Debate stirs again: should US snoop on radical groups?

Recent violence by radical left-wing groups could lead the US government to take a harder line against them--something that concerns civil libertarians who say lawful political dissent could suffer in the process.

Senate hearings will be held in late April to explore whether the federal government should be able to more easily infiltrate and investigate radical domestic groups.

The splintered left seems to be searching for new direction. Radical writer Susan Sontag stirred up a storm of controversy among the US radical left when she equated communism with fascism in a speech in New York last month. She spoke at a Solidarity rally against martial law in Poland.

Down in Washington, an ad hoc group from the office of Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) of Alabama, Sen. John P. East (R) of North Carolina, and some Justice Department staffers are studying the removal of the ''criminal standard'' from the guidelines that restrict the FBI to investigate only groups connected with criminal activity.

''We're looking at the guidelines to see if there are ways to interpret them more broadly,'' says Joel Lisker, a staffer for Senator Denton.

That worries Jerry Berman, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. ''They want to turn the guidelines around so they can be used to investigate lawful political dissent,'' he warns. That change would mean a return to the old days of investigating groups because of their political views, says Mr. Berman.

So far, according to Jay Peterzell of the Center for National Security Studies, sponsored by American Civil Liberties Union, Reagan administration officials have not gone back to the old days of targeting groups for surveillance just because of their political activities.

But he says that could change if the FBI rules are interpreted more broadly. The Denton-East group is trying to bring pressure on FBI Director William Webster to change the FBI guidelines so that investigation need not be based on suspicion of criminal activity, but on political positions.

''I think at first you need to base investigations on political views, because how else can you make a judgment of whether or not a group is a threat to the country?'' asks Mr. Lisker. ''I realize there's a tremendous First Amendment problem, but the government has a right to protect itself and it's people.''

Lisker gave the example of the May 19 Coalition, which was turning out inflammatory material two years before some of its members were arrested in the Brink's robbery shoot-out in Nyack, N.Y., last fall, which killed two people.

''As these groups surface, someone should decide whether to bother (investigating),'' says Lisker. ''The way it is now, they are not investigated unless they've set off a bomb. There has to be some kind of assessment of whether the group is a threat. If there's a threat of violence, we should know.''

Mr. Peterzell says the Denton-East group claims to be concerned with the issue of how much evidence is needed to start an investigation. But actually, Peterzell claims, the group is trying to change what kind of evidence is needed before the government could act. Instead of requiring suspicion of a criminal act, a new measure could mean a group would only need to be engaged in unpopular political activity.

US government surveillance of leftist groups had slackened drastically even before the present FBI guidelines were written in 1976. Under Mr. Webster, Peterzell says, the FBI has stayed strictly within those guidelines.

Berman says the ACLU will oppose any reinterpretation of the FBI guidelines that would allow investigation of lawful political dissent. But Berman also admits the Denton-East group would need more support from conservatives and more cooperation from the FBI itself before it could move to loosen FBI guidelines.

The group that would seem to be a natural leader of the far left, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), seems badly out of step with its comrades, as the Sontag speech seemed to confirm. The CPUSA unwaveringly hews the Soviet line. It voices support for the military regime in Poland while not only many leftists here, but also many other Western communist parties oppose the martial law crackdown.

''The CPUSA just seems to be out of touch with what's going on in the world, '' says Jonathan Harris, a political science professor at University of Pittsburgh. ''Maybe they feel more comfortable saying the old slogans.''

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