How much latitude should the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies have when it comes to snooping on the citizenry?
After a summer headlined by bigotry-related killings, antihate groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center argue that the FBI needs expanded authority to investigate potential domestic terrorists.
But calls to restore such powers to the FBI, whose reputation suffered a new setback last week after it acknowledged lying about events in the 1993 Waco disaster, are being greeted with skepticism among civil libertarians and others. They say such a move would start the nation down a slippery slope back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover, when prying into people's lives was indiscriminate - and often without justification.
"I'm not sure we really have to radically change what we're doing," says Brian Levin, a criminologist at California State University in San Bernardino and an expert on hate crimes. "As much as I loathe bigots, what I'm afraid of is some kind of [purge] of abhorred viewpoints," with individual rights being trampled in the process.
Indeed, history does not favor entrusting law-enforcement agencies with a freer rein. Mr. Hoover's 47-year tenure at the FBI led to abuses such as the cataloguing of Eleanor Roosevelt's sex life, extensive files on Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and Leonard Bernstein, and the gunning down of Black Panthers in Chicago. At the local and state levels, police agencies were known to brutally suppress and intensely monitor antiwar and civil rights activists.
Now that the FBI has been caught in a lie about Waco, admitting it did in fact use incendiary devices on the last day of the Branch Davidian siege, its credibility is being questioned anew. "You would like to think that [more latitude] is an answer, but look at what they did at Waco. Can they be trusted?" the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at a recent Monitor breakfast.
Offsetting this mistrust is rising concern about domestic terrorism - and questions about America's ability to preempt it.
This summer alone, Benjamin Smith wounded six Jews and killed an African-American and an Asian in the Midwest before committing suicide over the July 4 weekend; two California brothers were charged with killing a homosexual couple; and white supremacist Buford Furrow confessed to opening fire at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and killing a Filipino-American postal worker.
Besides hate crimes, anti-abortion violence remains a concern and, in fact, is the single biggest sector of terrorist acts. Law-enforcement groups are also worried about terrorism related to the millennium.
What makes combating this problem doubly difficult is the trend toward "lone wolves," or "leaderless resistance," in which individuals, pairs, or tiny cells of people are loosely affiliated with fringe groups, but implement their deadly plans on their own. America's worst terrorist act, the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, was carried out by just two people, according to the FBI.
The prospect of tens of thousands of potential terrorists acting on their own is disconcerting, at the very least, to law enforcers.
"It's very frustrating," says James Kennedy, police chief in Bloomington, Ind., where the young Mr. Smith shot at worshippers entering a Korean church service, killing one. Mr. Kennedy, as well as the local office of the FBI, knew about Smith before the July 4 weekend massacres, because of complaints about his distribution of hate literature. But Smith was well-acquainted with his free-speech rights, says Kennedy, who says he could do nothing but remind him of the city's ordinance against littering. "You wish you could be preventive, but laws are such that, in the main, you are mostly reactive," says Kennedy, who does not advocate more intrusive law enforcement.
That is not acceptable to Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, who in a recent opinion article complained that the FBI can't even monitor someone unless a crime has been committed. Neither can the FBI track a Web site unless a known, specific threat exists - even though the Internet plays a large role in domestic terrorism.
"This is too timid an approach," wrote Mr. Foxman in The New York Times. The time has come, he said, to "recalibrate the balance" between the Constitution and law enforcement to permit officials to "go get the man, but also to the prevent the act."
Foxman has an ideological friend in Rabbi Abraham Cooper at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Mr. Cooper supports more money and manpower for law enforcement, and advocates a civil oversight board for a newly empowered FBI.
"If you want agencies to be there three minutes before an event, then society has to make a decision to give them that option," Cooper says.
To Levin, the option is not worth the potential loss of rights. "The fact is, people are going to slip through the cracks," he says. "In a democratic, pluralistic society, not every crime can be prevented."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society