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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?

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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.

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