime.
Chaimov said some questions on the federal list deal with foreign countries a person may have visited and reasons for visits, their reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and if they share the sympathies of the hijackers.
"If they're inquiring about another person's thought process, they can't ask that," he said in an opinion that's not binding on any police.
Lesh also cited concerns under another law that basically restricts police from apprehending people whose only offense is that they are foreigners in violation of immigration laws.
Chaimov did not agree that that law was relevant.