While Muslim terrorists penetrate our borders with surface-to-air missiles and make every air traveler a potential target, and while INS screw-ups show daily that we have no borders and no real ability to keep any of our enemies out, a surreal battle is taking place within the ranks of our hostage population itself. The debate is whether Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI should have given agents license to keep an eye on suspected terrorists and their ideological supporters if they have not yet blown up a plane.
The trigger of the debate is the recent decision of the Justice Department to remove restrictions it imposed on itself in 1972 that prevent the agency from spying on organizations that have not yet committed an actual crime. A chorus of so-called civil rights groups has already attacked the decision -- which involves no change in the law and no endorsement of illegal behavior -- as though it were an attack on the Constitution itself.
The 1972 restrictions were adopted by the FBI in the face of an assault on its practices by the political left. The issue was the FBI's "COINTELPRO," an effort to counter massive civil disobedience and the growing threat from quasi-military radical groups who had gone from demonizing America to planting more than 1,000 bombs, committing acts of military sabotage and killing at least one innocent math professor in their campaign against the Vietnam War.
While lighting the fires of war on the homefront as a protest against the war abroad, the political left succeeded in making the FBI the villain. Of all the groups targeted by the FBI's COINTEL program, the one most often held up as an example of American injustice was the Black Panther party. Plots and alleged acts of political "repression" against the Panthers became the prime justifications for clipping the FBI's wings.
In fact, the Panthers were a heavily armed group prone to violence against their own members and others. One of their leaders, Elaine Brown, boasted they had more than 1,000 weapons including rocket launchers and machine guns. But since the Panthers were a "political" party, and since a vast fellow-traveling cadre of left-wing lawyers and civil rights groups abetted by a willing press was ready to see them as victims rather than perpetrators, the FBI was effectively neutralized and the Panthers continued on their radical course.
The 1972 restrictions, which barred the FBI from infiltrating the Panthers and acting to prevent violence before it occurred, made the task of controlling them much greater. With the restrictions in place, the Panthers were able to murder more than a dozen people -- mostly black -- in the 1970s including my friend Betty Van Patter who was bludgeoned to death in 1974. No one was ever prosecuted for these crimes.
In 1969 a group of SDS New Leftists created the Weather Underground, America's first terrorist cult. The Weathermen made very obvious their anti-American jihad. They issued a declaration of war against "Amerikkka" and began a campaign of violence that included detonating a bomb in the U.S. Capitol building in 1971. In 1970, three of their leaders were blown up while building a nail bomb, which they intended to set off at a dance at Fort Dix, in New Jersey.
The FBI knew the names of every leader of the Weathermen and most of its members. But the FBI -- even prior to its self-imposed restrictions -- was unable to penetrate the leftist networks that protected and supported the terrorist cadre, and the government was never able to apprehend them. Luckily, the Weathermen did not have Stinger missiles, anthrax caches or suitcase nuclear devices to make their mayhem really impressive. The FBI's new mission -- to stop domestic terrorism before it happens -- is difficult enough. We should applaud any bureaucratic effort to make that job easier.
All Americans who care for their own lives or the lives of their families and neighbors, both leftists and conservatives alike, should join in praising John Ashcroft for taking these minimal -- but politically difficult -- steps to defend their homeland. The FBI could not stop the Weathermen and the Panthers in part because the bureau did not take the threat these groups posed seriously enough. They were also hampered by the charge of "McCarthyism," the label the left used to tar all government attempts to curtail Communists who were loyal to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The government now understands, presumably, the threat that radical Muslim and Arab terrorists present to this country. Giving them the means to control this threat, to infiltrate and surveil groups whose agendas set them at war with the United States, is common sense.
It would have been better if the FBI had announced that it was specifically targeting mosques where radical Islamic doctrines are preached, instead of churches, synagogues and mosques in general. This blanket approach was obviously adopted to make the agency less vulnerable to attacks from the vocal fellow travelers of the civil-rights left.
But the fact remains, according to Steve Emerson's "American Jihad," that 80 percent of America's mosques are funded by the Saudis, who also fund al-Qaida worldwide, along with the suicide bombers in the Middle East. The leader of the first bomb attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, whose aim was to kill 250,000 people, was a blind sheik who operated out of his own mosque. The radical lawyer representing the now imprisoned blind sheik is under indictment by Justice for allegedly helping the prisoner communicate with his terrorist cohorts in the conduct of their violence in the Middle East. The lawyer -- Lynne Stewart -- is a well-known radical "civil rights lawyer" and former attorney for the Weather Underground terrorists. She is currently also representing three pro-Palestinian teenagers charged with a hate crime for attempting to firebomb an orthodox synagogue in New York as a "protest" against Israel's attempts to defend itself in the Middle East.
Both Stewart's attorneys are radical lawyers who have defended terrorist bombers whose targets were Americans. One of them, Susan Tipograph, was the prime suspect in the escape of a Puerto Rican terrorist from an American prison. Stewart's colleague in defending the teen terrorists, Stanley Cohen, is a lawyer and political advocate for Hamas and a disciple of another Stewart colleague, William Kunstler, whose Center for Constitutional Rights is a front for left-wing extremists intent on carrying on their own war with America. As an editor for the New Left magazine Ramparts, I remember being visited in 1969 by Arthur Kinoy, who with Kunstler was co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Kinoy was carrying with him a draft manifesto for a new "Communist Party" (those were the words in the document), which he intended to organize with Kunstler. The agendas of the hard left never really change. Support for America's enemies then; support for America's terrorist enemies now.
Following the Ashcroft announcement, I was a guest on Sean Hannity's radio show opposite Francis Boyle, professor of international law at Illinois University and self-proclaimed "civil liberties" activist. Professor Boyle went swiftly on the offensive. The removal by the FBI of its own self-imposed restrictions was an assault, he said, on the First and Fourth Amendments -- although no one's free speech was in danger and no search and seizure was proposed. Boyle was concerned, he said, about the liberties that made America what it was.
Or was he? Francis Boyle is a legal advisor to the terrorist PLO and the terrorist Palestine Authority. His agenda in the Middle East, laid out in the pro-Palestinian Internet magazine Counterpunch, is "dismantling [the] criminal apartheid regime" in Israel! In fact, Boyle is a supporter of the anti-Israel disinvestment movement and compares the liberation struggle against Israel to the liberation struggle against South Africa. The destruction of Israel doesn't phase Boyle at all. But then Boyle sees the present Republic of South Africa, which has tragically become the rape, murder and AIDS capital of the world, as "a beacon of hope" for mankind.
While many people in the civil rights business are genuine liberals, others are people who sympathize with terrorists like the Panthers and the Weathermen, and now Hamas and al-Qaida. This should be a warning to all Americans who care about their country. It is not only that we have to take the threat to our homeland more seriously. We have to become more sophisticated about the threat we face.