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Give FBI freedom to probe hate groups

If there's a hole in your back yard where you know rabid rats dwell, common sense says that you will at least keep an eye on the hole.

But it isn't so simple when the rat holes are known by such names as Aryan Nations and World Church of the Creator. If I understand the government's policy correctly, it isn't even supposed to look unless someone gets bitten.

Some people will say this analogy is unfair, and I suppose that is so. To the rats, that is. Unlike humans, they can't help being what they are.

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League jangled liberal nerves last week when he urged that the FBI be unleashed to monitor the Aryan Nations, World Church of the Creator and other like-minded hate mongers.

Justice Department guidelines in force since 1983 forbid the FBI from investigating any group "unless you have a reasonable indication that they are engaged in criminal conduct," as Attorney General Janet Reno puts it.

It is no crime to preach that the world should be rid of Jews, blacks, Asians or whomever. It is no crime even when everyone knows to a moral certainty that, sooner or later, some vulnerable follower like Buford O. Furrow Jr. will put into practice what he has heard preached. Unless the group actually plots a specific offense such as a Ku Klux Klan lynching, the FBI supposedly can't so much as watch or listen. It can only wait. By the time it has grounds to act, some innocent person may be dead.

There are historical reasons why Reno is understandably reluctant to change this policy. J. Edgar Hoover's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) monitored, infiltrated and tried to disrupt even peaceful organizations whose politics Hoover disapproved of. One agent trying to curry Hoover's favor went so far as to suggest using the Mafia to silence the comedian Dick Gregory, a critic of the bureau. I remember reading the COINTELPRO files, after they were finally forced open, with a sense of horror that such things could happen in this country.

But Foxman is right when he says that in today's light, the guidelines are "too timid." To keep the FBI on so tight a leash because of what Hoover did is no different than saying that we cannot rely on our armed forces because of what happened in Vietnam. A wiser generation is not paralyzed by the mistakes of the past; it learns from them.

No one is proposing that the FBI monitor every Internet Web site or so-called "church" that peddles hate. To do that would be dangerously wrong. Freedom of speech includes even the right to hate. There cannot be any asterisks to the First Amendment. Government surveillance of people simply for what they say cannot be tolerated.

But as Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has often observed, "you don't have a right to hurt," and it is now an established certainty that the followers of some specific hate groups will hurt. Society has every right to try with every reasonable means to prevent them.

It was Aryan Nations that spawned the Order, which robbed banks and committed murder fully 15 years ago. Furrow, who is accused of gunning down children at a Jewish day center and randomly murdering a Filipino-American letter carrier because of his race and uniform, is a known disciple of Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and of Robert J. Mathews, who founded the Order and died in a shootout with federal agents.

Yet the people who lead these hate groups, or who manufacture their propaganda, would have us believe there is no connection to the violent acts they inspire. One ideologue whose anti-Semitic screeds were found in Furrow's van claimed to be an innocuous economist.

They are as disingenuous as King Henry II wishing aloud, "Who will free me from this turbulent priest?" and then purporting to be astonished at the murder of Thomas a Becket.

All the same, they can't and shouldn't be charged criminally without evidence that they specifically instruct, arm and finance the murderous conduct of people like Furrow. But their organizations can and should be watched because of the absolute certainty that more Furrows will emerge.

This does not mean wiretapping. It does not mean infiltration. But it does, at a minimum, mean developing and cultivating sources. We owe our children at least as much vigilance to protect them from hate crimes as from drugs, and with the approach of the millennium there is every reason to fear that hate crimes will increase.

(Needless to say, we owe them effective gun control as well. How many Furrows must it take to make the case against assault weapons in private hands?)

Carol Florman, a Justice Department spokesperson, suggested to me this week that perhaps the government is more watchful than it cares to admit.

"The only issue I would take with Mr. Foxman's premise is that he is making an assumption that investigations are not going on and we cannot say whether they are or not," she said.

That's not nearly reassuring.

"We have every reason to believe, because it is true," says Arthur Teitelbaum, southern area director of the ADL, "that federal law enforcement agencies are severely constrained by Justice Department regulations from effectively monitoring the activities of hate organizations which have a record of criminal violence. We need to loosen some of the constraints."

Hoover abused the FBI's power because he was unaccountable. That mistake need not be repeated, but the time has come to unleash the FBI.