Why Does the FBI Hesitate To Investigate Hate Groups?

In the 1980s, existing laws were used to conduct in-depth probes of those opposed to US policies in Central America. What's different now?

IN July of last year, Alfred Ross and Pamela Maraldo of Planned Parenthood's Public Policy Institute presented Attorney General Janet Reno with evidence of what they believed to be a right-wing conspiracy. A decade of violence against abortion clinics -- 149 arson or bomb attacks and the murder of doctors, receptionists, and clients -- was escalating. Now the anti-abortion forces were in a new coalition with armed ''militias,'' paramilitary groups of the radical right.

Mr. Maraldo and Ms. Ross had videotapes of militant anti-abortion leaders urging parents to arm their children and suggesting that abortionists ''be put to death.'' They also documented the growing links between anti-abortionists and armed right-wing conspiracy theorists who denounce an illegitimate federal government operating on behalf of foreign powers, mysterious financial interests, or satanic forces. Ms. Reno, who received similar reports about the militias from the Simon Weisenthal Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai Brith, announced the formation of an interagency task force to look into the problem. But within a few months the inquiry was closed. Maraldo and Ross were incredulous. ''The FBI said it could find no evidence of a conspiracy,'' Ross says. ''Who finds their shoes in the morning?''

For my own part, I was a bit surprised when the FBI decided that gun-toting, hate-spewing, violence-espousing members of a tightly knit paramilitary network that avowed its desire to destroy the entire federal government were not a threat. Somehow, I had thought the FBI would be a little quicker to smell trouble. When it came to my clients, for example -- nuns from the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore, members of the United Auto Workers in Cleveland, the Virginia Education Association, and the Los Angeles Credit Union, among dozens of others -- the FBI had apparently wasted no time.

Investigations based on politics

As part of its notorious campaigns against the religious and lay Central America solidarity movements in the 1980s, particularly the El Salvador support group CISPES, the FBI used wiretaps, undercover agents, informants, and intensive physical surveillance. My clients were harassed at work; their families were questioned; their neighbors were contacted by the FBI and their peaceful organizations were infiltrated. People who attended vigils and demonstrations were photographed and their photos disseminated to law-enforcement agencies. Their license-plate numbers were recorded and their mail opened. Many suffered FBI visits, Internal Revenue Service audits, Customs Bureau interrogations, and constant surveillance.

This incredible abuse of intelligence-gathering, against nonviolent, unarmed individuals who disagreed politically with President Reagan's foreign policy, was carried out under the same guidelines that are still in effect today. The CISPES investigations were done under the rubric of ''foreign counterintelligence.'' But the 1983 guidelines issued by then-Attorney General William French Smith also covered ''domestic security/terrorism'' investigations. These authorize investigations, including infiltration and the use of informants, when the facts or circumstances ''reasonably indicate'' that an enterprise exists to further ''social or political goals wholly or in part through activities that involve force or violence.'' And ''preliminary inquiry'' is permitted even without reasonable indication of a potential crime. These guidelines, which President Clinton's Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick admits give the FBI sufficient authority already, have been shamefully abused in the past. They hardly need to be expanded now.

Lack of interest before Oklahoma

The issue is not how our society can give even more intrusive powers to the FBI, or step up anti-terrorism through such deeply anti-democratic measures as bringing the Army in to carry out domestic law enforcement. The real question is why the FBI and the Clinton administration have shied away from using the existing guidelines to prevent right-wing hate groups from arming, organizing, and terrorizing the country. Is there a political criteria behind their inaction?

Presidents Nixon and Reagan used the FBI transparently as a kind of political police, a tool against personal ''enemies'' and against groups, like my clients, who disagreed with their policies. I believe President Clinton has more foresight, and more integrity, than that. But his Justice Department's lack of interest, until the Oklahoma bombing, in a nationwide paramilitary network that wants to destroy government as we know it is curious. When unarmed individuals espousing left-wing beliefs are investigated and harassed, while armed individuals and paramilitary groups who espouse the currently popular right-wing hate line are ignored, it is certainly not because the guidelines the FBI operates under are too stringent to allow action. When the FBI wants to act, it can. The question is why it didn't.

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