Stop tying their hands

Posted: Sep 21, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- We now read about the tough measures that the president and Congress are taking to finish off the barbarians and bring others to justice. Rescinding provisions that limit our military and intelligence from doing their unpleasant work is admirable and exigent. Yet among the many thoughts that rush in during this time of national emergency are those provoked by a small headline appearing at the bottom of The Washington Post's front page on Sept. 11, 2001, America's second date that will live in infamy. It stated, "Nixon Officials Named in Suit." The "Nixon officials" were Henry Kissinger and Richard Helms. You might remember them. They are being sued by the relatives of a Chilean military commander who was killed in a "covert operation" allegedly ordered by Kissinger, Helms and others 31 years ago. The episode was but one of many in the late Cold War. The Chilean's death is the kind of shadowy tale that enflames those of a left-wing inclination in times of peace. Hollywood and the media churn out such stories for the entertainment of general audiences, combining fiction with fact while smearing members of government and the military. The consequence is the kind of frivolous lawsuit that these distinguished elderly citizens now face. But at the moment, the lawsuit and the tendentious stories of alleged misdeeds committed by American officials pursuing national security have a more pressing importance. Most Americans want their government to go after Osama bin Laden and his fellow murderers, as well as the regimes that harbor them. Will the Americans today vested with the heavy responsibility of protecting us face the prospect of appearing on some faraway tomorrow in a minor newspaper headline stating, "Bush Officials Named in Suit"? For three decades, some American politicians and their supposedly liberal constituents have been passing legislation and regulations that hamper the ability of government to maintain American security against the kind of atrocities committed last week. Sen. Frank Church got the ball rolling with congressional hearings in 1975 that betrayed CIA agents and operations. He was applauded. Counter-Spy magazine listed the identities of American agents around the world. Church's florid description of the CIA reveals the mood of the era. He called it a "rogue elephant on the rampage." The morally acute continued their work. The Carter administration all but eliminated agents on the ground in intelligence gathering, relying on technology despite the protests of intelligence experts. Spy satellites cannot be sued for misbehavior. Nor do they engage in rough stuff. Executive orders in 1976, 1978 and 1981 ended the American government's ability to engage in the use of assassination for national security purposes. They even curtailed our agents from contact with foreign agents who might engage in such projects on behalf of their own countries. More recently, Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., has authored legislation limiting our authority to work with individuals or intelligence agencies accused of human rights violations. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has authored similar legislation limiting our government from working with or supporting foreign military forces that may be accused of human rights violations. The evidence of human rights violations need not be especially probative. State Department bureaucrats can decide. All of this high-mindedness has limited our security forces from doing their jobs -- jobs that would have prevented last week's vile acts. Some of this "high-mindedness" was surely well-intended. Some of it was political exploitation of others' good intentions. At any rate, now we are going ahead and either rescinding executive orders against assassination or at least fashioning means to bypass them. Doubtless the niceties of Torricelli and of Leahy will be put aside as our military and intelligence operatives spread out into the lairs inhabited by terrorists and by the clansmen and intelligence agencies that might conspire in their arrest or death. But how effective will our forces be, knowing that on some faraway day they might make headlines as an aggrieved relative or simple crank takes advantage of high-minded laws? That is why the United States has been right in giving the cold shoulder to the movement behind the International Criminal Court. It is also why Congress ought to pass Rep. Bob Barr's declaration of war against international terrorists and against those who assist them. The president would be granted maximum flexibility and have all restraints removed in pursuing this war. American resolve would be affirmed. Congressional opportunists would be denied chances to interfere with the pursuit of these barbarians. Finally, our security forces would know that America is with them today and will be with them all days -- with gratitude and protection from frivolous lawsuits and the whims of an ever-changing political climate.