January 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Feds Recruit Spies Among Abortion Foes Infiltration A Success In Court, Creates Unease Over Civil Liberties

James Risen Los Angeles Times
 

A year ago, anti-abortion activists cheered when the Justice Department abandoned its high-profile search for a nationwide conspiracy behind violence against clinics where the procedure is performed.

A federal grand jury working with the Justice Department in hunting for a conspiracy quietly disbanded early in 1996, and a young activist who had been jailed for two months for refusing to testify was released. Anti-abortion militants jubilantly claimed vindication, and they hoped the Justice Department’s scrutiny of their movement would come to an end.

But federal officials instead have launched an even more intense crackdown, using far more effective investigative tactics - by going back to law enforcement basics.

Abandoning their campaign to find a conspiracy, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms once again are tracking clinic arsonists one at a time. And they have taken the controversial step of using undercover informants inside the antiabortion movement.

Information on individuals that was presented to the Alexandria, Va., grand jury investigating the conspiracy allegations has been parceled out since to regional grand juries charged with looking into specific clinic attacks. That shift has lead to indictments and convictions - and to complaints from some abortion-rights organizations that continue to believe a nationwide conspiracy exists.

Vicki Saporta, who as executive director of the National Abortion Federation meets frequently with Justice Department and FBI officials, said her organization is “convinced that a conspiracy exists, that these people aid and abet each other in committing these crimes. I think the FBI just doesn’t feel they have investigative authority to prove it.”

That view is not unanimous among abortion-rights groups. Officials at Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of abortion services, say they never believed that the government would be able to prove there was a conspiracy, and saw the effort as a distraction.

“We were never comfortable with the conspiracy approach,” said Ann Glazier, director of clinic defense for Planned Parenthood. “We said from the beginning that there was not one meeting that all these people attended to come up with a master plan. Instead, they share a rhetoric and a commitment to violence.”

Federal officials refuse to talk about their change in tactics, but it is clear that in the absence of finding a broad conspiracy, the government has used a sweeping and controversial new federal law, known as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, aggressively to prosecute activists who commit violent acts, as well as those who were simply conducting Operation Rescue-style sit-ins or clinic blockades.

The Justice Department says it has brought a total of 27 civil and criminal cases against anti-abortion activists under the clinic access law.

Despite recent bombings in Atlanta and Tulsa, Okla., the federal effort is being credited with bringing about a sharp decline in anti-abortion violence and blockades.

A study by the National Abortion Federation found a 21 percent decline in incidents of clinic harassment and violence in 1996. And the clinic blockades virtually have disappeared.

Anti-abortion leaders charge that the law represents a violation of their First Amendment rights. Although the law has withstood constitutional challenges so far, activists are hoping to bring more cases to the Supreme Court to have the law overturned.

They also complain that they are the targets of an unrelenting federal assault.

At last week’s “White Rose Banquet,” an annual gathering outside Washington of militants who believe that the use of violence to end abortion is justified, a show of hands revealed that nearly half of the roughly 50 people in attendance had been forced to testify before at least one federal grand jury in 1996.

Among the honored guests at the White Rose Banquet was Jennifer Sperle, a 24-year-old mother of four who was one of the first activists to be indicted by a regional grand jury after the Alexandria panel was disbanded.

Sperle has become a “cause celebre” among anti-abortion militants because she is also one of the first to fall victim to a controversial decision by both the FBI and the ATF to begin to use undercover informants inside the movement.

For years, federal law enforcement officials were reluctant to penetrate the movement. They were mindful of the bitter legacy of the 1960s, when the FBI’s credibility was nearly destroyed by its politically motivated investigations of anti-war and civil rights groups.

As anti-abortion extremists became more aggressive, escalating their violent acts from clinic arsons to the murder of abortion doctors, the FBI and ATF began recruiting spies. The decision has caused an outcry within the anti-abortion movement as well as unease among civil libertarians, but it is paying off in the courtroom.

Federal officials refuse to comment, but sources on both sides of the abortion battle say that one ATF informant, Rick Thomas of Virginia, and an FBI informant, Phil Eck of Kansas City, Mo., both provided evidence that led to Sperle’s arrest in connection with two clinic arsons in the Norfolk, Va., area.

Sperle pleaded guilty in the case in November, and now faces sentencing in February. She agreed to a plea bargain after another defendant, Clark Martin, pleaded guilty last May and agreed to testify against her.

xxxx ‘WE DO HAVE SOME QUALMS ABOUT THIS’ The new federal campaign to recruit informants within the antiabortion movement has placed civil libertarians in an uncomfortable position. Liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union long have sided with abortion clinics against Operation Rescue-style protests, but now find it difficult to support federal efforts to penetrate political organizations. “We do have some qualms about this,” said Lisa Landau, a staff attorney for the Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU. “Certainly the clinic bombings are distressing, and we support all efforts to investigate them. But there have to be stringent restrictions on the FBI’s ability to infiltrate these groups.”


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