The National Commission on Terrorism was charged by Congress with
proposing measures that would make the United States safer. But the
recommendations in its recently released report instead create new
dangers for core American values.
These recommendations include more wiretaps on Americans, using the
Army to replace civilian law enforcement, encouraging the CIA to employ
known human rights abusers and terrorists and stigmatizing foreign
students who switch their majors to science.
The overall thrust of the commission's report is this: Give the
federal government a strengthened national security state apparatus aimed
primarily at individuals and oblivious to their legal rights. Most of
what is proposed would damage civil liberties without providing any
obvious increase in security or even addressing the serious challenges
demonstrated by this country's experience with terrorism.
For example, the report strangely is silent about measures to increase
security at U.S. facilities overseas, sites where several of the most
dramatic terrorist attacks occurred, such as at the U.S. embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania and at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. It also
fails to define terrorism or identify its likely perpetrators.
Instead, the report relies on extremely general statistical
observations, such as a supposed increase over the last 10 years in
average casualties per terrorist incident--although how this would help
plan against terrorist acts is unclear. Much of the report also dwells
not on the pattern of real incidents at home and abroad in recent years
but on the possibility of terrorist attacks using weapons of mass
destruction. The report admits that it is "difficult to predict the
likelihood" of such an attack yet makes this a centerpiece of its
The commission suggests radical measures, some of which would overturn
core principles and deeply established traditions of American democracy.
It calls for the armed forces to be designated the lead federal agency
for law enforcement and disaster management in case of a "catastrophic
attack," which it does not define, even before such an attack actually
occurs. The tradition of separating the military from domestic law
enforcement is deeply rooted in the United States--and for good reason.
Soldiers are not organized, trained or oriented toward the rule of law,
especially where the rights of individuals are concerned. While we have
seen the increasing militarization of law enforcement and repeated
efforts to create a domestic role for the armed forces, if Americans
allow the Army to become the police, citizens' rights will inevitably
The commission calls for information on all international students to
be collected and monitored, not only for visa status, but for academic
interest. The report suggests that it is sinister for foreign students to
change their majors from English to physics. Such information is
obviously of no help in thwarting a terrorist attack, but it would allow
the U.S. government to identify young scientists based on their national
origin and single them out for long-term surveillance. Such measures
would have a chilling effect on university life and flout principles of
academic freedom and the universality of scientific knowledge.
It is high time we reasserted the principle that law enforcement
should focus solely on criminal behavior and conspiracy, and not on
anybody's lawful, 1st Amendment-protected political, religious or
The report encourages the FBI to wiretap more Americans and the CIA to
employ the most unsavory characters. There is no acknowledgment of the
"blowback" phenomenon, unintended consequences from excessive CIA covert
operations and consorting with thugs and killers. The commission seems
blissfully unaware that much of the terrorism it cites as most troubling
can be seen as direct fallout from the massive CIA covert war against the
Soviets in Afghanistan, in which figures such as Omar Abdel Rahman
(blamed for the World Trade Center bombing) and Osama bin Laden (blamed
for the embassy bombings in Africa) were nurtured and promoted by our own
Terrorism requires a more creative approach to deal with unexpected
scenarios. Unfortunately, anyone who disagrees with the prevalent
thinking is accused of being soft on terrorism if not an outright
One of the authors of this piece, Salam Al-Marayati, was nominated to
this commission last year, only to have his nomination withdrawn after
protests from Zionist organizations. It is clear now what the reasoning
was for the expulsion: He represents that dissenting voice calling for a
need to enhance social engagement in the Arab and Muslim worlds and to
explore the root causes of terrorism. That voice of dissent needs to be
heard for a serious counterterrorism policy to have any chance of
Instead, the commission's new Cold Warriors would encourage a return
to reckless CIA activities that, in the long run, have harmed Americans
and damaged the national interest.
Benjamin Franklin long ago warned Americans that those who would
sacrifice their liberty to gain temporary security deserve neither. The
National Commission on Terrorism proposes we begin to do exactly that,
and its recommendations should be vehemently rejected.
As another great American, Dorothy Parker, might have put it, this
report is not a document to be cast aside lightly; it should be flung
with full force across the room.
Hussein Ibish Is Communications Director for the American-arab Anti-discrimination Committee. Salam Al-marayati Is Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Based in Los Angeles.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times