TERRORISM : With Rail Travel Unsafe, Must Freedoms Be Curbed?

David Wise writes frequently about about intelligence agencies. He is the author of 'Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million" (HarperCollins)

When the Amtrak Sunset Limited plunged into a ravine in the Arizona desert early Monday morning, killing one crew member and injuring 78 passengers, the tragedy symbolized something new in the annals of terrorism in America. Whether the derailment proves to be the work of an unknown neo-Nazi group calling itself "Sons of Gestapo," or of a right-wing militia group angry over Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Ida., or the act of disgruntled railroad employees, or of vandals or of others, the sabotage of the cross-country train was designed to achieve an objective by creating fear. But more than other recent acts of terrorism, the derailment seemed designed to strike terror into society at large. That, at least, is its effect, even if the sabotage was aimed more narrowly at Amtrak, or at Southern Pacific, which owns the tracks on which the train was traveling.

The wreck of the Sunset Limited marks the end of a chapter on a vanishing past. What, up to now, could have seemed safer than rail travel? Of course, trains sometimes jump the tracks, and no mode of transportation is completely safe. But for those--their numbers are dwindling--who still enjoy rail travel, there was something peaceful and comforting about climbing into a sleeping-car berth or compartment and settling down for the night, far from everyday problems and even (until relatively recently) from ringing telephones, knowing that a pleasant breakfast awaits in the dining car in the morning.

That piece of America, already fading with each new rail line closed down by Amtrak, crashed into the ravine with the Sunset Limited. Just as air passengers have had increased concerns about their safety since the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland in 1988, train travelers will now have to wonder whether they will arrive safely at their destination, or whether some kook out in the sagebrush is plotting their destruction.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in America, of course. For decades, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans in the South and in the Midwest, the two areas of the country where it was most powerful. But today's Klan, greatly diminished in strength, has attempted to intimidate blacks in local areas where its white-hooded members are active.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in February, 1993, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000, was the work of Islamic terrorists waging urban warfare against the United States, and, indirectly, against Israel. The perpetrators, most of whom have been convicted, had a political agenda. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April of this year, which killed 169 people, was apparently the work of two men with a hatred of the federal government, growing, in part, out of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian sect at Waco. That hatred and deep suspicion of government are shared by many right-wing militias and by white supremacist groups.

While it is true that Amtrak is a quasi-government corporation, a passenger train is much less obviously a "government" target than was the federal building in Oklahoma City. The people injured were, presumably, ordinary Americans traveling to Los Angeles.

The saboteurs knew exactly what they were doing. They chose an isolated branch line where the track segments are joined on both sides by metal pieces (joint bars), unlike main rail lines, where much longer sections of rail are welded together. They removed the bolts from one set of joint bars, then strung a wire between the two rail sections to maintain the electric current so that the warning signals along the track would remain green, indicating no break in the rails.

According to widely published reports, the saboteurs also removed a number of spikes that helped to hold the rails in place and drove them back into the wooden ties in the wrong place, forcing the rails out of alignment. But neither Amtrak nor the FBI would confirm that the spikes were pulled or driven back in the wrong place.

Notes found near the wreck referred to both Waco and Ruby Ridge, where white supremacist Randall Weaver's wife and son were killed by federal agents in August, 1992. But the authorities have warned against jumping to conclusions about the identity of the perpetrators; they point out that the notes, including the reference to "Sons of Gestapo," could be designed to mislead.

Arizona has a number of right-wing militias, and Timothy McVeigh, one of the men accused in the Oklahoma City bombing, spent a good deal of time there. But there is also discontent among railroad workers in Arizona, who face loss of jobs stemming from Amtrak's proposal, in June, to end passenger service to Phoenix. Amtrak acted after Southern Pacific announced it planned to close the very section of the branch line where the derailment took place.

The FBI was probing a possible link to a remarkably similar instance of sabotage 56 years ago near Harney, Nev., in which 24 people were killed. A train was derailed in almost exactly the same manner as the Sunset Limited, and an article about the 1939 wreck was published in a railroad magazine only a week before the derailment in Arizona.

Must Americans give up some of their traditional freedoms to fight terrorists? That is the most important question implicit in the recent bombings and the derailment of the Sunset Limited.

In the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, President Bill Clinton asked Congress for broad new legislation to fight terrorism; he requested new power for the FBI to check credit, hotel and travel records of suspected terrorists, broader federal wiretap authority, 1,000 new law-enforcement employees to monitor terrorist threats and a requirement that explosives be "tagged" to make them easier to trace.

Clinton had already called for a law to make international terrorism in the United States a federal crime, and to make it easier to deport aliens linked to terrorism. The Senate and House passed anti-terrorism bills in June, but there has been no final action. And in the House, there is growing concern that anti-terrorism legislation might give too much power to federal police agencies.

At the heart of the debate is the question of how far the government can go to investigate and infiltrate domestic groups, and whether it must wait until a crime is committed before it can act. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt first authorized the FBI to gather intelligence on domestic groups. In the mid-1970s, a Senate intelligence committee chaired by Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, revealed that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, had conducted thousands of illegal break-ins or "black-bag jobs." In the wake of these hearings, Atty. Gen. Edward H. Levi issued, in 1976, guidelines for domestic intelligence-gathering that restricted the FBI to investigations of actual or planned crimes. These guidelines were relaxed in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan so that the FBI does not have to wait for a crime to be planned or carried out to open a "preliminary" inquiry.

Achieving the proper balance between government power and civil liberties is an continuing struggle in a democratic political system. But it would be a mistake for Americans to trade their freedom for the illusory security of Big Brother government. That would be playing right into the hands of the terrorists, who care nothing for democracy, human rights or Amtrak passengers.

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