Battling Terrorism

PROPOSALS for strengthening the government's ability to deal with internal terrorists have been plentiful in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

While some of these ideas may prove worth implementing, they should not be rushed through in the heat of emotion following that awful incident. The need may be for better police work rather than more police powers.

The capacity of law-enforcement agencies -- chiefly the FBI -- to monitor potentially violent groups and anticipate their actions should be carefully reexamined. Where policy refinements can provide greater operational freedom without jeopardizing constitutional rights, they should be instituted.

An example of such a policy step could be the Domestic Counterterrorism Center proposed by President Clinton to pool information about groups and weigh new intelligence-gathering moves.

The touchstone is whether the FBI and other agencies stay clear of the unrestrained probing of political groups that led to earlier abuses. Current policies are drawn to avoid such overstepping.

Some feel the threshold for surveillance of groups is set about as low as it can be. If groups show an intent to break laws -- many right-wing militias have even called for the killing of public officials -- that opens the door to the use of informants and other intelligence gathering. Federal officers reportedly have been investigating right-wing militias for a decade or more.

Backers of stronger antiterrorism measures say the FBI has been handcuffed by the restraints that followed forays into surveillance of domestic groups in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. More vigorous investigation, geared to preventing future attacks, should be possible. The keys: clearly defined policy guidelines and oversight by judicial or political authority.

Currently available tools include informants, wiretaps, and anticonspiracy laws. There may also be legal ways to curtail the paramilitary training employed by right-wing militias.

Perhaps just as important is the ability of individual citizens to express their support for law and community and to pray for their continuance.

President Clinton is right: The battle against hatred, fear, and terror is a personal responsibility of every right-thinking American.

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