WASHINGTON — IT'S a rich irony of peace symbols and military fatigues. Antiwar protesters of the 1960s are standing up for the rights of the paramilitary groups of the 1990s. The reason: They remember police abuses during the Vietnam era.
''This is a hard situation,'' says Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil-liberties group in Washington. ''We certainly want the FBI to have the tools to go after [paramilitary] groups.... But at the same time, you have to remember who else might become a target.''
Steven Barkan, now a sociology professor at the University of Maine in Orono, remembers when he was a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. ''It is kind of scary that they were spying on me,'' he says. Arrested in 1972 during a sit-in at a federal building in Hartford, Conn., Professor Barkan later filed a request based on the Freedom of Information Act to see his FBI file. What surprised him was that federal authorities had records on his activities dating back to his freshman year.
''The most serious thing is this infiltration,'' says Chris Chandler, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter and antiwar activist. Journalists have documented how federal agents posed as activists in antiwar groups and the Black Panthers, trying to sow dissent and incite the groups to violent acts. ''It's just a terrible plan to infiltrate groups that you think might be dangerous,'' Mr. Chandler adds.
''I certainly think there's more of a need for the government to watch terrorism than there was for them to watch antiwar groups,'' Barkan adds. ''Trouble is, the FBI can define terrorism so broadly that it could go beyond the right-wing groups. I hate to say it. [But] even those groups have civil rights and liberties.''