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FBI's authority to track hate groups is now restricted

There is no FBI file on the views of the Aryan Nations, the neo-Nazi group whose members have said they are "involved in a holy war." Nor are there FBI agents monitoring the dozens of Web sites devoted to white supremacy _ even ones spewing hatred of blacks and Jews.

And even as Attorney General Janet Reno deplored the "culture of violence" that gave rise to Buford O. Furrow Jr., who was charged Thursday with hate crimes in Tuesday's shootings near Los Angeles, there were no plans to create an FBI system for tracking hate groups.

The reason: The agency's own embarrassing history of overzealousness and the First Amendment protection of individual rights.

FBI officials acknowledge a surge in domestic terrorism in recent years, with the number of cases rising to 1,000 from 100 in 1993. Alarmed officials had responded to the trend with force, reassigning 350 new agents to investigate such crimes long before Furrow's rampage, in which he allegedly killed a Filipino-American postal worker and wounded five others, including three boys, at a Jewish community center.

But the FBI cannot target groups for investigation based on their beliefs, at least not overtly. This restraint rests on the belief that the government should respect free speech and not crack down on groups or individuals who espouse unpopular ideas, unless there is some criminal activity involved.

So while federal officials brace for potentially heightened violence around the millennium, the notion of monitoring hate groups solely because of their beliefs "doesn't fit into our lexicon here," said FBI spokesman Tron Brekke.

"It is important that you not focus on a group unless you have a reasonable indication that they are engaged in criminal conduct," Reno said Thursday.

"It's very difficult for the federal government," said Eric Ward of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which monitors hate organizations. "Many people now feel frustrated, because law enforcement is effectively restricted from monitoring these groups. But the cost of that would be our civil liberties."

These restrictions weren't always in place.

More than three decades ago, at the behest of then-director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI covertly tracked ideological groups.

The Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and Students for a Democratic Society were among the organizations monitored, and even infiltrated, by a special FBI unit known as the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, said Ward and other hate crimes specialists.

The FBI came under intense criticism in the 1970s for the practice, and after congressional hearings two top FBI officials were convicted of crimes related to the secret investigation force. The agency ultimately instituted a set of guidelines that forbids launching or classifying investigations in a way that would violate the First Amendment right of free speech.

"We were severely chastised" for COINTELPRO, said Brekke, the FBI spokesman. "There was not a necessary showing of criminal acts on their part. There was an infiltration of their activities. Hence the guidelines."

The guidelines are widely hailed by civil liberties advocates. But law enforcement officials have complained in the past of feeling constrained. Such constraints exist even in cases like those of Eric Rudolph and James Kopp, two of the suspects on the FBI's Most Wanted List, who are accused of hate crimes and affiliated with hate groups.

But being linked to a hate group is not sufficient for the FBI to target the organization as well, Brekke said. If an individual is acting alone, instead of under the imprimatur of the group, he can be charged with a civil rights violation by the FBI's criminal investigative division. But the group itself will not be monitored unless there is compelling evidence it is plotting an act of domestic terrorism. In that case, it would be tracked by a separate FBI division dealing with national security, Brekke said.

However, certain groups can still be under investigation. The Order, a white supremacist group whose members have been convicted of murders and bank robberies, has almost certainly been looked at by the FBI in the context of crimes its members committed, not its racist beliefs, Ward said.

The FBI also works with outside non-profit agencies such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. "Law enforcement agencies come to us every day with questions about particular groups," said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the center. "I think the current division of labor is a good one, in which the government has police powers but is precluded from investigating groups merely because they have unpleasant views."

Reno has urged Congress to adopt hate crimes legislation that would bolster federal and state prosecutors' cases against people accused of committing a crime based on bias. But she has not backed down from the FBI's emphasis on protecting free speech. Even Thursday, Reno said she had been reviewing the guidelines for monitoring hate groups since she took office.

"We don't deal in what people think, believe, say," Brekke said. "For every group that has a Web site, there is not a corresponding FBI file."