Combatting Terrorism in the Wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing

Report Homeland Security

Combatting Terrorism in the Wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing

April 26, 1995 4 min read
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

The horrific April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City has shocked Americans and underscored the vulnerability of an open society to terrorism. The death toll of 86, with about 100 missing and presumed dead, makes this bombing the worst terrorist outrage ever committed inside the United States. The April 19 bombing, apparently perpetrated by domestic terrorists, reinforces the lessons of the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, in which foreign terrorists, some of them recent immigrants, killed 6 Americans and injured more than a thousand. The U.S. needs a systematic and comprehensive counterterrorism policy to defend against, deter, prevent, and punish terrorism. The challenge to the Clinton Administration and Congress is to craft such a policy without eroding the constitutional rights of all Americans.

President Bill Clinton has ordered the U.S. government to study ways of enhancing the defenses of federal facilities against terrorism. But it would be prohibitively costly, in terms of the federal budget and in terms of citizens' access to their government, to fortify all government facilities and public places against every terrorist threat. Such "hardening" should be limited to the most likely targets, such as offices of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

A more fruitful and cost-effective policy would be to stop terrorist attacks before they can be carried out, through preventive policies such as the infiltration of terrorist groups and improved intelligence-gathering on their activities. The FBI has had some success in preventing planned terrorist attacks, such as the aborted 1993 bombings of New York City tunnels and buildings by the followers of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman. But the FBI's ability to monitor domestic terrorist groups has been undermined by restrictive guidelines that prevent it from gathering information on possible terrorist activity unless the group in question has committed, or is known to be plotting, a terrorist attack. The guidelines on domestic intelligence-gathering need to be revised to permit federal law enforcement agencies to monitor the activities of organizations that clearly indicate their support of terrorism.

The Clinton Administration unveiled legislation on February 10 to bolster U.S. deterrence of terrorism and punish those who aid and abet terrorist activity. The Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995 would outlaw fundraising in the United States in support of terrorist activities overseas, expedite the deportation of alien terrorists, and make international terrorism committed in the U.S. a federal crime. This is a long-overdue step in the right direction, but Congress has an opportunity to strengthen U.S. counterterrorism policy above and beyond these legislative proposals. To do so, it should:

Improve the gathering and sharing of intelligence on terrorist groups. President Clinton has proposed the establishement of a domestic counterterrorism center under the aegis of the FBI to coordinate the U.S. government's counter terrorism efforts. Such a center is needed to collect, analyze, and disseminate timely information concerning domestic terrorist groups and the activities and immigration status of foreigners who have engaged in or supported terrorism. This would help improve coordination among intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities, and immigration officials. Congress should work with the Administration to establish such a center and should maintain close oversight over counterterrorism programs to safeguard the individual liberties of all Americans. However, the U.S. government should have the righ to protect intelligence sources in deportation hearings against resident and illegal aliens who are suspected of terrorist activities.

Ensure that impending budget cuts will not undermine the war against terrorism. Congressional appropriations committees must take care to avoid weakening America's defenses against terrorism -- particularly counterterrorism programs in the intelligence community, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, the Defense Department's Special Operations Command, and the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control.

Press the Administration to make counterterrorism a top priority in American foreign policy. While the Oklahoma City bombing appears to be the work of domestic terrorists, it also highlights the vulnerability of the U.S. to foreign terrorist attack. Congress therefore should force the Administration to drop its shortsighted plan to downgrade the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, which spearheads international efforts to combat terrorism. Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) has introduced H.R. 22 to preserve the Office on a permanent basis. Congress also should press the Administration to raise the issue of terrorism in every appropriate bilateral and multilateral diplomatic contact, including the annual G-7 summits. A series of congressional hearings on new trends in terrorism and the involvement of various groups and states in terrorist activity would highlight this threat and the high priority that should be assigned to fighting it. Another vital topic is how to block the efforts of terrorist states such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya to obtain weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear-armed Iraq or Iran could pose the ultimate terrorist threat.

Reform immigration laws to improve internal security. Congress should pass legislation that enables the U.S. government to deny visas to foreigners because of membership in terrorist groups. Would-be terrorists now are denied entry only if the government can prove they have committed, or intend to commit, terrorist acts. These rules are too lax. Moreover, tougher penalties should be imposed on the production or use of fraudulent passports and visas. This includes giving the government the power to seize the assets of criminals convicted of creating or using false documents for terrorism or drug smuggling. Nine of the original 35 indictable counts in the 1993 New York bombing involved visa or passport offenses.

Punish states that support terrorism on as many fronts as possible. The U.S. should work with its allies to raise the diplomatic, economic, political, and military costs of supporting international terrorism. Although the Administration has singled out Iran as the world's most dangerous state sponsor of terrorism, it has not succeeded in persuading its allies, particularly Japan and Germany, to levy economic sanctions against Tehran. This is partly because, while imports of Iranian oil remain prohibited, the Clinton Administration has allowed American oil companies to become Iran's biggest customers, buying about $4.2 billion dollars of Iranian oil annually to supply their overseas markets. This business-as-usual approach undermines American diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran and raise the cost of its continued support of terrorism. Congress should step into this leadership vacuum, pass legislation banning American oil companies from purchasing Iranian oil, and call upon U.S. allies to do the same as long as Iran supports terrorism. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) has introduced legislation (the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Act of 1995) that would ban all U.S. trade with Iran until the President determines that Iran has stopped supporting terrorism, ended its nuclear weapons program, and improved its human rights policies. This proposal also would be a major step in signalling that the U.S. is serious about fighting terrorism.

The Oklahoma City tragedy demonstrates that domestic terrorists motivated by an extremist ideology can be just as dangerous as foreign terrorists. The U.S. government now must develop a comprehensive counterterrorism policy that effectively neutralizes both threats without infringing on the constitutional rights of all Americans.

James A. Phillips is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation