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Terrorism, Dissent, and US Foreign Policy

by GREG GUMA Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001 at 9:18 PM

As the US goes on a war footing and opponents of corporate globalization consider their next move, here's some background on the buzzword of the moment and what it could mean for individual rights.

errorPointing the Finger:
Counter-terrorism, dissent, and US foreign policy


Counter-terrorism. It's a word we'll be hearing more and more in the weeks
and months ahead. But, in fact, it's been in the intelligence community's
lexicon for three decades, a standard practice used against "extremists" ever
since the Counterintelligence (COINTEL) program mounted against the "new
left." At the time, the FBI reasoned that a terrorist potential existed in
almost any dissident group, justifying strong measures against a wide range
of targets.

Near the end of 1970, shortly after President Nixon circulated a plan for
expanded spying, FBI field offices received word to "immediately institute an
aggressive policy of developing new productive informants who can infiltrate
the ranks of terrorist organizations, their collectives, communes and staffs
of their underground newspapers." Even after the "new left" COINTEL effort
officially ended, recommendations for specific programs were submitted and
approved on an individual basis.

By mid-decade, however, the FBI was no longer alone in the field of domestic
spying. The private sector had made a strong entry into this growth industry.
Early reports of a new "secret war" leaked out in 1974 when the Berkeley Barb
published the details of IBM's master plan to combat terrorism, developed in
collaboration with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It was
a high-tech information program focused on the "radical left."

According to the plan, which was later disavowed by IBM, the corporation felt
vulnerable "as a symbol of post-industrial technological oppression." Along
with other large businesses that also had established intelligence units, IBM
had been spurred on by the CIA, which predicted an increase in domestic
terrorist activity. Their rationale was contact with foreign groups, and they
claimed that potential targets included offshore drilling rigs, nuclear
reactors, computer systems, and pipelines. There had been a few symbolic
bombings, of course. But this "counter-terrorist" program was clearly aimed
also at nonviolent groups.

Activists as Terrorists

The War in Vietnam brought moral defeat to the US military, congressional
hawks, and corporations that had profited during the debacle. The country had
been wounded by revelations of atrocities, corporate bribery, and murder.
Trust in government and business plummeted as a new political opposition
gained momentum. The anti-war movement had been shattered, mainly by covert
government operations, but a drive to halt nuclear construction and arms
proliferation was beginning to coalesce.

New dissent required new analysis. The post-Vietnam "threat" was defined as
nuclear terrorism, and an overall battle plan was devised, the Federal
Response Plan for Peacetime Nuclear Emergencies. Over 30 government agencies
would have roles, but most would rely on the FBI for direction. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy also launched studies and
developed dossiers.

Policy debates emerged among energy bureaucrats and their intelligence
experts concerning the civil liberties problems posed by surveillance and
infiltration of those opposing nuclear power. But such second thoughts didn't
hamper the private sector, unhindered by regulations, congressional
oversight, and public skepticism. The Georgia Power Company, for example,
recruited former government agents to establish its own security apparatus.
Almost $1 million was spent spying on members of the region's anti-nuclear
groups, in concert with local police and right-wing groups. When criticized,
the company labeled as subversive "anyone who spoke out against Georgia

Spooks and anti-nukes were heading toward a confrontation. Philadelphia
Electric had its security crew photograph activists. Potomac Electric Power
Company built up an "anti" file on environmentalists. Pacific Gas and
Electric even sponsored burglaries. And finally, there was the case of Karen
Silkwood, a union activist who died in a suspicious car crash on her way to
meet a New York Times reporter about serious hazards at the Oklahoma
Kerr-McGee nuclear facility.

By 1976, federal energy agencies had their own counter-terrorist programs,
consolidated in an Information Assessment Team under the NRC. The Team would
compile and evaluate data in cooperation with other agencies. On May 27,
1976, the day it was launched, the new unit declared a Memorial Day alert.
Police and security forces near all nuclear plants were told that "two groups
may have plans to take over or occupy one or more nuclear power plants on
Memorial Day weekend."

Nothing happened that weekend. Yet, despite the basic nonviolence of the new
social movement against nuclear power, terrorism was fast becoming a
self-fulfilling prophecy. The FBI had established its justification years
earlier: the propensity for violence, rejection of law and order, and
revolutionary activity exists in almost any dissident group. This was
Hoover's Law. Any form of dissent therefore triggered an offensive response,
and some responses were clearly against the law.

The violation of civil liberties was not inadvertent. The Rosenbaum Report, a
1974 NRC study, had outlined a strategy that made infiltration an integral
part of government anti-terror efforts. Intelligence was seen as the key to
defense against nuclear power opponents, and "such intelligence may involve
electronic and other means of surveillance, but the most important aspect is
infiltration of the groups themselves."

In 1977, the US Department of State opened an Office to Combat Terrorism,
headed by Heyward Isham, a career diplomat who had just finished a tour as
ambassador to Haiti. Isham articulated what was fast becoming international
anti-terrorist policy -- no concessions and tighter communication between all
levels of government.

Increased demand for sophisticated anti-terror equipment -- computers,
surveillance devices and crisis management teams -- made counter-terrorism a
commercial proposition. The cost of admission for one security conference was
$4750, a price that included instruction in intelligence techniques. One of
the 12 classes featured "the use of external published sources; the use of
embassies and paid informants; what information should be gathered at the
local level and what at headquarters; and how this information should flow
within the overall company."

By this time, the distinction between an activist and a terrorist had become
quite blurred. The popular theory was that protest could provide a cover for
terrorism. Therefore, anyone who participated in a protest showed some
potential to become a political criminal. Assocation was more than enough.
Members of a terrorist conspiracy, much like participants in the
"international communist conspiracy," might be conscious enemies or unwitting
dupes. Their plots might be masterminded by criminal geniuses or Soviet

In April, 1977 the terrorist label was handy for New Hampshire Governor
Meldrim Thomson when the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance organized a massive
occupation of the Seabrook nuclear site. Reports that the occupation was a
"cover for terrorism" were provided by the pro-nuclear arm of the extremist
US Labor Party. Despite the prediction, fed by the Party to the State Police
-- and from there to the private utility, Thomson, and the conservative
Manchester Union Leader -- no hint of violence surfaced during the occupation
or arrest of over 1,400 people.

By the end of the year, however, nonviolent strategies were eclipsed by a
real "international terrorist" scare. An ex-Nazi industrialist, Hans Martin
Schleyer, had been kidnapped and killed. Supporters of the kidnappers
hijacked a Lufthansa flight, resulting in a bloody rescue by German
commandoes. This was followed by the unexplained "suicide" of three
Baader-Meinhof leaders in a maximum security prison. Anti-terrorist
preparedness had truly come of age.

In March, 1978 FBI Director Webster told the press that the Bureau was
girding itself for outbreaks of urban terrorism at home. Some politicians
felt that even infiltration of suspicious groups wouldn't be sufficient.
After all, the whole world was watching the latest melodrama -- the
kidnapping of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. In an
atmosphere of anger and anxiety, Congress considered an "omnibus
anti-terrorism" bill. At one Senate hearing, the FBI response to date was
called "weak" by several experts.

But the US public still wasn't convinced that the threat was imminent. In
recent years, people had witnessed more government misconduct than terrorist
violence. The Red Brigades seemed far away. US spooks hadn't yet
substantiated the claim that terrorism was gaining a foothold at home. Yet,
the intelligence community did have other "assets" that could help to make
the threat look real -- namely, a time-tested network of "reliable media
sources." In other words, they had journalists, some working legitimately for
news media, others on the government payroll. They cultivated their insider
ties and, in turn, were cultivated as "friendly media."

This was nothing new. The FBI had been using the media for years, placing
unfavorable stories and leaking lies. A tight bond had been built with large
dailies like the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. In Chicago, "friendly
media" helped to smear black nationalist groups on the radio and in print.
Sometimes reporters were unwittingly exploited, but very often they knew what
they were doing. They wrote stories that made FBI speculation sound like
fact. And, if challenged, they protected their sources.

These "friendly" journalists understood the power of words to shape public
opinion. In particular, they knew that a word like "terrorist" would strike a
deep emotional chord, perhaps even generating an irrational fear that could
become blind anger. Predictably, the word has been used with gusto ever since.

A Pretext for Aggression

By the mid-1980s, US citizens were being roused to a racist frenzy by
President Ronald Reagan, ready to face Libya, Nicaragua, and any other
"enemies" at high noon. At the same time, the transparency of the attempt to
assassinate Muammar Quaddafi and topple his government in 1986 brought the
ruthlessness of the administration into focus. But the worst was yet to come.
With public opinion temporarily captured (as it is immediately after most
disasters or military adventures), the regime sought to turn the new "Reagan
Doctrine" into law.

Terrorism became the excuse for a wide-range of repressive tactics, both
abroad and at home. The most heinous were proposed changes in the much
discussed but little used War Powers Act. US Senators Robert Dole and
Jeremiah Denton, prime sponsors of the initiative, wanted to give the
administration carte blanche to use "deadly force" against virtually any
enemy classified as a terrorist. Denton, who chaired the reincarnation of
the old Un-American Activities Committee -- known as the Subcommittee on
Terrorism and Security (SST) -- freely offered that if Quaddafi "became
deceased as a result of our counter-strike, that would have been within the
intent of the bill."

In short, the Republican administration, with tacit Democratic support, hoped
to make political assassination a "legal" part of US foreign policy.

And what was terrorism? According to the bill, it was "violent action by a
foreign individual or group, directed against Americans and intended to
intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or to influence government policy
through intimidation, coercion, kidnapping or assassination. Although this
was only the most recent attempt to create an enormous blanket for
"counterterror" activities, it was instructive. First, violence toward those
not privileged to be US citizens didn't qualify as terrorism, even though
many more might die. Second, it was "terrorist" to respond to the systematic
violence of the US military, or to attempt to influence this policy through
any form of force.

As one-sided as the definition was, however, it didn't offend the drugged
sensibilities of most people at the time. For years Americans had been told
that a collection of crazed Arabs and revolutionaries, under the shadowy
influence of the Kremlin, were hell bent on the slaughter of US citizens. By
the late 1970s more than half of US citizens were ready to sentence convicted
"terrorists" to death and grant broad authority to an international police
force of terrorist exterminators. Countless television programs,
documentaries, and books etched the common myth about the terrorist threat:
these were irrational, power-mad maniacs, "mad dogs" to be hunted down and

At home, the law enforcement and intelligence "communities" operated as if
urban terrorism in middle America was inevitable. One might not notice the
new security measures unless taking a plane or entering the country; and, at
the time, that was the point. This was another secret war. But the targets
this time were mainly American, all those classified as "sympathizers" or
"potential terrorists."

Denton's Terrorism Committee was an early warning sign of the new crackdown.
It helped spread fear of "Soviet-orchestrated terrorism," and was combined
with new presidential orders unleashing the CIA to conduct covert operations
in the US, and reducing access to government information. Reagan's favorite
think-tank, the Heritage Foundation, summed it up this way in a report to the
administration; "It is axiomatic that individual liberties are secondary to
the requirement of national security and internal civil order." Its advice,
followed scrupulously through most of the 1980s, was to investigate
"clergymen, students, businessmen, entertainers, labor officials, journalists
and government workers who may engage in subversive activities without being
fully aware of the extent, purpose or control of their activities."

To a large extent, terrorism was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the case of
Libya, the Reagan administration identified the Arab republic as a target of
opportunity through which the president could prove his willingness to "take
one of their pieces" off the geopolitical board. A dogfight over the Gulf of
Sidra was an early step, followed by Reagan's warnings that "terrorist
attacks" would be answered by actions against Libya, Nicaragua, North Korea,
Cuba, or the PLO. He later added Syria and Iran to the list.

Meanwhile, the FBI continued to use terrorism as the justification for covert
actions directed against social movements. According to Bureau and Reaganite
logic, the propensity for violence, rejection of law and order, and
revolutionary activity still existed in almost any dissident group. Thus, any
dissent could trigger offensive responses. In the past, such activities had
been against the law; under Reagan they were largely "legalized."

Terrorism ultimately became a household word, emblazoned across newspapers
and newscasts on a daily basis. After the Berlin Disco bombing, major media
disseminated the unsubstantiated claim of Libyan involvement with the same
uncritical attitude that marked a so-called Nicaraguan "invasion' of
Honduras. Each claim served the administration's short-term needs: to create
a temporary climate of public opinion in support of aggression. There was no
solid evidence that the claims against either Nicaragua or Libya were true,
but constant repetition of the official line successfully convinced millions
that Arab and Latin American "terrorists" should be bombed into surrender.

So pervasive was the terror scare that even Vermont's generally dovish
congressional delegation unanimously endorsed the Libyan bombing. Patrick
Leahy blamed it on European inaction, Sen. Robert Stafford, a moderate
Republican, said circumstances made it necessary, and Rep. James Jeffords, a
GOP maverick at the time, argued that "when the President takes these kinds
of actions we have to support him." Even Burlington's socialist mayor,
Bernie Sanders, was halfway on the bandwagon, calling Quaddafi an "evil
manipulator" while questioning mainly whether the attack would reduce

Selective Memory

Certainly, there's much political violence in the world, and some of it is
what Edward Herman has called "retail terror." But once you penetrate
official rhetoric, it becomes clear that US surrogates have been the primary
retail and state terrorists. Orlando Bosch and his anti-communist Cubans,
trained and supported by the CIA, were responsible for hundreds of bombings
and murders in the 70s and 80s. Authoritarian regimes in Chile, Argentina,
South Africa and elsewhere, all with US support, were also responsible for
systematic murder and torture. But these governments were never labeled

Nor were attacks by US agencies on the Black Panthers, Native Americans, and
leftists ever acknowledged as applications of "state terrorism" at home. The
Orwellian nature of US life prohibits the establishment from calling state
violence by its true name.

And let's not forget how "terrorists" like Osama bin Laden get their start.
Up to the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, for example, the US considered Saddam
Hussein an attractive partner. As Reagan's National Security chief for the
Middle East put it, "We knew he was an SOB, but he was our SOB." Thus, the US
prevented UN action against Iraq's war with Iran, supporting it for eight
years. Reagan even removed Iraq from the list of terror states, advancing
export credits and increasing oil imports. In 1986, strains of anthrax and
botulinum were shipped to the University of Baghdad with US Commerce
Department approval.

Both Reagan and Bush also blocked congressional censure of Iraq's human
rights abuses, opposing anything that would interfere with business deals or
its military buildup. Bush approved billions in loan guarantees, even though
they were obviously being used on missile projects. US ballistic missile
technology was secretly provided, along with export licenses for "dual-use
items," raw materials for mustard gas, and chemicals needed for weapons.
Computers were supplied for the Saad 16 research center, later bombed as a
rocket and poison gas development site. The favors continued up to the day
Bush declared Saddam our latest Hitler.

In short, the US and others not only supported Iraq but also armed it,
providing precisely the weapons used later as the justification for war and
murderous sanctions. Even after Gulf War I, the US watched quietly as
rebelling Kurds were slaughtered. The continued regime of a brutal dictator
was apparently preferable to a popular revolution. After all, the region
might be "destabilized" if the Kurds won their autonomy, inspiring Kurdish
communities in Turkey and Syria.

Later, of course, the US was hot to inspect every nook and cranny of Iraq for
signs of the weapons it helped create. Meanwhile, Congress considered
legislation to prevent similar inspection of its own chemical weapons
stockpiles. The idea was to let the president deny access to "sensitive"
sites and inspectors from hostile countries. When the same argument was used
by Baghdad, it was called an outrage. Many US officials even considered a
Chemical Weapons Treaty an intrusion on national sovereignty.

One final point: Although much is said about the deadly potential of
so-called "rogue states," the US clearly holds the record for mass
destruction. It began with the nuclear weapons used on Japan, and continued
in the Persian Gulf with the first-time use of more than 300 tons of depleted
uranium shells. In all, over 140,000 tons of explosives, the equivalent to
seven nuclear bombs, were used to destroy Iraq's environment and
infrastructure. Since then, a suffocating blockade has claimed the lives of
over a million civilians, mostly children. According to UN agencies, more
than two million kids suffer from severe malnutrition.

So, Saddam is surely a dictator and bin Laden probably masterminded the
latest attacks. But the US has done far more damage over the years. To
paraphrase old saying: those who live in glass houses shouldn't start wars.

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom, a progressive world affairs
magazine based in Vermont.

Also available:

Nexus of Infamy: Looking for answers to the tragedy of 9-11 (900 words)
Empire Under Attack: On the Coming Crackdown (850 words)
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