Why all aren't heeding call to quiz Arabs

Portland, Ore., police cite privacy laws in refusing to help US interview Arab men.

Mazen Malik opened his morning paper and his heart lifted a little: Portland police, it said, would not cooperate with Attorney General John Ashcroft's plan to interview a list of 5,000 Middle Eastern men. Mr. Malik was suddenly pleased and proud to live in Portland.

"When I heard of the 5,000 interviews," says Malik, an Arab-American. "My first reaction was to call a lawyer friend of mine and ask him, 'Did somebody suspend the Constitution while I wasn't looking?' "

The Portland police refusal was the best news that Malik, the local liaison for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had heard for Arab-Americans since Sept. 11.

The row is over Mr. Ashcroft's request that local officials around the US help to interview young men, mostly students, who are here on nonimmigrant visas and are not suspected of any crime. Portland's police department was the first law-enforcement agency to refuse to lend a hand, on grounds that the Justice Department mandate violates Oregon privacy laws, but a smattering of other Oregon cities and police at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor have also declined to help.

On one level, the widespread compliance with Ashcroft's request speaks to Americans' apparent willingness, for now, to grant the US government the benefit of the doubt in its determination to safeguard the nation.

But the dissent in Portland, while something of an embarrassment to some rank-and-file police officers, shows the growing concerns of those who say fundamental rights and freedoms are being needlessly compromised.

Indeed, the Ashcroft plan has raised hackles among civil libertarians and is causing consternation within Arab and Muslim communities in the US. Though the interviews are voluntary and the only targets are noncitizens, the plans have had an unsettling effect on Americans of Arab descent, many of whom increasingly feel under siege.

Feeling threatened

"Anybody of Middle Eastern origin is feeling threatened," says Dr. Munir Katul, a retired physician and member of the Eugene, Ore., Police Commission. "As long as you look to be Southern Asian or from the Middle East, you are guilty until you prove you're innocent, and this is crazy."

The issue of gathering intelligence on noncriminals has come up before here. In 1993, activist Douglas Squirrel sued the city for keeping noncriminal files on him.

That was one reason police sent the attorney general's request to the city attorney's office, which ruled that police could not take part in the interviews without breaking Oregon law. Mayor Vera Katz cited the Squirrel case in defending the police decision, saying she didn't want the city to be sued again over the statutes.

A Nov. 9 US Justice Department memo gave a long description of guidelines for the interviews. Police were to ask if the interviewee has any "sympathy for the Sept. 11 hijackers," any training that "could be applicable to terrorist activities," or is "aware of any criminal activity whatsoever, whether related to terrorism or not."

Oregon law has strict civil rights protections, including a statute that prevents police from collecting files on people unless they are suspected of a crime.

Strict protections

"It's when you start asking them about themselves and their innocent associates that you get into trouble with the Oregon law," says city attorney Jeff Rodgers.

In the week after the Portland police announcement, questions and press releases flew between city, state, and US officials trying to determine the legality of the Portland police stance.

The Oregon Legislative Counsel Committee found that about one-third of the questions on the Nov. 9 memo violated Oregon law.

The Justice Department reportedly issued a shorter, less intrusive list by Nov. 20. Mr. Rodgers calls that list "much narrower," with fewer objectionable questions. Consequently, Oregon's attorney general ruled that its investigators and state police could use that shorter list to help interview 200 Oregon residents. Ultimately, though, Portland police still opted out of the process.

Other Oregon cities, including Salem and Eugene, offered only partial cooperation. Interviews of Portland residents will be carried out by federal agents and state investigators, although it is not clear which list of questions they will be using.

Local police were reported by The Oregonian to be deeply angered by the announcement, calling it a national embarrassment. Several officers declined to comment, saying it was a "touchy subject." Sgt. Mark Kruger, however, says he doesn't know "anyone who's mad about it."

"Most people I know think we should conduct the interviews," he says, "but that's just our opinion. We've got to follow what we're told to do," Sgt. Kruger says.

The federal guidelines direct local officers to ask whether subjects had "visited Afghanistan" or had taken part in "terrorist activity."

The memo also says the interviewer "should obtain all telephone numbers used by the individual and his family or close associates."

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