HIGHER TECHNOLOGY TERRORISM (Senate - February 26, 1990)

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Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, recently I was invited to speak to a meeting of anti-terrorism experts at the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA. The threat of international, state-sponsored terrorist attacks in the United States is of serious concern to me. Many experts in this area agree that there is a need for the United States to be much better prepared to defend itself against sophisticated terrorists exploiting high technology to attack us here at home. The Senate should be doing more to draw attention to this threat to our security.

I ask that my remarks to this seminar be printed in the Record.

The remarks follow:

International Terrorism: The Threat to the United States


Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is a pleasure to participate in this seminar on the threat of high technology terrorism to the United States.

This is a subject of special concern to me. In the summer and fall of 1988, I held two hearings specifically on high tech terrorism and the risks it poses to the United States. One of my main witnesses was Buck Revell, of the FBI.

In our first hearing we reviewed the nature and scope of the threat. What we heard from all our witnesses was sobering.

There was a consensus that it is only a matter of time before international terrorism strikes us at home. And these terrorists are not likely to be `down at the heels' fringe radicals. They will be well supported by terrorist states like Libya, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

There was also wide agreement that when it comes here, international terrorism is likely to be much more sophisticated in its methods and weapons than we have seen to date.

I have seen nothing in the eighteen months since those hearings to alter these conclusions.

The second hearing concentrated on how prepared we are to cope with this high tech terrorism threat. We looked at some illustrative high tech terrorism scenarios, and worked through how the Administration would deal with them.

Despite some important steps inside the Executive branch to improve intelligence collection, strengthen coordination and do contingency planning, I came away from those hearings deeply concerned that we were not yet ready as a government to deal with a terrorist threat directed against us.

Let me cite just one example.

We looked at a hypothetical scenario in which the US Government had intelligence that terrorists were planning to shoot down an American airliner in revenge for the accidental destruction of the Iranian Airbus by the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf.

I pressed the Administration witnesses on how we would handle such advance intelligence. Would we go public and alert the traveling public, with all the likely hysteria that would cause? Or would we withhold the information to prevent panic?

The ambiguous, evasive nonresponses made me uneasy. I was concerned that the Government in fact was not thinking through how we would respond to this kind of situation. I feared this might be symptomatic of a broader unwillingness to face up to the hard policy dilemmas inherent in preparing for international terrorism aimed directly at us.

And within three months, that scenario happened for real.

In December 1988, using a sophisticated, difficult-to-detect device in a tape recorder, terrorists destroyed Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Scores of Americans and others died.

In the Pan Am 103 case, the U.S. Government did have certain forewarning of a terrorist threat aimed at an American airline, and using just the type of device which blew up Pan Am 103. Yet, confusion, uncertainty and bureaucratic caution prevailed in that case, as it did in the discussion before my committee in September 1988.

I do not want to dwell on that tragedy. But, I hope you and your colleague are now trying to think through this particular problem of a workable public information policy on terrorist threats.

The point I want to make is that despite a lot of talk and a lot of planning, the failure to have a workable public information policy about terrorism underscores that we still have not got ourselves truly ready for what is likely to be a major long term threat to the security of the United States.

We offer an inviting, highly vulnerable target to the sophisticated international terrorist.

The United States is a society totally dependent on interlocking networks and nodes for communications, transportation, energy transmission, financial transactions, and essential government and public services. Disruption of key nodes by terrorists could cause havoc, untold expense, and perhaps even mass deaths.

We are, in the jargon of the trade, a `target-rich environment.'

As my hearings revealed in 1988, the experts in the FBI, DoE, FEMA, the State Department and other agencies are aware of this vulnerability, accept the probability of international terrorism seeking to exploit technology against us, and are doing what they can to deter, defeat and recover from such attacks. Important actions are being taken at the working level in the key agencies in contingency planning for nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism incidents.

For example, I am impressed by the joint task forces of national, state, and local law enforcement, intelligence and emergency response agencies which have been formed under FBI leadership.

It is also very significant that the FBI, DoE, FEMA and other agencies now assign a high priority to preparing for a nuclear terrorist incident. Work is also being done to prepare for what is probably far more likely, a major terrorist action involving chemical or biological agents.

Coordination, collection and sharing of intelligence, pooling of resources, both at the national and local level, and contingency planning are vastly improved over the last five years.

So, I do not want to convey the impression that we in Congress believe little is being done. Merely that not enough is being done.

However, as one who has taken more than a passing interest in this subject, I have to stress that I do not yet feel we are ready pyschologically to cope when international terrorism hits us at home. The mishandling of the Lockerbie tragedy is a warning sign.

Despite a lot of rhetoric--which we do not even hear much anymore--I sense that many political leaders in this country do not seriously believe there is a real and present danger of international terrorism in the United States.

Given our national predeliction for being energized by what is in the news today, maybe this complacency is understandable. Through a combination of luck and skill and hard work by the FBI and other agencies, we have thus far had only relatively minor international terrorism incidents at home.

But, to think luck and skill will protect us indefinitely is to live in a fool's paradise.

I think there really is dangerous complacency at the highest levels of our government on this terrorism issue. The pressure we saw two years ago from the Reagan Administration to work with the Congress to forge a strong policy to deal with international terrorism at home is no longer there.

When international terrorism strikes here, I do not think it will be limited to a pipe bomb here or a shooting there. It will be state sponsored terrorists, supported and abetted by intelligence services, national treasuries, embassies and diplomatic pouches. They will strike at us in ever more sophisticated, high tech attacks, exploiting our vulnerabilities and threatening mass destruction. Their aim will be to force changes in our foreign policy or to humiliate us, or to seek revenge.

So, I welcome discussions like this one today. More planning, more coordination, and more work by the experts is certainly necessary, and I commend you for it.

But I would feel a lot more comfortable if I saw real national leadership in pushing for more resources, more high level policy debate, and more sustained attention to the international terrorist threat.

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