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?
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."
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.
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."
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.)