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Opinion

Trio should face toughest penalties

The Pentagon, reeling from the disclosure of prisoner abuse in Iraq, is discovering something the Inland Northwest has learned the hard way: A minority of wrongdoers can tarnish the reputation of an entire region.

For some three decades, a parade of white supremacist and anti-government extremist organizations — going by names that include Aryan Nations, The Order, Montana Freemen and Project 7 — have broadcast a message of bigotry that reflects, albeit unfairly, on the decent citizens of Washington, Idaho and Montana. It doesn’t help that even as one group flashes and burns out, others flare up to take its place. It will take lasting, diligent effort by local and federal law enforcement agencies to make it clear that the extremists’ lawless antics are intolerable to the right-thinking people who live here.

Lasting, diligent effort is just what was on display last week when an investigation that lasted longer than two years and involved 100 law enforcement personnel resulted in the arrest of three men on federal firearms charges in northwest Montana. From what authorities say, the activities of the trio — who are suspected of plotting to kill two-dozen public officials including judges and police officers — call for more serious charges than those that have been filed so far.

The Missoulian newspaper quoted both local and federal authorities as saying charges involving assassination plans could be filed in time, even though some federal officials have said they don’t have enough evidence to support conspiracy charges.

The three suspects, arrested Thursday in Flathead and Lewis and Clark counties, are said to be part of a militia cell called “Project 7,” based in Flathead County. They have been sought since February 2002, when the cell’s existence came to light following the arrest of another extremist, David Burgert, who engaged authorities in an overnight standoff but now is in prison. In conjunction with that case, authorities discovered a cache of automatic weapons, explosives, body armor and 30,000 rounds of ammunition — plus information about local police officers and their families.

As always, the justice system has to work its course, but it’s easy to see why authorities give the assassination plot credence. Their concern no doubt is increased by the history of other extremist groups that have threatened similar violence to intimidate government officials.

Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont is quoted as relaying an informant’s outline of a bizarre Project 7 aspiration: kill enough judges, prosecutors and police to provoke a showdown that would result in calling in first the National Guard, then NATO, and touching off a revolution. The lunacy of the ultimate goal, if Dupont’s informant was truthful, only makes it more plausible that such wild-eyed extremists would pursue a killing campaign against government figures.

This region has worked relentlessly since the 1970s to correct the misimpression left by the irrational exploits of Robert Matthews, Richard Butler and others. Dedicated human rights groups have worked overtime to discredit the idea that this is a haven for bigotry. Their work obviously isn’t over yet, but they need the support of law enforcement agencies. That means bringing the most serious charges the evidence will support.

FBI supervisory agent Scott Cruse said the agency hopes the investigation sends “a clear and convincing message that criminal activity perpetrated in order to intimidate public officials will not be tolerated.”

With their dogged conduct of a 27-month investigation, and their dedication of enormous manpower to the effort, law-enforcement officials have shown they mean business. If they have evidence that the suspects meant to carry through on the alleged assassination plots, they must not stop with illegal firearms charges.

 

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