FBI surveillance of hate groups critical, Jewish leaders assert

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The summer explosion of hate crimes has spurred a cry for the FBI to dramatically step up preventive surveillance.

Jewish community leaders, including top officials of the Anti-Defamation League, have been pressing U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh to look closely at the inflammatory rhetoric that roils on the Internet — possibly probing these hate groups through infiltration and wiretapping.

And, they say, the agency's failure to act aggressively on a national level has left local law-enforcement officials haplessly trekking from one crime scene to another, following in the shadows of the perpetrators rather than keeping abreast of their activities.

Just this week, vandals attacked the emigre services division of Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco's Richmond District, and, in a separate incident, firebombed the San Jose home of Santa Clara County Presiding Judge Jack Komar, mistakenly believing the Roman Catholic jurist and his wife were Jewish.

"There is some reluctance on the part of the FBI after Waco of trampling on First Amendment rights," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "But some groups deserve closer scrutiny — wiretapping, where necessary."

For some, talk of increased domestic surveillance recalls chilling memories of the McCarthy era and the abuses of power under J. Edgar Hoover's FBI reign.

"It's a whole new ball game now with the Internet, and we have to adapt to changing times," said Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the American Jewish Congress Northern Pacific Region. "But we have to protect our basic civil liberties."

Federal investigators, she added, "cannot be given carte blanche. That would be antithetical to our system of checks and balances."

But Hier charged that "Americans living abroad get better protection from the CIA than Americans at home get from the FBI. If I am in Europe and I get a tip that the Islamic Jihad plans to do me harm, for instance, the CIA would do what they had to do to investigate whether it was true, including using wiretaps, if necessary."

Neil Herman, the director of fact-finding for the ADL and a longtime FBI investigator, has met with higher-ups in the U.S. Attorney General's Office to discuss revisiting the constraints that hamper the agency's ability to investigate more forcefully.

Despite those constraints, "we do feel there is room for more intensified or broader searches" by the FBI, noted Alan Schwartz, the ADL's research director.

The clamor for more active government probes was applauded by local leaders — many of whom have borne the brunt of anti-Semitic attacks.

The dean of San Francisco's Hebrew Academy, Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, said he supports such efforts "100 percent." Adath Israel, where he worships, was firebombed in 1980 and its bookstore burned. "A lot of these hate-mongers have discovered that they're not alone, there are many more," he said. "The Internet unites them."

But the FBI does not track the sites, their designers or "any hate groups [with sites] on the Net," Hier asserted. "We monitor 2,100 sites. Net sites that propagate hate are protected by the First Amendment, because first and foremost, the First Amendment protects the minority. But many of those sites cross the line: It's not just 'We hate Jews' anymore."

On the Web site of Illinois-based white supremacist group World Church of the Creator, moving images of two commandos armed with assault rifles flank Pope John Paul II. With a click of the cursor, the fighters open fire on the pontiff, who collapses in a bloody fusillade.

In fact, many such graphic simulations involve the likenesses of actual persons.

"To my way of thinking, that is not protected speech. That is a specific threat to a specific individual," Hier said.

After a steady decline, the level of anti-Semitic incidents has begun a slight uphill swing in the last year, according to the ADL's Schwartz.

The FBI has come belatedly to the cauldron of organized hate that has been boiling over in communities throughout the nation: While the ADL has been tracking anti-Semitic activity for more than 20 years, the FBI has been charting hate crime for less than 10.

"It's taken time for law enforcement agencies to develop a mechanism for reporting," Schwartz said. "Only recently have agencies like district attorneys and police departments been assigning units or desks to hate crime. Previously, police tried to investigate incidents in a responsible way but did not understand the sense of urgency in the community when, for instance, Holocaust survivors discover a swastika painted on the walls of their synagogue."

Such incidents were more likely tagged "pranks" or as a burglary, Schwartz said.

While the FBI collects and publishes hate crime statistics, the federal agency receives "most of its information [on hate groups] from human rights agencies, and that is not right," Hier said.

But intelligence-gathering agency officials do not agree that the tracking of hate groups should be primarily the government's responsibility.

"Regulating the Web is an issue in itself and a difficult one given the legal and constitutional traditions of our country," Schwartz said. "It's hard to know how much support these groups are receiving as a result of their Internet activity. But given the realities of our legal traditions, the government may not be able to investigate unless a crime is committed or is being planned, whereas we have the right to track their publications and activities, and we do."

Meanwhile, local officials say Monday's incidents illustrate that national help is urgently needed.

Staff at JFCS Emigre Services on 30th Avenue in San Francisco arrived for work that morning to find the building had been scrawled with swastikas and the statement "Adolf Hitler was here," written with what appeared to have been a black marker.

"The lettering…still smelled of marker fluid," according to the police report. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime.

The San Francisco Police Department Hate Crimes Unit is investigating a possible link between the vandalism and two inflammatory fliers, one targeting Latinos, the other Asians, circulated in the Mission and Richmond districts, according to spokesman Dewayne Tully.

And shortly after midnight the same day, skinheads lobbed a Molotov cocktail through a window at the judge's home in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood. When one of the perpetrators called 911 to report the crime, police traced the call and arrested Victor Quintin Podbreger, 19, of San Jose and two 17-year-old cohorts.

"They're singing," said the ADL's Bernstein after meeting with police officials in San Jose. The three allegedly admitted that they had assumed the judge and his wife were Jewish.

A pattern of anti-Semitic activities has continued in communities outside the state as well:

*On two separate days last week, containers of bloody syringes, vials and bandages in waste containers scrawled with swastikas were dumped at synagogues in two Connecticut towns. A photo of Buford O. Furrow Jr. was left at a Stamford synagogue, and Furrow's name was invoked in a note found at a Norwalk synagogue, according to police.

*Columbine High School officials discovered swastikas scrawled on the walls of two of the school's bathrooms and near an outside entrance when they reopened the school late last month.

*The Aug. 10 gunfire attack at a Los Angeles-area Jewish community center was followed a few days later by a synagogue arson in Hauppauge, N.Y.

In addition, many of the communities have endured sporadic violence over many months or even years. Komar's San Jose home had been smeared with anti-Semitic graffiti in March 1989, police said.

In fact, one resident said the entire neighborhood where the judge, his wife and the perpetrators reside — east of Willow Glen High School — "lives in fear" of the youths, who sport shaved heads, steel-toed boots and leather jackets festooned with skinhead insignia.

Podbreger was charged with possession and manufacture of an incendiary device, one count of terrorism, attempted arson and vandalism, with hate crime enhancements on both the latter counts. The two juveniles were booked on one count each of vandalism, with hate crime enhancement attached to each charge, and conspiracy to commit arson. All three were jailed.

If convicted, Podbreger could face more than 20 years in prison. And "we are going to encourage the district attorney to have the juveniles prosecuted as adults because of the evil act that occurred today," Acting Deputy Police Chief Donald Anders said.

The San Jose Police Department has put at least 40 officers on the case.

At the home of one of the suspects, police confiscated a stockpile of hate literature pumped out by Nebraska-based Gary Lauck, whom the ADL's Bernstein called "one of the largest producers of hate literature in the country."

In fact, Lauck's activities extend beyond the country: He was convicted of running hate fliers from Denmark to Germany, where he was imprisoned. Under German law the distribution of hate literature a felony.

One of the quandaries U.S. civic and Jewish community leaders grapple with is balancing First Amendment rights with the need to prevent violence.

"It's just very frustrating," said Jessica Ravitz, associate director of the ADL's regional office. "Here we had that picture of [Los Angeles day camp shooting suspect] Buford Furrow in that Nazi outfit a long time ago. There has to be more we can do that's preventative."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.