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World: U.S. Terror Report Raises Civil Liberties Concerns

  • Andrew Tully

A special commission created by the U.S. Congress says America -- and its interests in other countries -- face a new threat from international terrorist organizations. It makes several recommendations on how to prevent attacks from these groups, and how to respond if the attacks succeed. But as RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports, there is concern that these remedies may violate Americans' cherished civil liberties.

Washington, 6 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A special commission is recommending that the U.S. military be in charge of responding to an attack by an international terrorist group on American soil.

The National Commission on Terrorism was created by the U.S. Congress two years ago after the bombings of two American embassies in Africa. The chairman of the panel is Paul Bremer, a former senior State Department official specializing in terrorism.

Bremer noted that since the embassy bombings, there have been no such attacks in America, and few against U.S. interests in other countries. But he told reporters at a news conference on Monday that the threat of terrorism is changing.

"If terrorists, as we think, are inclined to escalate now to mass-casualty terrorism -- and the statistics look that way, that they're more willing to create more casualties -- then the price of getting it wrong escalates greatly. And you don't have to worry about whether it's four or three [attacks]; you worry about whether it's one incident on a scale which might create tens of thousands of casualties."

Reporters repeatedly asked Bremer pointed questions about the commission's recommendation that the U.S. military take what the chairman called a "lead role" in responding to a terrorist attack in America that left many casualties.

The American military has always been run exclusively by civilians. The reporters' persistent questions on a military-led response to a major terrorist attack reflects Americans' abhorrence to any suggestion of martial law. At one point, Bremer sought to reassure the reporters -- and the public they represent -- that there was nothing sinister in the commission's recommendation.

"The planning rightly is that, in most cases -- in fact, one would hope, in all cases -- the military plays a supporting role. And we think that's right, we think that's the way it should be. But we cannot exclude the case -- and it would be unwise to exclude the case -- where the president, whoever he or she is, wants to use the Pentagon [military] in a different way. And all we're saying is, it's prudent to plan for that ahead of time."

Another recommendation that raised fears of violating civil liberties was the board's recommendation that foreign students studying in America be monitored more closely. Some reporters wondered if students from Islamic countries would be singled out.

Bremer responded that universities already are required by law to report to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service about the status of foreign students. He said schools often are lax in reporting, and that the commission merely wanted to make sure the law was followed more rigorously.

Eventually, Bremer asked Juliette Kayyem to add her comments. Kayyem, one of the 10 members of the commission, is an American of Arab descent and a lawyer who specializes in civil liberties.

Kayyem said America's wars often have an ethnic identity -- such as the Japanese and German enemies of World War II. As a result, she said, the nation's war on terrorism tends to take on an Arabic and Islamic identity. She said she believes the commission struck the proper balance between civil liberties and national security.

"It's a hard balance, I recognize that, but I think there's no specific recommendation that should concern the Arab and Muslim community, there's no specific targeting."

Another controversial recommendation is that the U.S. government consider whether to officially designate two friendly countries, Greece and Pakistan, as not cooperating fully in the fight against international terrorism. For instance, Bremer said that Greece, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, interfered with the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader now imprisoned for terrorist acts in Turkey, another NATO ally.

If Greece and Pakistan were given this designation, the U.S., by law, would be required to end sales of military equipment to the two countries.

Another member of the commission is Jane Harman, a former congresswoman from the state of California. She urged the United States not to ease its policy toward Iran, even though more moderate politicians recently were elected to the Majlis, Iran's parliament.

"It should be applauded that Iran's domestic situation seems to be improving, but we see no evidence, and certainly I did not in my prior experience in Congress, that Iran's foreign policy is changing."

Bremer and Harmon also were asked if they cared to comment on a report by the American television network CBS that Iran may have been behind the terrorist bombing of U.S. jetliner over Lockabie, Scotland, in 1988. CBS quoted a man who says he is a senior Iranian intelligence official as saying Iran planned and financed the attack, in which 270 people were killed.

Bremer refused to comment, and so did Harmon.

"I did not see it. Since I have not seen it, I don't have a reaction. But I certainly feel that maintaining a tough policy with respect to Iran is necessary in order to protect American interests around the world and the interests of our allies in the Middle East."

The commission formally submitted its report to Congress on Monday. It was unclear how much -- if any -- of the recommendations would be adopted by the U.S. government. Already, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said the administration of President Bill Clinton has no plans to impose any sanctions against Greece or Pakistan.