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Oversight on FBI quizzing

CONGRESS is performing its proper oversight function in planning hearings into the questioning by FBI agents of at least 100 Americans who have visited Nicaragua. The hearings will be held by the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on constitutional rights. Under an executive order signed by President Reagan in 1981, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has primary responsibility for counterintelligence activities within the United States. This substantially involves trying to thwart or keep watch on spying by the Soviet KGB.

The subcommittee seeks to learn the scope and motive of the FBI's questioning of people returned from Nicaragua, the identity of the people questioned, and whether in pursuit of its counterintelligence duties the FBI has flung its net too broadly in this instance. FBI Director William Webster has ascribed the questioning to counterintelligence purposes.

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No reason now exists to suppose that the questioning constitutes a wide-ranging plan by the agency to intimidate Americans.

But it is important for Congress to investigate the issue responsibly. The nation does need to be protected from foreign adversaries, who, in an open society such as America's, have extraordinary advantages as they seek out information that should be withheld from them.

Yet important freedoms of association, travel, and belief are not to be trammeled upon by government agencies; the FBI and all other federal intelligence agencies ought to operate within proper bounds.

Visits from the FBI are intimidating to most people, whether or not that is the intent; the subcommittee will assess whether those visits made to returnees from Nicaragua were appropriate.

No responsible person wants a return to the days of the 1950s and '60s, when US intelligence agencies too often abused the rights of Americans. Those violations occurred in large part because a pliant Congress failed to exercise its oversight responsibility. The subcommittee hearings next month will provide the proper forum to probe this latest case. ----30{et

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