Momentum on release of hostages may be unstoppable Global Viewpoint

Stansfield Turner

August 30, 1991|By Stansfield Turner

WASHINGTON — TERRORISM has historically come and gone in cycles, and we may be nearing the end of this one. The difference today is that this cycle is not being suppressed by the use of police and military forces, as has usually been the case. Instead, changes in the political environment are bringing Western hostage home.

The Syrians, having lost their Soviet patron and having seen in the gulf war that the United States could play an effective role in the Middle East, have decided to cooperate with the West in removing this "irritant" at small cost to themselves. The Iranians, recognizing the necessity for economic intercourse with the Western world after a decade of near isolation, have decided to remove this impediment to reopening commercial relations. The Lebanese, after accepting Syrian tutelage and thereby restoring semblance of governmental control over most of their country, have decided the presence of hostages is impeding further return to normalcy.

TTC Any of these three favorable conditions could reverse overnight. What is significant, though, is that so many players appear to see it in their interests to play a role in halting hostage taking. These players include the Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians, Israelis, hostage holders, United Nations, the Swiss, West Europeans and Americans. Such widespread concern is building a momentum that will be difficult to stop.

International awareness of the terrorist problem and a willingness to cooperate in dealing with it are key to defeating it. For instance, one of the names involved in ongoing negotiations for the release of the remaining 10 Western hostages is Mohammed Hamadi.

Hamadi hijacked TWA Flight 847 to Beirut in June of 1985 and murdered an American passenger. Although he escaped when the incident ended, we knew a good deal about Hamadi by then and asked the West Germans to monitor his brother living in their country. When Hamadi joined that brother a year and a half later, the Germans arrested them both, took them to court, and convicted and jailed them. That kind of cooperation inhibits terrorists.

A current demand of one group of hostage-holders is that the Hamadi brothers be released in exchange for two Germans among the 10 remaining hostages in Beirut. We must resist that, even at the expense of delay. The freeing of duly convicted criminals would send a dangerous signal to would-be future terrorists.

Despite repeated protestations in this country that we will never countenance deals with terrorists, we will. But some deals are acceptable and some are not. We need to learn to better discriminate among them.

Since hostage taking in Beirut began in 1982, we have been involved in eight deals. Six were basically "arms-for-hostages" and were ill-advised because they left us vulnerable to having more hostages taken. Another was a swap of 566 prisoners in Israeli jails for 40 Americans who had been hijacked on TWA Flight 847.

Today's proposed swaps, the eighth deal, seem acceptable to me, as long as the Hamadis are not included. But it is important that we as a nation understand that, in situations like this, difficult judgments -- such as whether to turn loose convicted terrorists -- have to be made. We should not merely follow some arbitrary rule such as "We will never make deals."

Making deals is, of course, not our only recourse when confronted with hostage-taking, even though with respect to Beirut over the past nine years, the alternatives have not appeared attractive.

Our intelligence and military-rescue capabilities have not been adequate to risk going in and rescuing hostages. We have eschewed punitive military attacks due to our moral scruples about killing innocents.

Economic pressures were judged ineffective because we were dealing with groups of terrorists, not nations, or because we could not muster sufficient international cooperation to make embargoes effective.

With this lack of recourse, we have been understandably frustrated. But we can be pleased that we have become sophisticated about not rushing into arms-for-hostages deals, ill-fated rescue missions or other low-probability efforts.

We should be encouraged that, as we continue to draw friends and allies into greater cooperation against terrorism, the chances of defeating this cycle in the Middle East will continue to improve. The battle may not yet be over, but the balance has tipped in our direction.

Stansfield Turner was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1977 to 1981.

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