Washington Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has ordered interviews of 5,000 Middle Eastern men between the ages of 18 and 33. None will be compelled to participate. The chief of police in Portland, Ore., however, says that he cannot go along because Oregon law requires him to have probable cause to interview people. In other words, the state does not allow profiling.
On the other hand, a police chief in Arlington County, Va., likened it to talking with everybody in the neighborhood where a crime has been committed. It's useless to seek out residents from areas on the other side of the city or the state. The attorney general, according to this view, has chosen the logical people to pursue for information about Sept. 11 and other plots that might bring harm to Americans.
So far, Ashcroft's Justice Department has detained hundreds of people, mainly from Muslim countries, and 548 of them remain in custody on immigration charges. While the names of these detainees have not been released, they all have had access to a lawyer, he said, and have been permitted to call their families. The attorney general has made details public about 93 others who have been charged with federal crimes ranging from fraudulent licenses to drive hazardous materials to visa and passport infractions to illegal firearms possession. An additional 11 indictments are sealed by the court.
Ashcroft further has signed an order allowing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hold a foreigner in prison after a federal judge has ruled that he should be released for lack of evidence if that person has been assessed as a danger or likely to flee.
These are harsh measures, but some of the people in custody sound pretty tough, too. One, Zacarias Moussaoui, may have intended to be the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11. He could become the first terrorist to be tried by military tribunal. Another is a one-time Boston cab driver said to be linked to Osama bin Laden. And two were arrested on a train in Texas on Sept. 11 carrying box cutters and $5,000 in cash. They are among 10 or 15 being held as material witnesses.
Not all of those in custody are this dramatically worrisome, but the attorney general's argument is that their detention has helped prevent other terrorist operations in the United States conducted, perhaps, by "sleepers" here awaiting the to word to strike. Also, there is no reason why our immigration laws should not be enforced. One reassuring thing about America is that we always correct imbalances. The measures deemed necessary today will not go on forever.
We come down on the side of interviewing. When America entered World War II, it would have been perfectly reasonable to interview Italian-Americans, German-Americans and Japanese-Americans. Incarcerating them was another matter a grievous and regrettable event in our history.
Is interviewing a form of racial profiling? Yes. Is it justified in a national emergency? Yes. Unlike suspending habeas corpus and incarcerating people without probable cause, interviewing is, like the Virginia police chief said, a matter of interviewing the people most likely to have information.
Correspondent-at-Large Lee Cullum contributed to this column.