WASHINGTON – Top government officials worry about the possibility of radioactive "dirty bombs" being detonated in large cities. Airlines, scared of losing business, protest that new security measures will bankrupt them. Civil liberties groups fear a focus upon Arab-Americans and Arab travelers will erode basic freedoms.
Sounds familiar? It should. It is the present, and also the past — more than three decades ago, according to declassified documents obtained by The Associated Press.
"Unless governments take basic precautions, we will continue to stand at the edge of an awful abyss," Robert Kupperman, chief scientist for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (search), wrote in a 1977 report.
It summarized nearly five years of work by the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism (search), a high-level government panel created to draft plans protecting the nation from attacks.
President Nixon created the group in September 1972 after Palestinian commandos slaughtered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games (search). It involved players as diverse as Henry Kissinger (search) and George H.W. Bush (search) to a young Rudolph Giuliani (search).
"It is vital that we take every possible action ourselves and in concert with other nations designed to assure against acts of terrorism," Nixon wrote in asking Secretary of State William Rogers to oversee the task force.
"It is equally important that we be prepared to act quickly and effectively in the event that, despite all efforts at prevention, an act of terrorism occurs involving the United States, either at home or abroad."
The full panel met only once, in October 1972, to organize, but its experts gathered twice a month over nearly five years to identify threats and debate solutions, the memos show.
Eventually, the panel's influence waned as competing priorities, a change of presidents ushered in by Watergate, bureaucratic turf battles and a lack of spectacular domestic attacks took their toll.
But before that happened, the panel identified many of the same threats that would confront President Bush at the dawn of the 21st century.
The panel's experts fretted that terrorists might gather loose nuclear materials for a "dirty bomb" that could devastate an American city by spreading lethal radioactivity across many blocks.
"This is a real threat, not science fiction," National Security Council staffer Richard T. Kennedy wrote his boss, Kissinger, in a November 1972 memo describing the "dirty bomb" scenario.
While Rogers praised the Atomic Energy Commission's steps to safeguard nuclear weapons in a memo to Nixon in mid-1973, he also warned that "atomic materials could afford mind-boggling possibilities for terrorists."
Committee members also identified commercial jets as a particular vulnerability, but they raised concerns that airlines wouldn't pay for security improvements such as tighter screening procedures and routine baggage inspections.
"The trouble with the plans is that airlines and airports will have to absorb the costs and so they will scream bloody murder should this be required of them," one 1972 White House memo said. "Otherwise, it is a sound plan which will curtail the risk of hijacking substantially."
By 1976, government pressure to improve airport security and thwart hijackings had awakened airline industry lobbyists.
The International Air Transport Association (search) argued "airport security is the responsibility of the host government the airline industry did not consider the terrorist threat its most significant problem; it had to measure it against other priorities. If individual companies were forced to provide their own security, they would go broke," according to minutes from one meeting.
Thousands of pages of heavily redacted records and memos obtained by AP from government archives and under the Freedom of Information Act show the task force also:
— Discussed defending commercial aircraft against shootdowns from portable missile systems.
— Recommended improved vigilance at potential "soft" targets, such as major holiday events, municipal water supplies, nuclear power plants and electric power facilities.
— Supported a crackdown on foreigners living in and traveling through the United States, with particular attention to Middle Easterners and Arab-Americans.
— Crafted plans to protect U.S. diplomats and businessmen working abroad, who were frequently the victims of kidnappings and gruesome murders.
Although the CIA routinely updated the panel on potential terrorist threats and plots, members learned quickly that intelligence gathering and coordination was a weak spot, just as Bush would find three decades later.
Long before he helped New York City weather the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, as mayor, Giuliani told the panel in May 1976 that he feared legal restrictions were thwarting federal agents from collecting intelligence unless there had been a violation of the law.
Giuliani, then the associate deputy attorney general in the President Ford's Justice Department, suggested relaxing intelligence collection guidelines — something that occurred with the Patriot Act three decades later.
Other panel members, however, felt that obstacles to intelligence gathering were more bureaucratic than legal.
Lewis Hoffacker, a veteran ambassador who served as chairman of the working group, said institutional rivalries, particularly between the FBI and CIA, were a constant source of frustration even back in the 1970s.
"That was our headache, a quarter-century ago," said Hoffacker, now retired. "They all pulled back into their little fiefdoms. The CIA was always off by itself, and the FBI was dealing with the same situation they're dealing with today."
Finding the political will to fight terrorism in the absence of a spectacular homefront attack also quickly became a problem. Proposals to levy international sanctions against countries harboring terrorists drew little support from the United Nations, the memos show.
"The climate at the 1974 General Assembly was such that no profitable initiative in the terrorism field was feasible," Kissinger, then-secretary of state, reported to Ford in early 1975.
Two years later, the terrorism working group was absorbed by the National Security Council (search). In a 1978 report, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee worried the Carter administration wasn't giving enough attention to terrorism.
"The United States will not be able to combat the growing challenge of terrorism unless the executive policymaking apparatus is more effectively and forcefully utilized," the panel warned.