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Oregon Objects

December 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LEE HOCHBERG: During finals week at Portland State University, 20-year-old Mohamed Abou-Jamous had more on his mind than his studies.

STUDENT: Just add alem.

STUDENT: Alem?

STUDENT: Alem.

LEE HOCHBERG: The 20-year-old engineering student from Lebanon fits the profile of 5,000 Middle Easterners the federal government wants interviewed as part of its terrorism investigation.

MOHAMAD ABOU-JAMOUS, Foreign Student: Am I going to be happy with it? Of course not. No one wants to be interviewed for nothing, for not being involved. I’m not here to practice politics or be involved with any such thing like what happened September 11.

LEE HOCHBERG: Abou-Jamous says he’ll cooperate if asked for an interview, but says it seems wrong to target him for questioning based on nothing more than his national origin.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re saying, “Welcome to America. You’ve come to our country, why don’t you help make us safe? Why don’t you share information with us?”

LEE HOCHBERG: The Bush administration last month directed antiterrorism task forces nationwide to interview Middle Eastern men visiting the U.S. on visas from countries linked to terrorism. The 5,000 are not suspected of any criminal activity, but the government directive said: “They are able to provide information that could us assist our campaign against terrorism.” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says they need to chip in.

JOHN ASHCROFT, Attorney General: Individuals who come here and enjoy the freedom of this country are asked responsibly to help protect the body politic, not just Americans, but others who are here visiting.

LEE HOCHBERG: Texas, Florida, Michigan, and Illinois had the longest lists of those to be interrogated. But the interviews are most controversial in Seattle, Washington, and several Oregon cities where police departments refused to conduct them.

MARK KROEKER, Portland Police Chief: The mayor and I, this afternoon, have made a decision not to conduct the interviews requested by the U.S. Attorney General.

LEE HOCHBERG: Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker says asking questions of 23 Portland visitors violates their civil liberties.

MARK KROEKER: Some of the questions cannot be asked by Portland police officers without violating Oregon state law, pure and simple.

LEE HOCHBERG: That law is Oregon’s so-called “Anti- McCarthyism Law.” It bars police from collecting information about a person’s political or social views or activities if that person is not suspected of a crime. Portland police have been sued before for allegedly violating the law, and they say asking some of Ashcroft’s questions puts them at risk again.

JEFF ROGERS, Portland City Attorney: Asking that person things like, “Where have you traveled in this country in the past? What cities and landmarks do you plan to visit in the future? What activities do you plan to pursue in the future?

LEE HOCHBERG: Portland City Attorney Jeff Rogers says those are only a few of the questions that go too far. Another asks the person’s current and previous addresses, if the person has ever been to Afghanistan, and why, or traveled elsewhere overseas.

JEFF ROGERS: It’s kind of creating a file on people, and that would be fine if there was any reason to think that these people were involved in any way in terrorism, but the attorney general has assured us and everyone that these 23 people are in no way suspected of any crime.

LEE HOCHBERG: Portland police offered to do the interviews if the offending questions were removed, but the justice department refused. George Terwilliger was Deputy Attorney General in the first Bush administration.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER, Former Deputy Attorney General: There are people in our midst now, infiltrators, who are ready to commit acts of mass murder against the U.S. civilian population. It is absolutely not an option but rather a responsibility of the government to investigate that.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon’s Attorney General has now ruled state investigators can legally conduct the questioning, but he left local jurisdictions to make their own decisions. Portland’s choice not to do it prompted a blizzard of criticism from around the country, including about 2,000 mostly furious letters and e-mails.

The chairman of a House subcommittee on crime, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, told Ashcroft: Future funding for police may be inappropriate in light of that state’s conduct – conduct inconsistent with the national war effort. But Portland Police Chief Kroeker insists his force is not unpatriotic.

MARK KROEKER: When people say, you know, “Are you being un-American?” I reflect on what could be more American than doing our best to abide by the law?

DEMONSTRATORS (Chanting): Portland police just say no to Ashcroft!

LEE HOCHBERG: Though the interviews are now being conducted in Portland– the FBI agreed to do them– some residents took to the streets to support their police department’s stand for civil liberties.

DEMONSTRATORS (Chanting): Racial profiling, Portland says no! Racial profiling, Portland says no!

LEE HOCHBERG: And other Oregon cities that refused to interview say it’s not just a matter of civil liberties. The government asked Eugene, home of the University of Oregon, to interrogate 40 middle easterners, more than any Oregon city. Its police chief answered that the questioning would undercut police-community relations.

Many foreigners left Eugene in fear after September 11. Since then, Munir Katul of the city police commission has tried to assure that those who remain, like the owner of this Middle Eastern cafe, don’t become targets of suspicion. He says sending police out to interrogate them would be destructive.

DR. MUNIR KATUL, Eugene Police Commission: It becomes a schizophrenic message that the community will be receiving. And people say, “well, what are you here…” If an officer comes, “What are you here today as? Are you here to profile me or protect me from hate crimes?” It’s going to have a disastrous effect on any trust relationship.

LEE HOCHBERG: But federal law enforcers disagree.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: You’d have to have your head pretty far in the sand in order to conclude that people from certain Arabic countries have not engaged in terrorist activity in the recent past, and therefore it is appropriate to look to people from that community for helpful information.

LEE HOCHBERG: Other cities like San Francisco and San Jose have said they, too, are reluctant to conduct the interviews.