WE have met the enemy and this time, to our dismay, it is us. The demand for more internal security raises anew the question of how much freedom to yield in defense of a free society.
Sen. Arlen Specter is among those quick to say that, faced with what he calls a ''clear and present danger,'' federal intelligence agencies must have more leeway to conduct infiltration and surveillance. The current guidelines, requiring a showing of probable cause before a group can be targeted, date back to the mid-1970s, and it may be instructive to recall what brought them about.
Congressional investigations exposed CIA surveillance of anti-Vietnam War groups and monitoring of mail. The FBI maintained a so-called COINTELPRO program, or rather, a series of programs that spied on student groups, left-wing organizations, the civil rights movement, and the women's liberation movement. It conducted wire taps and break-ins, and concocted forged documents to sow dissension. FBI agents posed as news photographers at protest meetings. An FBI memo of 1970 gave the justification: ''Terrorist violence is all around us and more has been threatened. These violence-oriented, black and white savages are at war with the government and the American people.''
Since then, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Irangate, and a host of abuses have served to further undermine confidence that the government will use its investigative powers judiciously rather than repressively. Contributing to a pervasive distrust of government are Hollywood and television films depicting the federal government as something between a vast conspiracy, as in ''JFK,'' and a vast irrelevancy, as in ''Dave'' and ''Forrest Gump.'' Contributing also has been the tendency of politicians to demonize government, a tendency that didn't start with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Now we may be at a crossroads moment when America's whole view of government and the anarchists who would bring it down will be agonizingly reconsidered. President Clinton, who no longer has to worry about being considered irrelevant, will ask for broader powers to penetrate the potential threats.
Remembering the investigative excesses of the past, it would be wise for Congress not to allow itself to be stampeded into giving carte blanche to the feds. Nothing like having to get a court order to keep the investigators accountable.
A government with dubious public support is in the unprecedentedly delicate situation of having to demonstrate both that it is not oppressive and that it can defend itself.