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May 17th, 2006 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Karin Immergut

Oregon's U.S. attorney sounds off on life as the Bush administration's top cop in the People's Republic of Portland.

     
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Karin Immergut
IMAGE: AMY OULETTE
Oregon's top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut, is nervous about getting her picture taken.

Wearing a red power suit, she rattles off the pros and cons of having worked as an associate independent counsel for Clinton inquisitor Ken Starr (short answer: She wouldn't want to do it again), all the while fussing girlishly with her hair.

The 45-year-old Brooklyn native is also, it seems, still getting used to the weird role of being the head Bush administration law enforcer in Oregon, the left-leaning state where she's raising two young children with husband Jim McDermott, a partner with Ball Janik.

Immergut took the U.S. attorney job in 2003 after eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney in California and Oregon.

In her free time, she's plodding through a dense tome on eco-terrorism. She hopes the radicals are working as hard to understand her.

WW: As a law-and-order U.S. attorney, do you ever feel out of place in Portland, where liberals may be suspicious of you?

Karin Immergut: I think it's challenging to be aligned with law enforcement in a place like Portland. On the other hand, I don't look at prosecuting crime as a liberal or a conservative thing to do. The cases we take on are not pursued for political purposes.

Your office has been in the news a lot lately with domestic terrorism prosecutions against members of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front for a series of arsons in the 1990s. Does what they are doing qualify as domestic terrorism?

Absolutely.

And how do you define domestic terrorism?

Domestic terrorism is when you commit illegal and dangerous acts, or acts that are dangerous to human life, in order to coerce or affect the conduct of government or private entities.

Don't you think calling it domestic terrorism puts self-defined civil disobedience in the same class as the 9/11 attacks or the Oklahoma City bombing? How can you compare the massive loss of life with blowing up property?

I'm not comparing the results of the actions, but terrorism is terrorism no matter what the motive is. There's a real difference between free expression and First Amendment rights versus committing crimes to get what you want.

Don't you think that most people think terrorism means killing people?

That could be. I'm not making a judgment call between what the 9/11 hijackers did versus committing arson. That's an apples-and-oranges type of criminal behavior.

Many big cities have ongoing federal investigations into public corruption. Is Portland just squeaky-clean, or is that not a priority for you?

Public corruption is certainly a priority for our office. I can't comment, really, on what's going on in that area other than that we've had few prosecutions to date. I can't comment on speculation as to why we've had few cases historically. Certainly, if a case comes to us and it's a good case, we will pursue it.

Can you give us an example of one bad effect of Portland pulling out of the joint anti-terrorism task force?

I can't give you a bad incident or a concrete example of where the system failed as a consequence. As I've said to the mayor, it doesn't allow for the give-and-take in information-sharing, and the sharing of expertise and training that you get when you've got different agencies collaborating.

How can you not be bothered about recent revelations of warrantless searches?

All I know is what's been publicly stated by the media, by the attorney general and by the president, and I understand that there's discussion about the legality [of the searches] and that is going to be determined in the courts. And I think that's the appropriate forum. Certainly, it's important to me that searches that are done in this district and nationally are legal searches.

Amid news of unwarranted searches and domestic spying, officials like you often refuse to comment. What can you point to that assures us our rights remain safe?

First of all, the system of government that we have with Congress and the courts providing checks and balances. As you can see from all the lawsuits being filed, courts will be examining the different tools that government is using. I wish that I wasn't bound by secrecy rules all the time, because it would be nice to be able to tell people, "Look, we're not doing this." It's not as though we're able to do what we do without any supervision...any kind of search that happens out of this office is done through court supervision. People don't seem to understand that.

Aren't you talking about procedural stuff that most people aren't even aware of?

That's right.

Say you're talking to an anarchist at the Red and Black Cafe who reads Indymedia. What would you say to make them not hate your guts?

I grew up in a modest family and just chose to go to law school. Y'know, I went to Berkeley. I raise my family in this community. I teach them about respect for the other person, about protecting civil rights, about our freedoms in this country. I don't know if that's helpful....

I became a career prosecutor because I thought that was the way that I could help society the most, that I could try to protect people from crimes, but also do the right thing.

We prosecute civil-rights violations, too, so I think the us-vs.-them mentality is a troubling one and a dangerous one. Fighting crime and terrorism is not just my job. It's the community's job. And when I go to groups and it's clear that they would never report a suspicious incident to anyone, we have a breakdown in our society. Obviously, we need to build some better bridges. I need to understand the people who are frustrated—where they're getting that frustration from—just like they need to understand what our jobs are. But I don't think there's a lot of effort to understand what our jobs are.


The Portland City Council voted 4-1 last year to pull police out of the feds' Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Immergut graduated from Amherst College in 1982 with a double major in Spanish and psychology. She got her law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley in 1987.

 
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