Fighting terrorism without destroying the law

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a lot of attention paid to the Portland, Ore. Police Bureau’s response to a request by federal authorities to question 23 men of Middle Eastern origin in our community.

Our response and our city have been characterized by some as unpatriotic.

Given the important battle against terrorism that our country is engaged in, I would like to share some facts and background information directly with you, whether you support or oppose the city’s position. We can aggressively fight terrorism and follow the law.

It’s important to know that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said that the 23 men in question are not suspected of any crime. Nor is there any indication that they were in any way involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist acts.

It’s essential to understand this fact in order to understand the city attorney’s interpretation of state law in this case.

You may be interested to know that, according to media reports, other [areas] across the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, San Mateo County, Denver and Detroit, also have declined to participate in the interviews.

Two state laws guide our response to the Ashcroft request.

The first, enacted in 1981, makes it unlawful for our police to “collect or maintain information about the political, religious, or social views, associations, and activities of any individual ... unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject of the information is or may be involved in criminal conduct.”

The second law, enacted in 1987, makes it unlawful for police to “use agency moneys, equipment or personnel for the purpose of detecting or apprehending those whose only “crime” is that they are persons of foreign citizenship residing in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws.

More simply, we can question anyone about any matter related to the Sept. 11 attacks.

However, we can’t question innocent people about personal information not related to those attacks or other criminal acts. Nor can we question people solely to ascertain whether they’re complying with federal immigration laws.

There is disagreement among lawyers on this issue. In the opinions given by Oregon’s Attorney General and our local district attorney, the suggested areas of questioning are acceptable. Our city attorney and the attorney for the Oregon legislature both concluded that some of the specific questions go over the legal line.

According to Willamette Week, they have been joined by six former U.S. Department of Justice officials and many legal scholars who have said that the federal request raises legal issues.

We asked the U.S. Attorney if he would be willing to retool five of the 33 questions we had legal problems with. He declined and said that all the questions had to be asked as they were presented.

Thus, we are unable to participate in the 23 local interviews. This decision does not affect any of our other law enforcement efforts. The interviews are being done by federal agents and are almost completed.

According to Oregon law, local law enforcement agencies must rely on the legal advice given to them by their attorneys. That is why the Portland Police Bureau is following the advice of the Portland City Attorney. We believe that the city attorney’s expertise on this issue is unmatched.

Portland was one of the first to sign up in the war on terrorism. In 1997, well before the Sept. 11 attacks, we joined with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to create the Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force. There are eight police bureau members assigned to work on the Task Force full time.

In response to vigorous citizen debate, I made a solemn commitment that our police would strictly follow the letter of the state law. Today we are one of only 36 cities in the country to have such a local terrorism task force.

I was honored to lead nearly 1,000 Oregonians to New York City just weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Our lives were forever changed by the destruction, and by the sadness and sense of violation that we shared with the people who experienced that direct attack on America.

In our fight against terrorism we must do so as a nation under law. Especially in times like now when we are under attack by terrorists, it is important not to lose sight of the personal freedoms that makes us a beacon of liberty for the world.

President Bush has called on all of us to join him in the war against terrorism. In response to that call, and to recent anthrax exposures across the country, I have convened regular meetings to discuss regional preparedness and response to potential biological and chemical terrorist threats to this region.

Portland police officers and other staff have logged hundreds of hours of overtime since Sept. 11, investigating leads and suspects, responding to bomb and “powdery substance” threats, and working to calm a panicked public.

Portland has actively joined the president and the rest of the country during this time of national crisis. Police Chief Mark Kroeker and I are fully committed to continue working closely with all local, state and federal officials in our country’s effort to combat terrorism.

We are also committed to obeying the laws of our state. We can and will do both, because only in that way can we protect our nation, and preserve that which makes it worth protecting.

Vera Katz is the mayor of Portland, Oregon.