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Manifesto Poses Ethical Dilemma for Two Newspapers

By Sharon LaFraniere and Pierre Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 1, 1995; Page A03

A serial mail bomber's offer to cease killing if the New York Times or The Washington Post publishes an anarchist manifesto delivered Wednesday has created a sticky ethical dilemma that pains and divides experts.

"It's a situation fraught with danger for anyone who is involved," said Everette E. Dennis, who heads a media center at Columbia University. "It amounts to a contract with an unreliable, possibly unstable and certainly dangerous person."

If the bomber is to be believed, the newspapers conceivably could save lives simply by giving him the seven pages it would take to print his 56-page treatise against modern society. Publishers also would have to devote about two-thirds of a page for annual follow-ups for three years.

In letters to the Times and the Post accompanying the document, the man known to the FBI as "UNABOM" promised he would then end his career of mail bomb attacks that have killed three and wounded 23 since 1978.

At least some law enforcement officials, whose efforts to find the bomber have been fruitless, hope the newspapers will take him up on his offer. "We're looking to any means that would mitigate harm to the public safety," Jim Freeman, who heads the FBI's San Francisco office, told the Associated Press. A task force of dozens of investigators is based in San Francisco on the belief that the terrorist lives somewhere in Northern California.

Robert Lichter, director of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, understands how Freeman feels. "If you could be sure of saving human lives, you should publish," he said. "Journalists talk about the need to perform a public service. Here's an opportunity."

On the other hand, the bomber reserves the right to continue destroying property, and wrote the Times that the deal is off if law enforcement officials come after him. Although that condition was not mentioned in the letters to the Post and Times sent this week, it was included in a letter sent to the Times in April.

That "significantly weakens the case for doing this in order to save lives," said Jerrold M. Post, a Georgetown University psychiatry professor who has written about terrorist crises.

Moreover, he said, it is questionable whether anyone who considers himself above moral standards can be believed. "It is senseless to apply moral criteria to the actions of revolutionaries," one of UNABOM's letters said.

"My instinct is that {publication} is a very bad idea, and takes the press down the wrong trail," said Dennis. "A news organization should really not be in the business of public safety and police work."

The bomber already has won front-page articles nationwide, along with statements issued by the publishers of the Post and Times saying they are seriously weighing his offer, Dennis noted. Publishing his writings verbatim, Dennis said, "ends up making news organizations very weak indeed."

Robert J. Heibel, former deputy chief of the counter-terrorism section of the FBI, said "I think he will find an excuse not to do what he promises."

Richard Ault, a former FBI agent who worked on the UNABOM case off and on for 17 years, spent yesterday afternoon reading the bomber's 56-page treatise. He came away seeing strong arguments on both sides.

"The manuscript is as lovingly prepared as his bombs," he said. "Somewhere along the way, he has had these conversations before. Someone who would read this might say :This sounds like so and so.' It might be a service to publish the darn thing."

But Ault also compared the bomber to an alcoholic whose promises are worth less than the brown bag that hides the bottle.

"He's a hater," said Ault, now a law enforcement consultant in Manassas. "He's got white, hot rage. Trust him? If his word is based on his will, he won't stop. He's driven by anger and he can't control it."

Yesterday, the publisher of Penthouse, a nationally circulated magazine that features photographs of naked women, offered the terrorist a monthly full-page column in the periodical, indefinitely. And he renewed his previous offer to publish the manifesto in full.

Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione said in an interview that his new overture is an altruistic attempt to save lives, not a publicity stunt.

"If we save one life, we'd be thrilled." Critics "accuse me of everything they can think of anyway," he said.

In a letter to Penthouse this week, the terrorist wrote that he would kill once more even if Penthouse does publish his document, if the Times and the Post both refuse to print it. That's because "many people do consider sex magazines to be disreputable," he wrote.

As the Times and the Post continued to consider the bomber's offer yesterday, FBI forensic and linguistic experts studied every aspect of the parcels sent to the newspapers, from the stamps and the type of tape on the wrapping paper to the phrasing and type. Both newspapers turned over their packages to the FBI, and were given photocopies of the contents.

The Post's package carried the return address of Boon Long Hoe, the chief financial officer of a circuit board manufacturer with offices in San Jose, Calif. Hoe, now in Bangkok, said he had no knowledge of UNABOM and cannot imagine why his name and the address of a San Jose house he owns were used.

Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Co.

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