The hyping of domestic terrorism

Why a new report on the threat of international terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is a con job.


Bruce Shapiro
June 12, 2000 11:17PM (UTC)

A few blocks from where I live in New Haven, Conn., is the Yale University science complex. As on campuses throughout the country, many of the students who haunt its laboratories came to the U.S. from other countries -- like my own college roommate years ago, a chemist raised in Greece.

Walking past Science Hill the other day, I suddenly found myself asking: What would it be like if every one of these genial students from abroad, who crowd into the cafeteria and library, were under close surveillance by Washington, their movements and changes of major reported to the feds? What would happen to the easy conversations I witness as I walk by the complex bus stop, or to the frank exchanges of view in a seminar room?

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This was no paranoid fantasy: Such surveillance is among the policy recommendations of the National Commission on Terrorism. Chartered two years ago by Congress, the commission released a report last week that unleashed a dire drumbeat about a coming wave of violence on American soil.

"The threat from terrorists is so high," began ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz's news account, "the potential for massive casualties is so real, that an independent panel is pushing the government to take immediate, drastic action." Warned commission chairman L. Paul Bremer III at a press conference: "The threat of international terrorism is becoming more deadly." In the Los Angeles Times, commission advisor Brian Michael Wilson of the Rand Corp. called the report "a wake up call to a more violent future."

But behind this dramatic and headline-grabbing report, the facts are these:

The National Commission on Terrorism's warnings are a con job, with roughly the veracity of the latest Robert Ludlum novel. Evidence of this fraud comes not from civil libertarians or American friends of some guerrilla army, but from the top G-man himself: FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Just over a year ago, on Feb. 4, 1999, Freeh testified on the subject of terrorism before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. Freeh's testimony was overlooked in every news account this week, but his detailed evaluation makes the Bremer Commission's hold on reality appear tenuous.

"The frequency of terrorist incidents in the United States has decreased in number," Freeh emphasized. Since the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, Freeh pointed out, "no single act of foreign-directed terrorism has occurred on American soil."

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Support for violent revolutionaries emanating from Cuba and North Korea, he noted, "appear to have declined" with those nations' economic free falls. Even the American cells of violent Middle East political movements as Hamas and Hezbollah, Freeh declared, are devoted exclusively to "fundraising and low-level intelligence gathering."

Just how much terrorism is not much? Freeh testified that in fiscal 1998, the FBI prevented 10 planned "terrorist acts." Not one emanated from abroad. Nine of the 10 "terrorist acts" were planned by a single, small cluster of Illinois white supremacists hoping to assassinate Holocaust scholar Simon Wiesenthal and Morris Dees, the anti-Klan crusader who runs the Southern Poverty Law Center. The other forestalled attack involved a lone individual, a militia type, from Washington state.

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Foreign students did not figure in Freeh's account at all. Indeed, Freeh told Congress that the main threat of terrorist violence comes not from foreign sources but from the overlapping constituencies of the far right: abortion-clinic assassins, Christian Identity militias and the like.

Freeh's testimony squares better with recent history than the Bremer Commission's anxiety-provoking report. Not a single one of the commission's recommendations, for instance, would have stopped two disaffected Army buddies from driving a truckload of fertilizer up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Nor would it have prevented a paranoid schizophrenic camp follower of the right-to-life movement from firing an assault rifle into a Brookline, Mass., women's clinic.

Facts also do not square well with the commission's alarming suggestion that, as commission advisor Jenkins puts it, "current efforts to detect, prevent and prepare for such attacks are inadequate."

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In fact, even with domestic political violence continuing to fall, the FBI's counterterrorism budget has grown almost 400 percent since the World Trade Center bombing: from $78.5 million in 1993 to $301.2 million in 1999. The number of FBI agents devoted full-time to counterterrorism has flowered, too, from 550 in 1993 to 1,383 in 1999.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, wiretaps are at an all-time high and the number rises every year. Yet the Bremer Commission proposes removing the few insulating layers of Justice Department review -- essentially letting the FBI set its own, independent wiretap agenda. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a draconian package passed by Congress in 1996, gives the president the broadest authority to prosecute suspected "terrorists" in American history, yet not a single instance of "terrorist fundraising" has surfaced for prosecution. (One of the few worthwhile recommendations in the report -- apparently a sop to commissioner Juliette Kayyem, an Arab-American and Justice Department attorney -- is ending the "secret evidence" trials permitted under that same 1996 law.)

The Bremer commission's recommendations are just as dramatic as their dire warnings. Not only does the commission propose keeping tabs on all 500,000 foreign students in the U.S., but the commission would also give the military primary law-enforcement responsibility over presumed terrorist incidents on American soil.

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The panel urges removing recent rules on the CIA's recruitment of foreign informants, imposed after exposure of the agency's complicity in large-scale human rights abuses in Latin America and elsewhere.

Such a sweeping set of proposals, says historian and political analyst Marcus Raskin, founder of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, harkens back to the Nixon administration, when a White House memo proposed allowing domestic spying by the CIA, sanctioning break-ins and surveillance of protestors and giving the military domestic law-enforcement power. What the terrorism commission is looking for, says Raskin, is a "super-police operation, and that is very dangerous."

In fact, this dramatic report seems less a comprehensive view of terrorism than a convenient vehicle for carrying forward several quite contentious Washington policy debates. Removing restrictions on CIA recruitment of criminals, drug smugglers and torturers, for instance, has been central to an ongoing fight between the spy agency's old Cold War hands, who enjoyed a free hand to arrange coups in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and other nations, and newer, reform-minded managers.

The voices of those old-school CIA hands echo over and over in the commission report. Bremer said Monday that "retired intelligence officers" -- code for officials forced out in the most recent reform wave -- were among the report's core informants.

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On this issue, the report bears the unmistakable handwriting of former CIA Director James Woolsey, a member of the terrorism commission. At last Monday's press conference Woolsey, who ran the spy service from 1993-1995, pointedly attacked the restrictions imposed by his successor John Deutsch beginning in 1995. Meanwhile, current CIA officials denounced the report's conclusion -- leading to the unmistakable impression that the report's agenda was less about controlling terrorism than regaining lost turf.

Another part of the report reflects division within the foreign policy establishment over the Clinton administration's policy toward the Islamic world, especially Iran and its new reform-minded clerical leadership. The report warns against, as commissioner Kayyem puts it, "in any respect softening" sanctions against Iran.

It also recommends sanctions against Pakistan and Greece for "failing to fully cooperate" with antiterrorism efforts. Here, too, admiral Woolsey has left his stamp. It was widely noted last week that the CIA has carried a grudge against Greece ever since the assassination of its Athens station chief Richard Welch in 1975 -- the inaugural killing by the small, anarcho-nationalistic "November 17" guerilla faction, which has persisted for the past 25 years. Forgotten, however, was that the killing of Welch effectively shut down the first great attempt at CIA reform headed by the late Sen. Frank Church.

After a British military attachi was shot this week, Woolsey was quoted in a Greek newspaper charging, without offering details, that "there are certain people in the Greek government who know certain members" of the November 17 faction. Whatever the details of the latest Athens killing, Woolsey is clearly playing for a re-run of the reform-derailment of a generation ago.

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That considerable violence has emanated from Iran's Islamic revolution, itself blow-back from years of U.S. support for the repressive Shah of Iran, is incontestable. "We've heard a great deal of reform rhetoric, but have not seen too much real evidence that behavior has really changed," says Michael Rubin, an Islamic affairs scholar and fellow at the Washington Institute.

Yet whether U.S. sanctions against Iran or other nations have any impact at all on the complex psychology and politics of resentment that breeds transnational terrorism is, to put it mildly, a much-debated issue.

Joy Gordon, a professor of philosophy at Fairfield University and international sanctions expert, says that "the most generous reading" of sanctions imposed on 120 nations since World War II suggests that this modern form of siege warfare fails two-thirds of the time. And, she points out, sanctions often breed more nationalism and resentment, making terrorism even more likely. "If you want to change the conduct of a foreign regime, the one thing you can say with near-absolute certainty is that sanctions will accomplish the opposite."

By attempting to set off a panic over external enemies, the National Commission on Terrorism is serving those inside-the-Beltway policy goals. But if it resonates with the press and public, it is because exaggerated fear of terrorism serves as a useful distraction from sweeping national anxiety over globalization and the growing power of transnational corporations.

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The report's vision of hordes of foreign students launching biowarfare from college campuses, revives an American tradition of immigrant-bashing that has played out periodically during periods of national change and uncertainty: the Masonic conspiracy panic of 1798, which led to the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts; the Red Scare of the 1920s, which helped pave the way for immigration quotas; and of course McCarthyism.

For the moment, at least, the terrorism report is being greeted with derision in some influential circles. Universities -- whose graduate science departments are overwhelmingly populated by students from abroad these days -- are protesting the invasion of privacy. Both the State Department and the current regime at the CIA have dismissed the report's call for de-reform.

But the fear of external enemies resonates deeply in the American psyche, a fact demonstrated, as well, by the xenophobic terms of congressional debate over China's entry into the WTO. Look for Republicans to go on the offensive about terrorism -- and for Democrats, fearful of being labeled soft on terror, to go along, perpetuating the con job unleashed this week in Washington.


Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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