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FBI: Striking a Balance

January 16, 1985

Tension will always exist between the power that law enforcement must have to defend society from violence and the restraints on that power to protect society from abusive authority.

The history of the 1960s and the early 1970s demonstrates that the competing claims of security and individual freedom are not a theoretical problem, but one of vital importance. Congressional committees found that the FBI in those years conducted nothing less than a systematic assault on the constitutional rights of many American citizens.

In reaction to these disclosures, President Gerald R. Ford's attorney general, Edward H. Levi, brought the FBI under a comprehensive set of guidelines in 1976. Those rules, which governed the investigation of domestic terrorism, were modified by the Reagan Administration in 1983. And now a committee of the American Bar Assn. recommends an amendment of the revised rules to provide additional safeguards for lawful dissent.

Among its recommendations, the committee urges that FBI field offices be required to inform FBI headquarters before opening a probe involving domestic security. The lack of such reporting makes it difficult to ascertain whether field agents are observing the guidelines governing these investigations. Another reform proposes that the FBI describe the scope of an investigation in writing at an early point so that agents can decide what records or information is pertinent. Close monitoring of informants is urged to make certain that they concentrate on reporting evidence of crimes and not on the political beliefs of suspects.

One significant aspect of the committee's report was a cordial exchange between the committee and the Justice Department. Although the bar association panel said that some changes are necessary, it praised the guidelines as already reflecting a "healthy degree of balance" between First Amendments rights and public security. Atty. Gen. William French Smith said that his department "welcomes constructive suggestions for improvement" of the present rules.

It is not easy to strike a balance between the demands of security and civil liberties, but a continuing effort toward that goal is essential to preserving a vigorous democracy.

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