The Omnibus Antiterrorism Act

Report Terrorism

The Omnibus Antiterrorism Act

September 28, 1978 9 min read
Samuel Francis
Distinguished Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)


September 28, 1978


On October 25, 1977, Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) intro- duced S.2236 "the Omnibus Antiterrorism Act of 1977." The bill was referred to the Senate Committees on Governmental Affairs, Foreign Relations, Commerce, Science and Transportation, and to the Select Committee on Intelligence, which reported it to the floor. In the House, an analogous bill, H.R.13387, was introduced by Congressman Glenn M. Anderson (D-Calif.) and referred to the Committees on Pub- lic Works and Transportation, the Judiciary, and International Re- lations. Subcommittees of each of these Committees have reported favorably on the bill.


The purpose of the bill is "to effect certain reorganization of the Federal Government to strengthen Federal programs and poli- cies for combating international and domestic terrorism." The principal provisions are as follows: 1. The bill requires the President to submit to Congress an annual report on acts of international terrorism. The report will describe the incident and the identities of each individual, group, and organ- ization involved as well as governments involved in providing state support for the act, and the U.S. response to the act.

2. The bill requires the President to submit an annual List of States Supporting International Terrorism to the Congress. The President may remove states from this List by a formal request to the Congress. The Congress may prevent their removal by a Con- current resolution. 3. The bill provides definitions of "International Terrorism" and "State Support of International Terrorism" in Section 3(a) and 3(b).

4. The bill provides for unilateral sanctions against the states on the above-named list. Such states shall be deprived of all assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961; shall be for- bidden to purchase any defense article or service defined by Section 47 of the Arms Control and Export Act; shall be forbidden export licenses for the purchase of goods and data enhancing their military capabilities or their ability to support international terrorism. Also, the nationals of or foreign nationals sponsored by such states shall not be allowed entry to the U.S. for military education or training or training in nuclear science or in studies of military applicability.

5. The President may suspend these sanctions if he judges that they are not in the interests of national security and if he con- sults with the appropriate committees of Congress.

6. The bill requires the President to report biennially for eight years to Congress on the Federal and International Capabilities to Combat Terrorism, and includes detailed instructions on the contents of the Report.

7. The bill directs the Secretary of Transportation to periodically assess the security measures of foreign airports trafficking with the U.S. and to report to Congress on the deficiencies of their security. The Secretary shall notify the authorities of such air- ports of their deficiencies and recommend counter-measures. If effective counter-measures are not adopted within 60 days, the Secretary may place limits on their utilization by air carriers.

8. The bill provides that the Secretary of Transportation is en- abled to provide technical assistance for aviation security to foreign airports and authorizes $100,000 for FY 1980, 1981, and 1982 for this purpose.

9. The bill establishes priorities for assuring more effective international cooperation in combating terrorism and for effective observance of the Hague, Montreal, and New York Conventions on the security of aviation. 10. The bill extends existing measures for aviation security. This includes the requirement of identification and detection taggants. in all explosives manufactured, exported, imported, or distributed in the U.S. within one to three years. Furthermore, the President is directed to implement the Montreal Convention, and new measures are enacted to combat aircraft sabotage and piracy, conveying false information and threats, and the violation of the security of nu- clear material information. DISCUSSION OF THE BILL

The Omnibus Antiterrorism Bill grows out of an increasing con- cern on the part of American public leaders over the escalation of terrorism in the past few years. It was not long ago that terrorism appeared to be a transient phenomenon associated with the Middle East or with unstable Third World countries. The rise of aircraft terrorism and hijackings in Europe and America in the late 1960's and early 1970's and the formation of ruthless and well-organized cadres such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, a variety of Palestinian groups operating in the West, and the emergence of terrorist threats in the United States have led legislators to assess the degree to which Americans are exposed to terrorist violence. (For an analysis of recent terrorist organizations and activities, see Heritage Backgrounders nos. 47 "The Terrorist International and Western Europe" and 59, "Terrorism in America: The Developing Internal Security Crisis.")

S.2236 reflects the concern with terrorist violence and the recognition of the need for antiterrorist programs at the federal level and on an international level as well. By providing for new machinery of both an investigatory and punitive nature, it is argued, the bill meets-the needs of American public safety and inter- national security. Some legislators and critics have objected to the bill on the grounds that its provisions are too vague or do not go far enough. While they recognize the need for a stronger anti-terrorist policy on the part of the U.S. government, these critics have disagreed with the approach of the Ribicoff bill.


The critics argue that the basic strategy of the bill is en- tirely defensive. The only measures directed against terrorist activities are those that aim to protect against them, penalizing their perpetrators and imposing sanctions against their allies. Such measures, while necessary, cannot be sufficient for anti- terrorist operations. Modern terrorism is a highly disciplined and well organized phenomenon. What lies at the heart of terrorism as it has been developed in recent years is not the actual "hit team" or "action cadre" that executes the terrorist violence but the covert planning and coordination of operations that precedes the attack, often for several months, and which involves a con- siderable number of persons. In order to plan such an action, it is necessary to travel frequently, to use large sums of money, and often to commit crimes which are ancillary to the main targets of the terrorists (robberies, smuggling, currency violations, firearms laws violations, and false identification, for example). These techniques of terrorism necessarily expose its potential weakness. It is possible with adequate intelligence and infiltra- tion for the authorities to follow terrorist movements and to apprehend them before a major attack is executed. Necessary tools for this type of intelligence are such standard methods of inves- tigation as wiretapping, mail coverage and inspection, the place- ment of informants within terrorist and extremist organizations, and personal surveillance. However, S.2236 makes no special pro- vision for a program of gathering intelligence against terrorists, nor are these techn-iques mentioned in the bill.


While the bill defines "International Terrorism" and "State Support of International Terrorism" in section 3(a) and (b), some critics feel that the given definitions are not sufficient. Under the definition given of international terrorism, for instance, some have pointed out that it might be possible to include such states as Chile or Rhodesia as perpetrators of international ter- rorism. Whatever measures should be taken for or against such states or others with serious problems of national or internal security, they are not usually thought of as pro-terrorist states, and they are not the types of state that the authors of the bill had in mind.

However, the definition in Section 3(b) of State Support of International Terrorism might even preclude these states as well as others from being included in the President's list and sanctions being levied against them.

Some critics, indeed, seem to feel that this is the major pro- blem of the bill. According to the exact language of Section 3(b), it would be virtually impossible to secure reliable evidence of a country's aid to terrorist operations. To comply with the exact language it would be necessary to show that a country contributed to the commission of a particular terrorist act -- not that it pro- vides training, weapons, money, or other supplies and moral support for terrorism. It is known, for example, that Cuba provided guerilla training for some members of the Weather Underground Organi- zation (WUO) in the late 1960's and early 1970's and that the Soviet Union has provided intensive training for terrorists and guerrillas all over'the world. Yet it would be difficult to link these states with a specific act of terrorism, unless clear proof were available that they contributed to it. Thus, while Cuba may not have had anything to do with the planting of a WUO bomb in 1974, for example, the training it provided some years earlier may have enabled the members of the WUO to carry it out.

Even when a country is added to the List, the sanctions against it are entirely defensive. Most of the sanctions simply "quaran- tine" the country from Americans and, in many cases, are probably inapplicable. The critics point out that many of the states aiding terrorism do not usually much aid or.' military assistance from the U.S. To what extent would curtailment of such aid and assistance deter them from encouraging terrorists? Moreover, say the critics, the defensive measures are inadequate. Terrorists who hijack planes or kidnap victims do not usually operate in the countries that sponsor them and which give them support. To levy sanctions against such countries would not inhibit terrorists from attacking aircraft or travelers in other countries. A stronger form of sanction that could be both protective and deterrent might be the obligAtion of the President to seek a full range of inter- national sanctions (including UN-sanctions) against any individual, commercial, or military contact and exchange whatsoever with con- tries aiding terrorism. However, previous efforts to mobilize the UN have not proved particularly effective.


Some critics have charged that the bill concentrates too much on aircraft terrorism. While this form of terror has in the past been a major threat to travelers and airlines, the CIA has found that the number of terrorist hijackings which directly affect U.S. citizens, corporations, or government has declined from 47 to 5 from 1970 to 1975. Hijacking, in other words, is ceasing to be a serious problem. Far more threatening are the potentialities of bombing and sabotage, kidnapping, assassinations, and mass in- timidation through nuclear weapons, poison gas, or drugs. It is much more difficult to protect against such attacks since the tar- gets tend to be unpredictable and are virtually impossible to de- fend in advance. Terrorist attacks have recently tended toward these kinds of attacks for two reasons. First, due to increased international security, hijackings have become more difficult to commit successfully; and secondly, due to the increasing sophis- tication and ruthlessness of the terrorist cadres themselves, they have begun to aim at more disruptive actions. The only way to defend against such attacks is not through more security measures, but to disrupt the operations and organization of the terrorist groups themselves, and to penalize the perpetrators to the full extent of the law. S.2236 however, does not address this aspect of modern terrorism.

Of the several objections to S.2236 which critics have raised, perhaps the most serious is that concerning the List of States Supporting International Terrorism and the criteria relating to inclusion on it. To rectify the problems the critics see, they suggest an amendment to the bill which would broaden and provide distinctions for the criteria by which a country is to be included among those states which aid and abet terrorism. Such an amendment is printed in the Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelli- gence (p.7). The proposed amendment is to be substituted for the present language of Section 3(b), and reads as follows: State support of international terrorism shall consist of any of the following acts when committed by a state: 1. Furnishing arms, explosives, or lethal substances to any individual, group, or organization which engages in acts of international terrorism; 2. Directing, providing training for, or assisting any individual, group, or organization which plans or exe- cutes any act of international terrorism; 3. Providing financial support for any individual, group, or organization which plans or executed any act of in- ternational terrorism; 4. Providing diplomatic facilities which shall aid or abet the commission of any act of international terrorism; 5. Failing to permit the extradition or prosecution of any individual within its territory who has committed any act in international terrorism.

Thus, such an amendment, say its proponents, would allow for the implementation of more effective and realistic anti-terroxism policies. Those who disagree with the amendment, however, -argue that it might jeopardize our foreign trade with certain states or have a harmful effect on our diplomatic leverage by providing for the inclusion of too many states on the List.


The Ribicoff Onmibus Antiterrorism Bill reflects a growing awareness on the part of national leaders that international ter- rorism is a serious threat. The basic concepts of the bill are not in dispute. Almost all sides seem to agree that terrorism is a serious problem, that it has international dimensions, that it re- ceives aid and assistance from certain foreign states, and that the U.S. should sponsor measures to curtail terrorism and its inter- national abettors. What is in dispute are the particular approaches taken by S.2236: whether heavier penalties for aircraft terrorism, the filing of reports and establishment of special offices and councils, and the nature of the proposed counter-measures for inter- national abettors of terrorism will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

Samuel T. Francis Policy Analyst


Samuel Francis

Distinguished Fellow