The Costs of Fighting Terrorism

There's only so much that can be done-and much that shouldn't

In the days and weeks ahead, the U.S. will face tough questions about how to reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks. Experts on counter-terrorism say there are ways to strengthen the nation's security--but at a cost: Strengthening U.S. defenses would require billions in new expenditures and have a profound effect on privacy, travel, and other basic rights.

Many experts on terrorism say the U.S. needs to reassess the dangers and redistribute its resources. The nation must continue to prepare for exotic threats posed by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, they say. But it should devote more resources to fighting low-tech threats posed by airplane hijackings and home-made bombs like the one used in Oklahoma City. Among other things, that means tightening airport security to conform to what many European nations are already doing.

POISON GAS. It also means devoting more resources to intelligence gathering, using technology and trained agents to uncover terrorists' plans before they are put into effect. "The intelligence community has been starved for years," says retired General David E. Baker, managing director of Schwab's Washington Research Group and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton. "This will galvanize Congress to put partisan issues aside...and bolster intelligence."

Much of U.S. research on antiterrorism until now has focused on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons--and that won't change. The disintegration of the Soviet Union sparked urgent fears about the possibility of Soviet plutonium falling into terrorists' hands. The release of poisonous sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995 highlighted the horrors of chemical weapons. And officials are stepping up efforts to be prepared for a biological weapons attack.

In June, Johns Hopkins, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and others tried to predict what would happen if terrorists released smallpox in three cities. By the time doctors identified the first cases, the terrorists would be long gone "and the situation was out of control," says CSIS fellow Sue Reingold. Air travel and commerce would shut down. And within three months, estimates retired Air Force Colonel Randall J. Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, 3 million people would be sick--and 1 million of them would die. "It spreads by a factor of 10 every two to three weeks," Larsen says.

But many devastating attacks in recent years--including the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa and the Oklahoma City catastrophe--involved conventional weapons. "Short of shooting the plane down after it was hijacked, there is nothing you can do," says Jason Pate of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

That is where intelligence comes in. U.S. agencies have found it exceedingly difficult to penetrate terrorist groups, which may be built on family loyalties that stretch back generations. To break into such groups, security agencies may be forced to make increasing use of tactics many Americans find distasteful: paying terrorists to be informants. "If this is to be effective, we have to be willing to deal with those people who live in the alleys of the world," says Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs at Harvard University and an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration.

It also means a stepped-up role for technology. Federal agencies already have vast authority to intercept communications and to place wiretaps. In 1979, Congress created a special court to consider domestic wiretaps in terrorism cases; it approves roughly 1,000 a year and has rejected only one in its history (in a classified case). In 1994, Congress authorized $500 million to subsidize phone companies to make their networks easier to tap.

The problem lies in interpreting and analyzing the intercepted data, says James X. Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington (D.C.) civil-liberties group. "The intelligence agencies are awash in info," he says.

NO WARNINGS. Even so, information-gathering efforts are increasing. An FBI software program called Carnivore is capable of sifting through vast amounts of computer information. But it has met with fierce resistance from privacy and civil-liberties activists--and in the latest disaster, it yielded no warnings. Nevertheless, the recent attacks will provide new incentive to expand Carnivore, which can also monitor text messages sent by cell phone. And a federal mandate that goes into effect this fall will require most cell phones to automatically relay location data--providing useful information for 911 emergency services, but also allowing law enforcement to track individuals.

On the computer data front, the National Security Agency has already devised classified methods to uncover "keys" used to encrypt e-mail messages. But in the future, software makers could be asked to hand keys to the NSA. And then there's Echelon. This supersecret NSA eavesdropping operation monitors most electronic communications around the globe via satellite and ground stations. The NSA has a budget of $7.3 billion and a staff of 38,000--more than the CIA and the FBI put together. Budget and staff are both likely to grow.

All these efforts, however well-intentioned, carry the risk of overreaction and a weakening of individual rights. "A lot of people are likening this to Pearl Harbor, where the immediate reaction was to round up Japanese Americans," says David Sobel, counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I hope we don't have the same kind of overreaction"--this time using technology to infringe on human rights. Alan M. Dershowitz, the noted constitutional lawyer at Harvard Law School, says America is experiencing nothing less than a "paradigm shift" in how it balances individual rights and anti-terrorism. He anticipates calls for civil liberties to be curtailed. "Government will have greater freedom to conduct searches at airports and elsewhere. There will be less access to public places," he predicts.

We've already moved in that direction. Jay W. Waks, an employment lawyer in New York City, says background checks are allowed on any topic "so long as it is work-related." Employers have a nearly complete right to monitor employees' e-mail at work and their conduct on the job site (other than sensitive areas like bathrooms) as long as they warn employees they are doing so, Waks observes. One of the few forbidden practices is racial profiling of new hires by employers, says Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of Southern California Law School. "Airlines couldn't say, `We aren't going to hire those of Arab descent."'

The problem of fighting terrorism is becoming even more difficult because, more and more, it is the domain of fanatics with purely religious motives, says Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist at George Washington University who established an antiterrorist program when he was at the CIA. "In the last several years, in upwards of 40% of terrorist acts, no responsibility is claimed," Post says, most likely because the acts were committed by religious extremists. They don't need to claim responsibility, because they are not trying to promote a cause--they are simply attacking the West in the name of God, says Post, who just completed a study in which he interviewed 35 incarcerated terrorists in Israel. "Their clerical authority has told them this is a sacred act that will gain them a higher place in Paradise." Infiltrating these groups is the only solution for the West, he says. And even then, the blight will never be stamped out. "You eliminate terrorists when you eliminate democracy," Post says.

Monterey Institute's Pate says the terrorist's game is psychological warfare. "They want us to believe our government cannot protect us." And in a sense, they are right. All the force of the American military will not protect us from suicide bombers. The best way to fight this psychological combat is to celebrate the American way of life, to bolster American freedoms, and refuse to bend to the terrorist threat, authorities say. Declaring martial law or restricting Americans' freedom of movement will mean only one thing: The terrorists have won.

By Paul Raeburn in New York, with Mike France and Heather Green in New York, and bureau reports.

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