Catching up with the realities of terrorism

April 25, 1995|By Mark D.W. Edington

Cambridge, Mass. -- AS INVESTIGATORS comb through the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, they will find more than evidence for a criminal case.

They will also find the ashes of our ill-starred efforts to develop a coherent policy to deter the growing threat of terrorism.

No one can believe any longer that terrorist strikes are just isolated incidents, potholes along the rough road to a new world order.

Whether the blast in Oklahoma was planned by domestic hate-mongers -- as seems likely, with the arrest Friday of a reported member of a home-grown extremist group -- or internationally sponsored extremists, the lesson for the administration is the same.

Terrorist violence has become perhaps the leading threat to our security.

Consider that in Wednesday's bombing, with more than 400 injured and the death toll likely to climb past 200, more people may turn out to have been killed than were American troops in the Persian Gulf War, Somalia and Haiti combined.

The threat the United States now faces is far more complex and fragmented than anything we have contended with before.

The mission of our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies must be sharply redirected away from the least likely threat -- a new nuclear superpower -- and toward the far more likely danger of violence below the threshold of war.

Sophisticated surveillance equipment can help fight terrorists.

But the decisive difference -- as we have learned in the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and his associates for the World Trade Center bombing -- will come from penetrating suspect organizations with spies recruited at home and abroad.

Yes, there are dangers in relying too heavily on infiltration -- dangers of betrayal, of disloyalty, even of incompetence -- but it remains the best strategy we have.

While Congress is reassessing the proper role of our intelligence agencies, it should consider reallocating more funds to federal law enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI.

Our criminal justice system also needs to catch up with the realities of the terrorism threat, domestic and foreign. The proposed Omnibus Counterterrorism Act, although difficult medicine, is a step in the right direction.

If approved, this bill would place far stricter constraints on the activities of fund-raisers for identified terrorist groups in the United States, make it more difficult for terrorists to abuse the immigration and naturalization system and make evidence gathered through covert intelligence available to prosecutors in a special court.

It would also strengthen the RICO or organized crime statute for use against terrorist organizations.

As critics of the bill note, more safeguards should be added to protect civil liberties. But other democracies -- Britain, France, Germany and Israel -- have found it possible to strike a balance between safety and fairness.

Most importantly, President Clinton needs to speak candidly to the American people about what a credible deterrent to terrorism, from whatever source, will entail. He must take the lead in building a consensus on strategy.

The government must be better prepared to penetrate terrorist circles and make pre-emptive moves against operations in the planning stages.

Nuclear deterrence is beginning to look easy compared to this new challenge.

We need to be realistic about the cost involved -- in dollars, as well as to our liberty and our conscience -- as we attempt to protect ourselves while facing increasingly ambiguous and ominous threats.

Mark D.W. Edington is a senior research associate at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

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