Why the law is slow to check paramilitary training

Two months after receiving weapons training last year at a paramilitary camp instructed by the head of the Texas Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a man named Ronald Bishop was arrested in Michigan and convicted of attempting to kill a black man.

Mr. Bishop, head of the Michigan Klan, and three other men were accused of being in a car from which weapons, including an AR-15 (a semi-automatic rifle), were fired into the black man's home. The AR-15 is known to be the main weapon used in the Texas camp. They were sent to prison in January.

This incident illustrates why law-enforcement officials are concerned about the small but increasing degree of paramilitary training in the United States.

Factions of the Klan in at least one other state, Alabama, also offer paramilitary training. A number of other groups, some with racial views similar to those of the Klan, are offering paramilitary training to members -- usually in preparation for some vaguely defined calamity.

Opinions differ on what should be done about such training.

Some law-enforcement officials see a need for closer scrutiny of such groups under new state laws and fewer post-Watergate restraints on surveillance of citizens by the FBI. Others note that such restraints were imposed because of past abuses in domestic spying by the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency. They say current laws are adequate without violating privacy safeguards.

The training of Bishop by Klan leader and US Army veteran Louis Beam was witnessed by a reporter for the Flint (Michigan) Journal, Daniel Gearino, who was posing as a Klan member prior to writing a series of articles about the Klan.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Beam told the Monitor the training in Texas was conducted at a "survival camp" operated by a Robert Sisente of Deer Park, a Houston suburb. It was not a KKK camp, Beam claimed, but he said KKK members are among those who train there.

The Texas Klan, however, does run three paramilitary training camps, Beam said, adding that instead of a survival orientation, the KKK camps are geared toward preparing for an "aggressive attack" on the "enemies" of the US.

Klansman Beam said children as young as 12 have been trained at the camps and added: "I'd like to start training them at eight." But he would not say whether Bishop of the Michigan Klan had ever taken training at one of the three KKK camps in Texas.

US attorney J. R. Brooks of Birmingham, Ala., says such camps are attracting "more publicity than their actual direct threat would justify." But over the long term, he added, they encourage violence at a time of "seeming increase in racial animosity that exists in this country."

Mr. Brooks suggested that current FBI guidelines on undercover surveillance "could be loosened somewhat with respect to organizations that are paramilitary or terrorist in nature." But privacy safeguards also must be considered, he added.

Drew Days III, who headed the US Justice Department's civil rights division under President Carter, thinks current federal laws and FBI guidelines "make sense."

Mr. Days cites several examples of how, under current FBI guidelines, planned KKK violence was detected and prevented. Shortly before leaving office, however , Days ordered a study of federal response to growing Klan violence.

That study, by Louis M. Thrasher, now with the US attorney's office in San Francisco, called for greater cooperation and information-sharing between the FBI and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

Currently, an FBI agent may not infiltrate the Klan or any other group without a "well-founded suspicion" of criminal activity, assistant attorney general Philip B. Heymann explained to a congressional subcommittee last year. Unless there is illegal use of weapons, however, such paramilitary training is not by itself a violation of federal law. (An FBI spokesman told the Monitor the agency is not presently "watching any organization, as such.")

In efforts to detect firearms violations, ATF agents have to have a "pretty good case" to get authorization for an undercover investigation, says one.

"It's almost like Catch-22," this agent says. "You can't [infiltrate] unless you have the information, and you can't get the information unless you're in there."

In most states, paramilitary training is legal. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently drafted model legislation for states that would outlaw paramilitary training aimed at furthering violence. The bill would prohibit weapons training where the weapons are to be used unlawfully against people or property.

"We have been witnessing the increasing popularity of paramilitary activities ," says ADL national director Nathan Perlmutter. These activities, he warns, must not be taken lightly.

The ADL has been asked by the US Civil Rights Commission to prepare a report on paramilitary activity by extremist groups. The ADL's earlier research states that various factions of the KKK -- which, in addition to being anti-black, is also anti-Jewish -- have trained in paramilitary camps in Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, and Connecticut.

Those familiar with the paramilitary training phenomenon say it enjoys legal protection in two fundamental ways: the Second Amendment "right of the people to keep and bear arms," and the right to privacy, reinforced both by a number of laws and by the current restrictions on the FBI and CIA.

John Carroll, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. , says laws could be drawn to distinguish that "very fine line" between the constitutional right to bear arms and the use of arms to intimidate. Nonetheless, he says, current laws are "adequate" to stop such intimidation.

Some in the law-enforcement field, such as former Justice Department official Days, question how much the various states are doing to keep tabs on violence-prone groups.

However, at least one state -- California -- would welcome more FBI help in surveillance efforts, according to state Department of Justice official Paul Cross. He says he is one of a handful of investigators trying to keep tabs on radical groups there, some of whom are known to have stockpiled a nd used weapons.

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