- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Threats posed by terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing force Americans to question the balance between security and civil liberties, a former Department of Justice official said Monday.

“When we’re afraid, we constrain civil liberties,” said Jamie Gorelick, a former U.S. deputy attorney general who was involved in the investigation of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and helped assemble the prosecution. When those fears abate, the constraints are loosened, she said.

Gorelick made the comments during a ceremony where judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys who took part in the trials of bombing conspirators Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were honored with the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum’s 2015 Reflections of Hope award.

More than 40 current and former federal and state judicial officials were recognized during the ceremony. Those present included Stephen Jones, lead defense attorney for McVeigh; former Oklahoma City U.S. Attorney Patrick Ryan, who was part of the prosecution team; and Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor, who as a district judge presided over Nichols’ state trial.

In the 1950s, Gorelick said, communism was deemed to be a threat to America’s domestic security and efforts were made to stop its spread, but those tactics were criticized over time. In the 1960s and 1970s, security agencies became worried about potential threats from the civil rights and anti-war movements, but surveillance tactics became more frightening than the security concerns, she said.

And after the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Americans questioned limits that had been placed on the FBI and national security agencies to monitor suspected terrorists, she said.

Legislation strengthening security controls, including the Patriot Act that authorized roving wiretaps, searches of business records and surveillance of individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities, has been criticized as too invasive and constraining of civil liberties.

“Have we given the government too much power?” Gorelick said. “It’s so important that we have an inclusive society, one in which we listen to one another.”

While preparing for the trials of McVeigh and Nichols, U.S. Department of Justice officials wanted to counter critics who thought of federal law enforcement officials as tyrants, she said.

“We wanted the American people to see us as we saw ourselves, people who cared about civil rights and civil liberties,” she said.

McVeigh was convicted on federal murder and conspiracy charges in 1997 and executed in 2001. Nichols was convicted on federal and state bombing-related charges and is serving multiple life sentences in a federal prison.

A $25,000 prize that accompanies the award will be used to establish an endowment for the director of the Judge Alfred P. Murrah Center for Homeland Security Law & Policy at the Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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