NATIONAL COMMISSION ON TERRORISM REPORT: BACKGROUND AND ISSUES FOR CONGRESS
CRS Report for Congress
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National Commission on Terrorism Report:
Background and Issues for Congress
Raphael F. Perl
Specialist in International Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On June 5, 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism (NTC), a congressionally
mandated bi-partisan body, issued a report providing a blueprint for U.S. counter-
terrorism policy with both policy and legislative recommendations. The report could be
significant in shaping the direction of U.S. policy and the debate in Congress. It
generally argues for a more aggressive U.S. strategy in combating terrorism. Critics,
however, argue that NTC conclusions and recommendations ignore competing U.S.
goals and interests; i.e that a proactive strategy might lead to the curbing of individual
rights and liberties, damage important commercial interests, and widen disagreements
between the U.S. and its allies over using the “stick” as opposed to the “carrot” approach
in dealing with states that actively support or countenance terrorism.
The NTC report is likely to stimulate strong congressional interest in
counterterrorism policy in the 107th Congress. Likely areas of focus are (1) a more
proactive counterterrorism policy; (2) a stronger state sanctions policy; and (3) a more
cohesive/better coordinated U.S. federal counterterrorism response. January 23, 2001
press reports indicate that Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla) has urged House Speaker Dennis
Hastert to create a House Select Committee on Domestic Terrorism. In the 106th
Congress, H.R. 4210, which passed the House, would also give added attention to
domestic terrorism by establishing a President’s Council on Domestic Preparedness in
the White House. Moreover, in the 106th Congress, S. 3205, the (Kyl-Feinstein)
Counteterrrorism Act of 2000, which passed the Senate, incorporated a number of
recommendations of the NTC including measures to ensure (1) enhanced policy emphasis
on control of biological pathogens and terrorist funding raising; (2) better sharing of FBI
intelligence; (3) easier recruitment of CIA counter-terrorism informants; and (4)
maintaining Syria and Iran on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. This report will
not be updated.
Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress
Combating terrorism has emerged as one of the most important U.S. foreign policy
and national security priorities. The number of terrorist groups is reportedly growing and
the technology to inflict mass casualties is becoming more readily available. The United
States and other cooperating nations confront four major tasks, namely, (1)
deterring/identifying terrorists and their sponsors/supporters, (2) weakening terrorist
financial and other infrastructures, (3) hardening potential targets, and (4) containing
damage in the aftermath of terrorist incidents.
The 105th Congress, in response to what is seen as a growing terrorist threat, created
the ten-person, bi-partisan National Commission on Terrorism to evaluate U.S. laws,
policies, and practices for preventing and punishing terrorism aimed at U.S. citizens (P.L.
105-277). The resulting NTC report, Countering the Changing Threat of International
Terrorism, was issued on June 5, 2000. It calls on the U.S. government to prepare more
actively to prevent and deal with a future mass casualty, catastrophic terrorist attack.
The report advocates: (1) using full, and what can be characterized as proactive,
intelligence and law enforcement authority to collect intelligence regarding terrorist plans
and methods; (2) targeting firmly — and with sanctions — all states that support
terrorists; (3) disrupting non-governmental sources of terrorists’ support — especially
financial and logistical; (4) enhancing planning and preparation to respond to terrorist
attacks involving biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear materials; and (5) creating
stronger mechanisms to ensure that funding for individual agency counterterrorism
programs reflects priorities integrated into a comprehensive national counterterrorism plan
subject to congressional oversight.
The report suggests that the United States is drifting away from a strong policy of
combating state support of international terrorism and is generally too passive and not
proactive enough in combating a threat that is becoming more deadly, diffuse, and difficult
to detect. Implicit in the report is the suggestion that the United States, by drifting away
from a strong policy to combat state support of international terrorism, may well be
encouraging more terrorism. In citing incidences of such a drift in policy, the report
suggests there is a softening of U.S. positions on Iran and Syria and points to a perceived
U.S. weakness in not aggressively confronting Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups. It
also notes U.S. failure to use sanctions, or the threat thereof, in response to Greece’s
inactivity/reluctance to investigate and prosecute terrorist activity — inaction by Greece
which is portrayed as tantamount to complicity. While recognizing the growing danger
posed by lone-wolf terrorists and loosely affiliated private transnational groups, the report
intimates that U.S. policy may be too heavily focused on Usama Bin Laden.
Highlights of the Report
Areas addressed in the report’s recommendations include the following:
!Expanding sanctions on state sponsors/uncooperative nations
Greece and Pakistan. The report notes that “Greece has been disturbingly
passive in response to terrorist activities.” It comments that since 1975 there have been
146 terrorist attacks against Americans or American interests in Greece with only one case
being solved and no meaningful investigation into the others. The report cites examples
of past Pakistani anti-terrorism cooperation but stresses that “Pakistan provides safehaven,
transit, and moral, political, and diplomatic support to several groups engaged in
terrorism” (in Kashmir).
The NTC recommends that the President consider imposing sanctions against Greece
and Pakistan under provisions of U.S. law (P.L.104-132) that limit arms sales to countries
not “fully cooperating” with the U.S. on anti-terrorism efforts. Enactment of legislation
making countries which have been designated as not “fully cooperating” with U.S.
counterterrorism efforts ineligible for the U.S. visa waiver program is also called for. In
general, the Commission recommends expanding the broad use of sanctions to include, not
just state sponsors, but nations not fully cooperating. Currently, U.S. law also requires the
withholding of foreign assistance to nations providing lethal military assistance to nations
on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism — a little-known provision of P.L.104-132,
but one that the Administration has used to help persuade some countries not to provide
arms to terrorist list states.
Iran. The report expresses concern that U.S. efforts to signal support for political
reform in Iran could be misinterpreted in Iran or by U.S. allies as a weakening of resolve
on counterterrorism. The report calls for the President to make no further concessions to
Iran and to keep Iran on the terrorism sponsors list until it ceases to support terrorism and
cooperates fully in the investigation of the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing which
resulted in the death of U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia. It also calls upon the President
to actively seek support from U.S. allies to compel Iranian cooperation in the Khobar
Syria. The report recommends that the President make it clear that Syria will remain
on the state sponsors list until it shuts down terrorist training camps in Syria and the Bekaa
valley and prohibits resupply of terrorist groups through Syrian controlled territory.
Afghanistan. The report notes that the United States has not designated
Afghanistan as a state sponsor of terrorism because it does not recognize the Taliban
regime. Nevertheless, it recommends designating Afghanistan as state sponsor and
imposing sanctions against the Kabul regime.
!Role of the Armed Forces
Under extraordinary circumstances when a catastrophic event is beyond the
capabilities of local, state, and other federal agencies, or is directly related to an armed
conflict overseas, the report suggests that the President may want to consider designating
the Department of Defense (DoD) as the lead federal agency for the government’s
response in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The report calls for
detailed contingency plans for the Defense Department’s role, which could include transfer
of command authority to the Pentagon, in the event of a catastrophic event where the
command and control, logistical, communications and specialized ability of the military to
respond to chemical/biological/radiological incidents would be required. The Commission
believes that advance planning is the best way to prevent curtailment of individual liberties
in a weapons of mass destruction scenario.
!Enhancing foreign student visa data retrieval capability
Critics of current Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) student visa status
tracking mechanisms often refer to them as being in the “stone age.” In a move which has
been characterized as an effort to “substitute computers for shoeboxes,” the report
recommends expanding an existing computerized pilot program designed to facilitate data
retrieval capability to more efficiently monitor the immigration/visa status of students from
abroad. This would facilitate access to whereabouts of students from terrorist-list
countries and could “flag” a student from such a country who suddenly changes majors
from a field such as art to biochemistry or nuclear physics. The report notes that one of
the convicted terrorists involved in the World Trade Center bombing entered the U.S. on
a student visa, dropped out and remained illegally thereafter.
!Full use of law enforcement and intelligence authority
The report recommends that existing CIA guidelines restricting recruitment of
unsavory (criminal) sources not apply to recruiting counterterrorism sources. Also
recommended is that the FBI guidelines governing criteria for investigating suspected
terrorists or groups be clarified to permit full use of legal authorities including the
authority to conduct electronic surveillance.
!Expulsion of suspected terrorists
Expulsion of suspected terrorists can be a touchy civil liberties issue. In a move
designed to minimize what some see as past governmental abuse in expulsion cases
handled by INS procedures, the report recommends use of the Alien Terrorist Removal
Court (ATRC) (created by Congress in 1996 by section 401 of P.L. 104-132, but
heretofore unused) to expel terrorists from the United States in instances where criminal
prosecution is not possible. This process contains safeguards designed to protect national
security and classified evidence (sources and methods), but also accords the accused the
right to challenge such evidence.
!National terrorism response exercises
The report recommends that senior federal government officials involved in
responding to a catastrophic terrorist threat or incident be required to participate in
national response exercises every year to test capabilities and coordination.
The report calls on the Secretary of State to take the lead in developing an
international convention aimed at harmonizing national laws, sharing information,
providing early warning, and establishing accepted procedures for conducting international
investigations of cybercrime.
!Counterterrorism budget process
The report recommends that the senior National Security Council (NSC) official in
charge of coordinating overall U.S. counterterrorism efforts be given a stronger hand in
the budget process and that Congress develop a mechanism for comprehensive review of
this process and consolidate the process in fewer committees.
Issues for Congress
Protecting civil liberties, while effectively combating terrorism, remains a strong area
of concern in Congress. A number of the Commission’s recommendations have drawn
sharp criticism from civil libertarian and Arab-American groups. This is especially true of
those recommendations which relate to (1) enhancing intelligence gathering; (2)
modernizing retrieval capability of databases which monitor the visa status of foreign
students; (3) expulsion of suspected terrorists; and (4) contingency planning for an active
military role (including a possible lead role) in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack
on U.S. soil. In addition, it is interesting to note that although the Commission’s report
addresses an impressive array of counterterrorism issues, the list of issues examined is less
than exhaustive, leaving a few complex, unresolved, and potentially “prickly” issues
unaddressed. These issues would seem to warrant additional congressional attention.
!Civil Liberties Concerns
In democracies such as the United States, the constitutional limits within which policy
must operate are sometimes seen to conflict with a desire to more effectively secure the
lives of citizens against terrorist activity. Combating terrorism requires government
activity designed to gather information on, and restrict the activities of, individual
terrorists and groups seeking to engage in direct or indirect terrorist activity. The greater
the magnitude of any such acts, the greater the pressure on societal institutions to provide
security for their citizens. A challenge facing the policy community is how — in a growing
age of globalization, deregulation, democracy and individual freedom — to institute
regulatory and monitoring mechanisms which help deter, identify, and track terrorists and
generally hinder their operations. Implicit in the reasoning of the Commission’s report is
that combating terrorism — particularly in the wake of a mass casualty catastrophic
incident — may require restrictions on individual liberties. The assumption is that carefully
planned and measured restrictions in advance of a catastrophic incident coupled with well
thought out contingency planning for a constructive military role in the aftermath of an
incident constitute an effective way of preserving, and not diminishing, individual liberties
and democratic freedoms and institutions.
The report is noteworthy for what it does not address as well as for what it addresses.
Areas not covered in the Commission’s report but dealt with by other panels or expert
advisory groups include (1) U.S. embassy security (1999 Overseas Advisory Panel
Report); (2) security of U.S. military installations overseas (1996 Downing Commission
Khobar Towers Report); and (3) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) disaster
consequence management (1999 Gilmore Commission Report).
Issues within the purview of the Commission’s mandate, but not addressed in its
report or in the reports cited above include:
(1)Who should be in charge of U.S. counterterrorism policy, and what are the best
organizational mechanisms for policy formulation and implementation;
(2)How does one effectively utilize the gamut of tools available to policymakers
to combat terrorism: i.e., public diplomacy, economic and political sanctions,
covert action, military force, and international cooperation and agreements;
(3)How does one prioritize for budget purposes whatever is viewed as an
appropriate mix of counterterrorism resources to facilitate assuring that
important components are neither short-changed or overfunded depending on
(4)How effective are sanctions and military force as policy tools; how might their
use be improved; and how are commercial interests balanced in the equation.
For example, how might sanctions be fine tuned or graduated to enhance their
effectiveness and make their imposition more likely;
(5)What is an appropriate role for covert operations in a proactive
counterterrorism policy (should the U.S. ban on assassinations be reviewed);
(6)How can one insure that the best international talent joins forces to enhance
technological research and development efforts to support counterterrorism
(7)What role, if any, should the media assume in a proactive counterterrorism
Also absent from the report, which largely focuses on the “stick” approach to
combating terrorism, are suggestions for use of expanded “carrot”options which may
moderate the behavior of rogue states or terrorist groups. Supporters of these types of
incentives argue that they facilitate achievement of antiterrrorist goals without
compromising core values or principles, and without giving in to the demands of terrorists.
These approaches include options such as constructive engagement, creative foreign aid
or trade packages, or expanded use of rewards for information programs.
For example, if U.S. trade with China is deemed to produce a moderating effect on
China’s rogue human rights policy, supporters of the “carrot” approach might argue that
trade with Libya could have a moderating effect on that nation’s rogue terrorism policy.
Answers are far from clear, but pursuit of innovative “carrot”-oriented options, coupled
with a strong “stick” approach, may, or may not, produce varying degrees of success in
dealing with such groups as the IRA and PLO. And many still suggest that use of such
options may well produce positive results with countries that seem to be moving in a
positive direction such as Iran.
The National Commission on Terrorism’s report and recommendations on countering
the changing threat of international terrorism are likely to spur strong congressional
interest in counterterrorism policy during the 107th Congress. The most likely areas of
scrutiny include: (1) more productive counterterrorism policies and mindsets; (2)
enhanced use of legislative authority to impose sanctions on states that support or actively
countenance terrorism, and (3) methods of achieving a more cohesive, better coordinated
federal counterterrorism effort through enhanced budget coordination mechanisms.