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In the wake of the most destructive terrorist attack ever com-mit-ted on U.S. soil, two questions will be increasingly on the minds of most Americans: What does the future portend? And will our law enforcement agencies - especially the FBI - be up to the challenge in a democratic society?

While all the pieces of the Oklahoma tragedy have not yet been assembled, some things are increasingly clear and not likely to be changed by new facts. First, the many acts of courage and compassion and the absence of panic in Oklahoma City speak volumes about the character of our citizens, their preference for order and their confidence in the many agencies working swiftly in the aftermath of the explosion - the investigators, police, firefighters, rescue workers and those rendering first-aid and medical care to the injured.The almost total absence of panic, the calm and effective leadership provided by the president, the governor and the mayor should give little satisfaction or encouragement to those who might contemplate similar acts of violence against our institutions or our citizens.

Second, the speed and professionalism with which the FBI and other law enforcement components have advanced the investigation, from bits and pieces of forensic evidence to the identification and apprehension of some suspects in the case, reflect the firm determination of our government at all levels to keep pace with the increasing capacity of terrorists to inflict harm.

The challenge of the future will be to protect our citizens from terrorist violence without sacrificing the liberties that our system of government was designed to preserve.

There are few laws that directly define and prohibit terrorist acts. Most are prosecuted through other laws that prohibit certain kinds of specific conduct. Terrorism is most generally understood to be the use of violence to obtain political objectives through fear and intimidation. No matter how it is clothed in claims of worthy purpose, it is always criminal.

Around the world, the principal targets of international terrorists continue to be U.S. citizens, U.S. facilities and U.S. property located abroad. Much of this activity for many years was considered to be political and therefore beyond the reach of international institutions such as the United Nations and Interpol. Largely through U.S. efforts, this view has changed and acts of criminal violence against innocent citizens away from the scene of the conflict are now condemned as criminal.

As a consequence, civilized nations now are more willing to deny sanctuary and to pursue and apprehend fleeing terrorists within their boundaries. Intelligence agencies cooperate more readily with one another to deal with this common threat to liberty. (One of the as-yet-untold stories is how nations worked together during the Persian Gulf War to defeat the terrorist teams sent abroad by Saddam Hussein, and with good results).

In this country, international terrorism has been kept to a minimum, although there have clearly been links between terrorist groups abroad and sympathizers in the United States. The World Trade Center explosion is the most recent example.

Statistically, however, the numbers are small. Distance plays a role, as does the obvious advantage to the terrorist of attacking Americans in parts of the world where there is less protection. Likewise, the investigative capacity of the FBI has been a major deterrent to the international terrorist.

Domestic terrorism - our "home-grown" groups - have functioned at different levels of effectiveness over the years, but have largely been brought under control. In 1978, when I became director of the FBI, we were experiencing about 100 terrorist incidents per year. The two most active and violent groups at that time were the left-wing Asala and the right-wing Justice Commandos for Armenian Genocide, both protesting Turkish involvement in the 1915 slaughter of Armenian nationals. Puerto Rican independence groups were also active. Remnants of the activists of the '60s were still functioning. Militia-type groups opposed to taxes, government interference and often advocating white supremacy were attracting followers willing to resist law enforcement and prepared to die in defense of their right to bear arms against the authority of hated government.

By 1987, when I left the FBI, the annual number of domestic terrorist incidents had shrunk to a mere handful. During this period, and continuing today, the FBI had worked to improve its response capability with local strike teams and a national Hostage Rescue Team. Of equal importance, the FBI improved its intelligence capability in order to "get there before the bomb goes off."

During the 1960s and '70s, the FBI came under intense criticism for its infiltration of various organizations of dissent and protest, often under pressure from government officials to "do something about it." Out of this period came a series of congressional inquiries and reports that recommended substantial limitations on the FBI's investigative powers.

Guidelines were promulgated by then-Attorney General Edward Levi prescribing the quantum of information required to open investigations on suspect groups, to engage in surveillance of group members, to insinuate informants into the groups and otherwise employ sensitive techniques. Separate guidelines were issued for investigating suspected international terrorist activity. After almost a decade of experience, these guidelines were liberalized under Attorney General William French Smith.

In the main, these guidelines have served the nation well. A balance had been struck to protect both society and individual privacy interests. The FBI responded by increasing its forensic skills and counterterrorist training. New laboratory techniques, better tracking records, computerization of files and fingerprints, and development of undercover skills all contributed to more effective handling of these sensitive investigations. Plots were uncovered and steps taken to neutralize them.

In one undercover operation, we used a special agent who had lost an eye as a paratrooper in Vietnam to defeat a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India while in this country. The terrorists did not realize their "hit man" was a government agent.

Terrorists have certain advantages over the average criminal. They usually work in small, cellular groups to lessen the likelihood of being penetrated. They can pick their target and their moment to strike. Still, the FBI, with help from other agencies, has been able to detect the planning of such activities in a number of cases and prevent them from happening.

The capacity to inflict major harm with readily available materials by small groups with little expertise has already been demonstrated. Steps must be taken to protect the security of key facilities and key personnel without the appearance of a nation under siege. Our response capability must be constantly updated. Our intelligence capability must be enlarged and improved. But in all this, we must remember that the terrorist wins when he causes repressive responses, when he undermines public confidence in those whose duty it is to protect them. We must not let this happen.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma tragedy, there will be strong cries to "unleash the FBI." Greater access to certain information, such as financial information about suspects, would be useful. Current legislation requiring telecommunication companies to provide a window for court-authorized electronic surveillance will protect a vital investigative tool from being lost to digital technology.

Perhaps the most useful action at the federal level would be a clear directive that the FBI is the lead agency in terrorist incidents and investigations, and assuring needed cooperation and resources from other agencies. Speed is important and turf issues should be eliminated ahead of time. Rational refinements in the guidelines, not wholesale elimination, may be appropriate. Justice Department interpretations should not be unduly restrictive.

Beyond this, the FBI does not need to be "unleashed." It must not be seen as authorized to infiltrate organizations merely because they are regarded as suspicious or hostile to the policies of those in power. The tools can be improved, but the constitutional requirements must be respected and observed. This is the best formula I know for the preservation of liberty in America.