A GROWING number of critics say that federal police agencies,
including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pose an increasing
danger to basic American freedoms.
Civil libertarians point to a series of violent events
instigated by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and other
federal police forces in recent years. Sometimes with only flimsy
evidence, lawmen have stormed into private homes, shot innocent
people, and then done nothing to rectify the damage.
The spotlight on police powers grew brighter this week as the
murder trial of 11 Branch Davidian survivors got under way in San
Antonio. Most of the Davidians, including leader David Koresh and
25 children, were killed last year during a Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raid that went awry.
Critics, such as Paul Blackman of the National Rifle Association
(NRA), say the Davidian disaster should have outraged the public.
Instead, Attorney General Janet Reno won general applause for her
handling of the case.
Now an unusual alliance of critics has asked President Clinton
to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to investigate federal police
practices in general.
The alliance, which includes the NRA and the American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a Jan. 10 letter to the White House
that federal officers are guilty of "numerous" and "widespread"
abuses of civil liberties, including in the Davidian case. The
letter cites improper use of deadly force, physical abuse,
entrapment, and unjustified paramilitary tactics.
Gene Guerrero, field director for the ACLU, says there is
historical precedent for such a presidential commission. In 1929,
troubled by corruption among federal police, President Herbert
Hoover appointed an 11-member panel. The commission's study led to
Today, Washington commands a much larger police force of 79,000
officers who operate out of 53 federal agencies. They include the
FBI, the DEA, the ATF, and the US Border Patrol, among others.
A number of attorneys, judges, congressmen, and other critics
worry that the public's fear of crime is driving the country toward
excessive police powers that could abrogate everyone's rights.
The "drug war" has prompted many of the government's extreme
measures. Officials have seized billions of dollars worth of
property without trial, conducted midnight raids on homes, and,
with legislative backing, sharply expanded the nation's prison