Five Ways to Beat the Thugs

Saturday, January 30, 1999

Defending America, its interests, and its allies from terrorism is a complex undertaking. The military actions in Afghanistan and Sudan last summer were a welcome return to a more robust and rational policy. But this single use of force is no substitute for an effective program, which requires five elements: exploiting our technological edge, as in any war; intelligence to reduce the dangers we face; deterrence; diplomacy; and accountability. Judged by these standards, our performance has been woefully inadequate.


Technological superiority conveys a critical advantage in any war. Its benefits in the war against terror are potentially profound. Technology can prevent or reduce the adverse effects of terrorist acts. For example, air transport was made safe after a decade of hijackings with security procedures and screening devices. Satellite and electronic surveillance are the most obvious examples of how advanced technology can help us collect superior intelligence. Tomahawk missiles, and a naval force capable of delivering them anywhere in the world, are examples of the enhanced military capacity technology has made possible.

The United States has failed to exploit its formidable, technological advantages in the war against terror. It is now clear, for example, that the State Department and Congress deliberately ignored the recommendations of the secretary of state’s advisory panel on overseas security (headed by former CIA deputy director Bobby Inman) to upgrade security at our diplomatic facilities abroad. The Inman panel, appointed in response to the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1982, examined every U.S. diplomatic facility abroad. In June 1985 it concluded that 134 posts failed to meet minimum security standards, such as a safe location and a 100-foot setback as a “bomb-blast buffer zone.” The panel estimated that 126 facilities could be replaced or renovated for $3.5 billion. But by 1991, the State Department and Congress had whittled the funding down to less than $2.1 billion—covering just 31 posts.

The embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, was purchased by the United States in the 1990s and so was not among those examined by the Inman panel. But the panel’s recommendations were squarely applicable to the building and were nonetheless disregarded. Among other things, the building was conventionally constructed, located in an urban area, and had a security setback of only thirty feet. The inadequacy of its security plan can be seen from the simple fact that the bomb exploded at the point at which it was supposed to be discovered and stopped. It was a plan doomed by design to fail. By contrast, the embassy in Tanzania had strengthened walls, was located in a residential area, and had a proper setback of one hundred feet. These factors saved everyone within the structure itself and limited the total deaths to ten persons—a tragedy, but far less costly and demoralizing than the three hundred persons dead and more than five thousand injured in Kenya.

The damages to U.S. property and personnel in these two attacks amount to hundreds of millions of dollars—an expense comparable to what has been spent in over ten years on the Inman program. The United States will also pay for the damages to civilians and surrounding buildings and businesses. Other, less tangible but important costs were incurred, including a strain on relations with the local populations and a loss of confidence in the United States’ resolve to defend its international interests.

The fact that all attacks on U.S. facilities cannot be prevented must not be allowed to excuse failures or to delay the development and implementation of protective measures. The Clinton administration has wisely closed several sites as inadequately secure. Since the Inman report, moreover, our capacity to screen for explosives has improved, and these improvements should be integrated into the security program at all U.S. facilities abroad, just as they are being implemented at airports. Consideration must be given to housing at all U.S. government facilities in protected areas abroad.

Those who argue against such measures on the ground that embassies cannot function as fortresses underestimate the capacity of technology to achieve both security and a functional environment. Architects have developed embassy designs that are both secure and attractive, and, as technology improves, the screening of personnel and cars will be simplified and expedited. Until then, safety must be the governing imperative.

Finally, the security of U.S. facilities abroad is only one of several categories of problems that can be managed more effectively through the development and application of technological improvements. Much more needs to be done to protect the U.S. communications networks, transport and power infrastructures, water supply, and population from a variety of attacks, including chemical and biological. At this point, the task of reducing these vulnerabilities to acceptable levels seems impossible, but dramatic reductions in risk could be achieved through high-tech screening at entry points, advanced sensors, and materials capable of absorbing huge amounts of energy, among other measures. The task should be addressed with the same sense of urgency with which the United States pursues critical technological objectives in conventional wars, such as breaking an enemy’s code or developing a critically important weapon.


One fact is clear: We failed to prevent the Kenya and Tanzania bombings. That should be regarded not as the inevitable consequence of coping with terrorist gangs but as an intelligence failure. Although we cannot know in advance enough to prevent every terrorist incident, that must be our aim. It is clear now, moreover, that the Clinton administration did know—in advance of the embassy bombings—that Osama bin Laden was implicated in attacks on U.S. facilities that killed many Americans, had sworn to continue such attacks, and was implementing those plans from his training facility in Afghanistan.

It is widely agreed that the United States lacks sufficient human intelligence capability. Penetrating groups of radicals and religious fanatics is difficult and distasteful. But it is by now familiar work, and great successes have been achieved, such as preventing an attack on the visa line at the U.S. embassy in Paris in 1986 and other attacks planned at around that time. Congress should keep the pressure on the CIA and FBI to strengthen these capabilities.

A far more serious problem than intelligence capability, however, is the repeated failure to use the clues we do uncover. Ample evidence of Osama bin Laden’s culpability in killing Americans in terrorist attacks was available long before President Clinton decided to use force against him. It turns out that weeks before the embassy bombings the United States had indicted bin Laden for soliciting the murder of Americans. That indictment was sealed, however, and so the American people were left unaware of their government’s state of knowledge, which in turn avoided triggering public and political pressure for military action. Furthermore, the press reported after the bombings that the United States had obtained intercepts of conversations in which bin Laden was congratulated immediately after the two bombings of U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government must also have long been aware of the camp in which bin Laden was operating and of his manufacture of chemical weapon precursors at the plant in Khartoum, Sudan. In retrospect, it is clear that the United States should have attacked bin Laden before the embassy bombings; had an attack against bin Laden been launched sooner, the embassy bombings might have been prevented. Furthermore, economic measures should have been ordered against bin Laden some time ago, and a clampdown on Islamic charitable organizations that support terrorists is long overdue.

The inadequate use of intelligence is pervasive. When, in 1990, El Sayyid Nosair was arrested for the murder of Rabbi Meier Kahane, the FBI failed to translate papers found in his home because its New York office had no Arabic translator available. Those papers contained useful leads that might have enabled the FBI to prevent the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. When the mastermind of the Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef, entered the United States with a false passport, he was caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service but released because the government lacked space in a local facility to hold him pending deportation. He then disregarded orders that he appear for a hearing and went about successfully arranging the Trade Center bombing.


An essential component of any program aimed at preventing terrorist attacks is successful deterrence. Until the attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan, the Clinton administration was committed to a policy of treating terrorism as a crime, with the FBI in control and the promise of “bringing cowards and criminals to justice” repeated like a mantra. Prosecuting terrorists is proper since they are not soldiers entitled to immunity for their acts, but treating acts of terrorism as crimes is a pathetically inadequate way of deterring such acts. Terrorists may do cowardly things, but they are often willing to die for their beliefs and are therefore unlikely to be scared into inaction by the threat of criminal trials and punishment. Those who finance, train, or send them to commit terrorist acts, moreover, are prepared to see them die; they too will not be deterred by the rhetoric of American politicians or prosecutors.

In 1984, Secretary of State George Shultz convinced President Reagan to adopt a policy of defending America with force in order to deter terrorists more effectively. That policy was applied against Libya. Although Libya was not permanently silenced by a single bombing, it backed off many planned attacks. We cannot know for sure how effective such measures are. We do know, however, that the decision to prosecute two Libyan agents for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing and to impose economic sanctions could not conceivably deter further terrorist acts by any state or group.

Avoiding the use of force, though sound as a matter of general policy, is a losing strategy against terrorists. The Clinton administration properly resumed the use of force in attacking bin Laden and, if the evidence is indeed as powerful as claimed, in putting the chemical plant in Khartoum out of commission. The use of force should be continued, moreover, for as long as necessary to deter attacks. A single bombing may toughen an enemy’s resolve without disabling his capacity.

The attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan violated the integrity of the sovereign territory of those states. That is a serious matter, but the actions were justified. No state has the right to permit its territory to be used for the preparation of attacks on the nationals and diplomatic facilities of other states. If a state knowingly facilitates terrorist activities, even if the terrorist group is an independent entity, it is responsible for the actions of the group, both in that its territory is not immune from proper acts of self-defense and in that it is liable for the damages caused.

By contrast, the United States must be prepared to justify using force against groups in a foreign state. Although it is not obliged to prove a right of self-defense under the rules of evidence applicable at a trial, it must explain credibly to the United Nations Security Council (and all other states) the basis for its actions. If the United States erred in attacking Sudan, or is unwilling to justify that action, it should assume responsibility for its conduct and pay full compensation for the injuries it caused. That is what we did during the Bush administration when we admitted error in the tragic shootdown of an Iran Air passenger plane.

A final point that has caused widespread confusion is the statement of Secretary of Defense William Cohen that “we do not target specific individuals,” in explaining why the United States had not specifically attempted to kill bin Laden in the attack. An executive order, in place since the Ford administration, prohibits any U.S. agency or individual from engaging in an “assassination.” An assassination is a murder, however, not a killing in self-defense. The United States would be legally justified in pursuing any individual responsible for killing Americans, so long as it acts in self-defense and is prepared to accept responsibility for its actions. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration originally took the position that it did not target bin Laden, apparently for political or public relations considerations. The U.S. military has long had an aversion for actions that target specific leaders, and political leaders are properly concerned that such targeted attacks could lead to retaliations aimed at themselves. It seems doubtful, however, that bin Laden would be constrained by our willingness to avoid targeting him personally, and it is a dubious moral principle that a terrorist leader should be given any special degree of deference in order to avoid an attack on U.S. leaders. It is a relief to have the current administration publicly admit (through White House lawyers) that it had indeed targeted bin Laden and that such targeting was perfectly lawful in the course of a legitimate act of self-defense.


The United States has used its diplomatic capacities to convince its allies to cooperate in measures designed to combat terrorism and to secure the adoption of U.N. resolutions and conventions condemning terrorist acts against air traffic, vessels, and diplomats. At the same time, it has in general refused to maintain diplomatic relations with nations that support terrorism. The glaring exception to this policy is Syria, where the United States is actively engaged and has seen some successes, as when Syria helped secure the release of the TWA Flight 847 hostages in 1985.

The Syrian exception should be the rule. It is better to deal directly with states that sponsor or tolerate terrorism than to hold them at arm’s length, alienating their populations through the imposition of economic sanctions.

A determination to use rather than to abandon diplomacy does not connote weakness: on the contrary. If the Clinton administration follows through on its threats to use force against terrorism, it will be more willing to confront its enemies diplomatically and its diplomatic efforts will more likely succeed. We should hardly be surprised if the current policy of damaging terrorist-sponsoring states, without disabling them, and alienating their populations leads them to support attacks on U.S. facilities and nationals. We must communicate with our enemies to warn them of our resolve and to demonstrate our willingness to entertain the possibility of change and reconciliation.


The one bright spot that emerged from the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia was the decision of Secretary Cohen to hold the U.S. commander on the scene accountable for his failure to take the measures necessary to protect members of the American armed services. In the embassy bombings, too, we should hold accountable those who could have saved lives—the State Department officials who disregarded proposals to increase security and the members of Congress who failed to provide the necessary funds. This does not mean they should be prosecuted or even punished, but their actions should be fully investigated and their responsibility established and put on the record. The Clinton administration’s failure to act against bin Laden before the embassy bombings appears particularly irresponsible. A thorough review of the evidence should be undertaken, and Congress should take steps to ensure that such evidence is not kept hidden in order to avoid confrontations (as now appears to have been the case with the arms inspections in Iraq).

It is a privilege to serve the American people in positions of responsibility and power. Along with the honor, however, public officials must bear the moral burden of their decisions. Clearly defined standards of accountability might discourage future officials from recklessly disregarding the considered recommendations of experts regarding the security of American personnel and facilities and encourage those officials to pursue all available and practicable measures to maximize the protection of American interests.