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Global Threat: Terrorism

June 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: For more, we are joined by the commission’s chairman, Paul Bremer, and by Larry Johnson, who served in the State Department’s and the CIA’s offices of counter terrorism during the Bush and the Reagan administrations. He is now a consultant. The major premise, Ambassador Bremer, of this study is that terrorism is an increasingly more lethal threat. Can you tell us how you reached that conclusion?

L. PAUL BREMER, National Commission on Terrorism: Yes, I think there’s a pretty wide consensus among experts in and out of government that the threat is becoming more deadly. In effect, what’s happening is while the number of international incidents is going down over the last decade, the number of casualties per incident is going up. And one can quibble about whether these statistics mean anything. The problem is that it means the terrorists are looking at different motives. And in the 1970′s and 80′s they tended to want to only kill tens or twenties of people. Now we’re concerned they may want to kill hundreds or even thousands of people.

GWEN IFILL: Larry Johnson, do you agree this problem is getting more lethal instead of less?

LARRY JOHNSON: No. Actually, I think it has become less of a problem. Part of that is due to the work Jerry did starting back in 1987. Look, the number of deaths fell from 4,800 in the 80′s to 2,500 this last decade. People focused on is the number of people injured has climbed from 12,000 to 19,000. But 70% of those injuries were caused in only five incidents. That’s out of 3,800 incidents in the last ten years. What we’ve seen is, and Jerry is right it has become more diffuse, but those groups willing to kill and cause mass casualties really are less potent because they do not have the backing of the states which enabled groups in the 80′s to really cause a lot of damage to Americans. Right now the largest loss of life in a terrorist incident remains the attack on the Marine barracks in terms of U.S. lives, the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the single largest loss of life was the downing of an Air India plane in 1986. So I think to characterize it as it’s getting worse is to ignore the good news in quelling state sponsorship and confining these groups to a small number of countries.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Bremer, what about that? In fact, the United States has doubled its counter terrorism budget to $10 billion this year. Is that money that’s not being well spent?

L. PAUL BREMER: We looked at that budget, and basically did not have time in the six months which Congress gave us to go into any detail. So we couldn’t reach a judgment. The GAO has done several studies on it and thinks that there is probably money not being well spent. We didn’t take a position on that. We do think that there is a need for greater resources to be spent, particularly to intelligence collection for CIA and FBI and for the National Security Agency. And we make that recommendation in our report.

GWEN IFILL: How do you know that more money is needed if you don’t know how the money that’s currently allocated has been spent?

L. PAUL BREMER: We looked at the particular budgets of those three agencies rather carefully. And in the case of CIA, the problem is that the budget appropriation system has been a little bit haphazard. It’s been sporadic and not even. It makes it hard for CIA to plan and deal with the increased operational tempo they’ve been faced with. In the case of the FBI, They need higher technology, and in the case of the National Security Agency, we were very impressed by a study that the Senate Select Committee on intelligence had commissioned that showed there’s a real danger of NSA not being able to keep pace with the changes in technology.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk for a moment about some of the findings one by one in the report. Larry Johnson, one of the things the report is calling for is that the CIA be allowed to recruit more heavily for intelligence purposes, even including people with what are called unsavory backgrounds. What’s your thought about that?

LARRY JOHNSON: I think there needs to be additional effort on that front. The problem is now that the CIA Is not equipped or geared up to penetrate those groups. It’s one thing to try to penetrate Soviet diplomats at a cocktail function in a foreign country. It’s a different matter to go after people that are religious fundamentalists, and the case of Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, they weren’t hanging out at diplomatic cocktail functions. It requires a different orientation for the CIA to go after that. I agree with Jerry, the money needs to be spent there. The problem with the money is right now every government bureaucracy in Washington is finding a mission in combating terrorism. This is utter nonsense. It is a misallocation of resources. There are some areas where money needs to be spent, but just doubling the budget so everybody can go up to the Hill and say, we’re going to combat terrorism, there’s not a member on the Hill that will vote against that. Who is going to vote against protecting American lives in an election year.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Bremer, I just want to tell the world that your nickname is Jerry, so if everyone is wondering who is Jerry, I thought I’d let everybody know.

L. PAUL BREMER: You just revealed a state secret.

GWEN IFILL: I think your partner there just revealed it, but let’s talk about that whole question of whether the CIA has enough support. Humans rights groups have complained that what you’re doing is opening the door in this recommendation to allowing people who have a bad track record or a record as bad actors to suddenly take part in our intelligence function.

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, what we’re saying is this: For decades the CIA had a set of procedures which allowed the CIA to make a judgment before it hired a terrorist spy. That’s what we’re talking about — to make a judgment about the spy’s access to information, his reliability, and the value of the information to the US Government. We believe that those procedures should be re-instituted in a case of engaging informants within terrorist groups. The fact is if you’re going to find out what a terrorist group is planning so you can stop them from killing Americans, you have to have somebody in that group who is spying for you, and by definition, those people are not going to be very savory. They will probably have committed crimes. They may even be murderers, but after all, every city police department in the United States does the same thing, gets informants into organized crime and uses them as a way to try to catch bigger fish and stop other crimes. We’re just suggesting the CIA ought to go back to that procedure and not be so overly cautious as they’ve become in the last five years.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary of State Albright, Ambassador Bremer, also expressed some concerns about another recommendation in your report, that’s that you treat Greece and Pakistan, generally considered to be our allies, as… we should cite them and sanction them for not being fully cooperative in an anti-terrorism investigation.

L. PAUL BREMER: What we did was deal with the fact that before 1996, the law in the United States essentially was a black or white law. You either were a state which supported terrorism or you got a good housekeeping seal of… a good house keeping seal of good housekeeping. It was either you were on the list or not. Congress recognized this was an inflexible system and in 1996 established a third category called states which are not fully cooperating. The administration has not made good use of that category, and we looked around and said, “here are a couple countries which you ought to consider.” We did not make a judgment they should be put in that category, but they should be considered. In both the case of Greece and Pakistan, there’s a lot more they could do in terms of fighting terrorism; and we suggested the administration consider it. I understand the secretary has said they don’t intend to. I hope when she has a chance to reflect on the report, she’ll see that it’s worth at least thinking about it.

GWEN IFILL: Larry Johnson, another part of the report suggests that we begin to more actively monitor students, foreign-born students studying in the United States. Is this something that you would support?

LARRY JOHNSON: As long as it’s applied equally across the board. I think the Arab Americans have a legitimate complaint. I mean, one of the… we had no problem as a country sanctioning Hezbollah and Hamas, but one of the terrorist groups that was left off the list of designated terrorist groups, prohibit them from raising money was the Irish Republican Army. The message we sent to the world is if you’re Irish Catholic, it’s okay to be a terrorist. If you’re a Muslim, that’s bad. If it is applied equally across the board, irregardless of religion or ethnic background, then it’s worth doing. But, again, we need to keep it in context. We’re not looking at a burgeoning of incidents, rising death toll. I think we’ve got to manage a policy that has been successful.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Bremer, Larry Johnson raises the point that Muslim Americans fear being demonized by this sort of stepped up vigilance, is this something you think it’s your role to address?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, we addressed it in the fourth paragraph of the report, as a matter of fact. We said very clearly that we do not think the fight against terrorism should ever be an excuse for discriminating against or picking on any group on the basis of their ethnic or religious national background. We couldn’t have been clearer.

GWEN IFILL: How do you enforce something like that?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, how do you enforce any law or any guidelines? You enforce it by basically saying, that’s the rule. In the case of the students, for example, we did not propose anything new. The law in 1965 established that every university must keep the immigration authorities informed of foreign students in this country, basically to be sure that they’re still obeying their immigration status. They come as students and they’re supposed to remain students. Until 1996, this was done in a 19th century style with pieces of paper and for all I know shoe boxes. In 1996, the Congress said, “isn’t it time for the INS immigration authority to come into the 20th century before we reach the 21st century and make this an automated computerized data bank?” That’s all we’re calling for. We’re that saying the same information which universities have been required to report on all foreign students, irrespective of nationality, for more than 30 years should now be put into an automated computer data bank. It’s not discriminatory against anybody. It’s not collecting any new information that hasn’t been collected for 30 years. It’s simply automating it.

GWEN IFILL: Larry Johnson, overall is the United States simply too risk-averse, as the commission says, to mount an effective counter terrorism program?

LARRY JOHNSON: We’ve got the equivalent of Alzheimer’s Disease when it comes to looking at our counter terrorism policy. Back in the mid-80′s, you could not go three weeks without a major attack against the United States. And I’m talking about airplane hijackings, bombings of airplanes, attacks at the Rome and Vienna Airport — hijacking of the Achille Laurel. What we’ve seen is the last major attack against this country, thank God, was August of 1998. We have a very sound system in place. What has happened is once the threat of the Soviet Union disappeared, we’ve got a lot of national security bureaucracies and other bureaucracies that are looking for a way to justify their existence, and many are scrambling to get the counter terrorism bonanza. Frankly, I think it’s not so much throwing more money at the problem, it’s more effective management. On that front I think we’re lacking.

GWEN IFILL: All of that is about the bare bones of how the US foreign policy is constructed. But Ambassador Bremer, you conclude in your report, you say, “an astute American foreign policy must take into account the reasons people turn to terror.” What do you mean by that?

L. PAUL BREMER: What we mean is that fighting terrorism is not just a question of dealing with the criminals and the crimes they commit, that there are reasons why some people turn to terrorism. There are political reasons, there are economic reasons. Some people are simply criminals. And an astute foreign policy would not ignore the context out of which terrorism springs. But we believe that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terrorism any more than you would say, “well, we need to understand why people are committing crimes on the streets of Washington and New York. And until we can understand why they’re committing crimes, we’re going to let them continue to commit the crimes.” No. You have to have a police force that tries to deal with the crimes, just as you deal with the underlying reasons people turn to crime.

GWEN IFILL: Larry Johnson and Paul or Jerry Bremer, thank you both very much.