Things are quieting down here in Terror Town, and it's probably been days since a talk-show host has denounced Portland's leaders as politically correct, latte-loving traitors. Although city leaders said that local police would not conduct federally ordered interviews with local Middle Eastern aliens, the interviews have pretty much been completed by federal agents. But the whole experience has left at least one moral: In today's legal climate, a law is a dangerous thing to cite.

The explosion began when assistant police chief Andrew Kirkland, acting as head while the chief was out of town, told a New York Times reporter that Portland police would not conduct the local interviews. Kirkland, who is African-American, denounced the idea as racial profiling, which he said he'd suffered from while growing up in Detroit: "I hated the police with a passion." In retrospect, it probably wasn't a great phrasing, and Portland's leaders have been derided by TV talking heads and have received 1,500 hostile e-mails from around the country. Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House judiciary subcommittee on crime, has repeatedly threatened to cut off federal law-enforcement aid to the city.

Kirkland's stance was grounded on an assistant City Attorney's finding that several of the federally ordered questions violated a state law declaring, "No law enforcement agency…may collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, [or] association…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." In other words, Oregon police can't legally ask people who aren't suspected of anything questions about whether they've ever been to Afghanistan or the phone numbers of everybody they know.

Says Portland City Attorney Jeff Rogers, "We've been assured these people are not suspected of anything, but these questions are things you would ask people if they were suspected of something. If that were the case, these questions would be perfectly appropriate, but then other safeguards might come into play"–such as advising people of their Miranda rights.

Rogers, a Yale lawyer in a gray suit and with a clipped gray beard, has seen these issues, and national politics, from lots of different angles. His father, William Rogers, was Dwight Eisenhower's Attorney General and Richard Nixon's Secretary of State. He and his ex-wife were classmates of the Clintons at Yale Law School, and she spent the Clinton years as a US Attorney for Oregon. Earlier this year, he was bitterly abused on the same issue–from the left–after the City Council renewed its membership in a Joint Terrorism Task Force with the FBI. At a loud council session, activists charged that the city police would join the FBI in keeping files on people who weren't criminals, and Portland promised that it wouldn't.

So when the interviews came up, the city felt bound to keep the commitment. The Democratic state Attorney General eventually ruled that the city was wrong about the law. But a number of other officials, including the Republican chairman of the state house judiciary committee, concluded that Portland was probably right. And other Oregon cities with sizable immigrant populations quietly made it clear that they wouldn't be doing the interviews either. In fact, neither would police in Seattle, San Francisco and San Jose, who said that they would conduct such interviews only with actual criminal suspects. That leaves at least four major police forces open to Attorney General John Ashcroft's charge that anyone criticizing his policies is a terrorist pawn.

Some people in Portland think the city should have just gone along with the Justice Department, but Portland officials don't agree. "My City Attorney said I would be violating the law," said Mayor Vera Katz. "I swore to uphold the law and the Constitution. I'm not going to wink." Adds Katz, who landed in the United States in 1941 as a 7-year-old refugee from Germany, "I'm the only one who has gone through a war. I know what a war is like. You don't have to lecture me. You don't have to call me a traitor." And the Attorney General doesn't have to imply she's a terrorist accomplice.

The controversy has wound down, but Portland is still not exactly John Ashcroft's kind of town. During a visit to relatives in Portland recently, Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont called the interview process "a completely useless waste of law enforcement. I don't think it would accomplish much of anything." It seemed a stronger phrase than Leahy has ever dropped while chairing his Senate hearings in Washington. Possibly there's something in the air in Portland besides talk-radio.