THE FINAL REPORT OF THE NATIONAL COMMISSION on terrorist attacks upon the United States (the 9/11 commission) focused on the history of US counterterrorism policy in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The sense that one gets from much of the new literature on US efforts against terrorism is that what went on before 1998 was passive and reflected a belief that terrorism was more a criminal matter than an intelligence challenge. Curiously, even Vice President Dick Cheney, who dealt with terrorism in three different administrations, furthered this particular impression in comments made during the 2004 election. But in fact, the truth is that the US got to be very good at counterterrorism in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the more interesting question is why it didn't do better against al Qaeda.
The story of US efforts against international terrorism begins with the radicalization of Yasser Arafat's Fatah guerrilla movement following the Six Day War of 1967. When Palestinians attempted to hijack four planes simultaneously in September 1970-a feat not achieved until al Qaeda did it in September 2001-the Nixon administration responded with the first US federal antiterrorism measures. Air marshals were posted to some international flights and metal detectors appeared at the nation's airports. In January 1973, following a harrowing domestic hijacking involving a Southern air flight that, among other places, was rerouted to Toronto, the Nixon administration mandated 100 percent screening of passengers and carry-on bags. In the Ford administration, one saw the first work on preventing nuclear terrorism. Until the 1970s, the transportation of plutonium and enriched uranium acquired armed protection for the first time and the Atomic Energy Commission established NESTs-nuclear emergency search teams, comprising 200 specialists in nuclear detection, recovery, and protection. All of these measures, however, involved passive security.
It is not until the Reagan administration that the US adopted the strategy of counterterrorism. There were no effective CIA covert operations launched against Middle Eastern terrorist groups in the 1970s, this despite the fact that the PLO's Black September group killed the US ambassador and another embassy official in the Sudan in 1973 and terrorists killed the US ambassador and one other diplomat in Lebanon in 1976. US policy was to use diplomacy to encourage Palestinians to seek a political solution to their grievances. The CIA offered a back channel for discussions between Arafat and both the Nixon and Ford administration. And although stated US policy was to give no concessions to terrorists, in practice Washington always negotiated and often asked Israel to release PLO prisoners to satisfy terrorist requests. There was an interagency working group on counterterrorism which met regularly from October 1972 on, but it operated at a low level. In resolutely hierarchical Washington, deputy assistant secretaries and below are not that important and that is where this group operates. Indeed, the Ford administration tried to insulate the president from these low-level CT types because terrorism was viewed as a losing issue for a president. There was nothing that could be done about it, so it was best not to associate him too much with it.
All of this would only change in Reagan's second term, which brought the United States government's first brush with aggressive counterterrorism. It is a period easily forgotten, but one which produced remarkably positive achievements. Those achievements were remembered by Richard Clarke and the other top participants in the hunt for bin Laden just before September 11th and remain a useful standard by which to judge current efforts against al Qaeda .
On 27 December 1985, terrorists from the Abu Nidal organization (AND) fired machine guns at the El Al ticket counters at the Vienna and Rome airports. Sixteen people were killed and more than 110 injured. …