Robert McGuire

The Terror Among Us

VTR Date: February 2, 1991

Guest: McGuire, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert McGuire
Title: “The Terror Among Us”
VTR: 2/2/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, John F. Kennedy said that “In a free and open county such as our own, not anyone, not even a President of the United States could at long last successfully be protected against a skilled and determined terrorist willing to give up his own life”. And in Dallas, in November of 1963, our young president was himself struck down. Today each of us wonders and worries about his or her own vulnerability and that of our families and friends too. Today the burning question before us all is whether and how any nation and its citizens can successfully be protected against terrorism. No longer can we afford to avoid the question. So that I’ve invited today Kroll Associates’ Robert McGuire to bring his and his company’s and his expertise to bear on the real and the imagined threat of terrorism Americans must now address. When Mr. McGuire has been here before on THE OPEN MIND, it has been as top cop, New York’s brilliant, no-nonsense police commissioner. Now, obviously I want first today to ask Bob McGuire how much of a threat terrorism poses for Americans here at home and abroad. Bob?

MCGUIRE: Well, Richard, I think it’s much more serious a threat today than it was two or three years ago. I think if you look at the literature on terrorism around the world you see incidents in the neighborhood of five, six, seven hundred each year, sometimes escalating, sometimes declining slightly. The bulk of them are in South America, the Middle East. A certain percentage are against American assets whether they’re government facilities or American multinationals or executives of American businesses. But I think that with the Gulf Crisis, with the escalation of violence in the Middle East, and particularly with the statements and the acting out of Saddam Hussein, we now have to take the treat of terrorism much more seriously than we have in the past.

HEFFNER: You say “the threat”. To what degree do we know what has been happening? I mean is it true as some people have suggested that we have put the lid or at least tried to put the lid on acts that have taken place?

MCGUIRE: No, I don’t think so. I believe the professionals in the intelligence community sort of agree and disagree. They believe that to the extent possible Saddam Hussein will unleash terrorists around the world. Several of the terrorist groups with an emphasis on the Middle Eastern terrorist groups have aligned themselves with Baghdad. They are now resident in Baghdad, the Abu Nidal group, Abu Abbas, groups like that who have a demonstrated track record of committing terrorist acts indiscriminately in the last 10 or 15 years are aligned with, are sympathetic to Baghdad. It is unclear what Saddam Hussein anticipated the Western reaction to be to his annexation of Kuwait, and it is unclear again whether he was able to infiltrate agents around the world in order to unleash a coordinated terrorist campaign. I think there’s little question that in each Iraqi embassy there are military intelligence agents and there are in all likelihood what we call “sleepers”, deep undercovers who have been in Western capitals, perhaps in the United States, for years as students or as businessmen. And it is possible that some of those may be activated.

HEFFNER: When you were police commissioner, did thing happen during your tenure as top cop that you think might today develop even further? Were there concerns of yours that were not attended to that now we may have to be responsible for?

MCGUIRE: Well, I think the answer to that is no. We were very fortunate because in my administration we were able to establish an anti-terrorist task force with the FBI, as you recall, the Joint Terrorist Task Force, which was instrumental in breaking the back of the only very serious national terrorist group that we encountered in the late seventies, early eighties, which was the residue of the Weathermen: the Kathy Boudin Wilkerson group and some Black Liberation Army remnants who had gotten together and were committing armored truck robberies. They killed a couple of police officers in the early eighties. They had safe houses all over the country. And we were able to break that group. We obviously did not see any signs in those early years of an Iraqi presence in terrorism. Now you have to keep in mind that countries like Syria and Iraq, the PLO, have supported, subsidized both implicitly and explicitly terrorist activity around the world because of the Palestinian question. So it’s clear that they do have some operatives out there. It’s clear that many of the terrorist groups are sympathetic to Iraq’s position in the dispute in the Middle East. So I just think if the opportunity presents itself, certainly the inclination is there.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m interested in when you say some of the non-Iraqi terrorist groups…


HEFFNER: …are sympathetic to Saddam. Isn’t our concern, doesn’t our concern have to be greater with that proliferation of groups around the world, and particularly in this country? We’re not thinking about Iraqis alone. We’re not thinking about Saddam Hussein’s own people. We’re not thinking about something that starts now with him.

MCGUIRE: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think when you contemplate that thought, namely the anger now and the acting out of literally thousands of people around the world who feel disenfranchised, who feel angry at America or the Western Coalition, not just with respect to its military response to Iraq, but more fundamentally to the perceived unwillingness of the West to confront the Israeli/Palestinian question. I think what you really have now is a just, this being the lightening rod for all of the feelings that are going to erupt. And I think irrespective of the outcome of this war, we are going to have to confront over the next couple of years the spectre of terrorism.

HEFFNER: We’re not very well trained for that, are we, in the sense that we haven’t experienced it in the past, not in the other wars that we have fought have we had to be concerned essentially with anything other than the battlefields.

MCGUIRE: That’s correct, and also Americans by virtue of having lived in a free society we chafe under restrictions. We don’t like security at airports, we don’t like the police officers with submachine guns walking around as you see in European airports. So we’re not a comfortable nation with a restriction on our movement, the freedom of our movement and our liberty. And that is the inevitable by-product of a tightened security system. And I think we’re going to have to confront that more and more.

We also, as you and I, I think, have discussed this in the past, but terrorism is not in the fabric of our society. Violent crime is. We are capable of shooting each other for the slightest provocation. But what we have never seen is a coordinated, systemic and systematic series of terrorist acts in the United States. We’ve seen it in South America where executives are kidnapped all the time, where the Colombians and all the drug pushers down there will wipe out a whole family in order to basically commit a terrorist act. You see it in the Middle East. You’ve seen it in Europe with the various terrorist groups in Italy and France. But we have not seen it in the United States.

HEFFNER: In those other countries you’ve had a native movement. You’ve had the terrorists being the nationals themselves. In this country I think what you were implying before that aside from the Weathermen, we did not have an indigenous terrorist group. So we’re talking now about others from other countries who may have been here for some time and being trained, but does that give us a better handle?

MCGUIRE: I think it gives us not as good a handle.


MCGUIRE: Because I think if we had been preparing over the past ten years with our own indigenous groups we might have been better able to confront groups coming in, infiltrating in through our orders. For example – and one has to be very , very careful about this – but it is not beyond the realm of probability that Saddam Hussein has infiltrated Iraqi, terrorists into the student movement, for example, Iraqi students coming in. Now, what one has to be very careful about, and the Arab community in the United States is very sensitive to this justifiably, is the suggestion that everybody of Middle Eastern origin is a potential terrorist. I think you probably saw in the newspapers last week the FBI went out and interviewed some Arab Americans ostensibly to help them, but I think what came back was a sense that they’re letting folks know that they’re around and perhaps doing some surveillance. We had a problem with our Japanese Americans during the World War II. And so we have to be very sensitive to the civil rights of all not only Americans, but all people in our country. At the same time we have to protect our national security.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen in the years ahead in terms of that dichotomization, in terms of the equities that have to be balanced?

MCGUIRE: I think – and I have no greater insight into this than anybody else – I think that you’re probably going to see more terrorism, more concern about security for the next, say, two years, greater pressure on the United States, Israel and the Western countries to confront in a more positive way an attempt to resolve the various issues that are now just traumatizing the Middle East. And it’s going to be very, very difficult, because we don’t, as you know, control all the cards in that particular exercise. But I do think we’re going to have to deal very seriously with a much more heightened concern about terrorism. Now, there are two quick things one can say about terrorism in the United States. We are sort of on the far reaches of the ability of various terrorist groups to do other than fragmented or sporadic, engage in sporadic terrorist acts against us. We’re far away from the Middle East unlike other countries. Secondly we have a very professional law enforcement capability in the United States. We still guard our borders. We have very, very fine professionals in the intelligence community. Domestically the CIA works with the various domestic intelligence agencies. So that that gives us a little bit of an edge, but none of us know what’s going to happen in the future.

HEFFNER: You said before when we were talking before when we weren’t on the air, you said, “Disruption is the objective of terrorists”. Now question: How disrupted do you think American society will be as we speak here today a week at least before this program will be seen? There was an accident presumably at Los Angeles International Airport last night. And I learned from what was told to me today and from what my own wife said last night when the news came the fist thought was an act of terrorism. Now, to what extent do you think we are going to make terrorism succeed by enabling it to disrupt our own sense of wellbeing and then what we do as citizens?

MCGUIRE: That’s a very good question. And I think what we have to understand as Americans is what terrorism is. You know, it’s really, it’s a violent act, a very, very fortuitous, serendipitous, accidental violent act almost. It doesn’t matter who it’s directed at. And it’s designed in effect to achieve a political objective by frightening people, by terrorizing them, by forcing them or their government to do something or inducing them to act on their government to do something in the political context. Americans, I mean, we’re very brave people, but we also have a very short collective fuse. We’re impatient. We like solutions to problems. We want this war to be over with in ten days. And as anything gets played out in America that’s unpleasant, we don’t like it. And I think we’re going to see some of that frustration and impatience if there is an escalating series of terrorist acts. We just have to keep talking about it. We have to educate each other about what is the effort behind these terrorist acts and how will we basically insulate ourselves from what they’re trying to achieve. They’re a little bit like the Scud missiles going into Tel Aviv. They have absolutely no military significance, but they do tend to polarize people. They tend to frighten people in the collective sense, and that works its will on the government that’s involved. And that’s what you really have to guard against because you don’t want your government making national security judgments based upon what comes out of various terrorist activity.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that we Americans are more susceptible to terrorism than perhaps other people?

MCGUIRE: I think in a sense we probably are. We haven’t seen it so we don’t know. But I think our concern for the individual human life, of even one person being maimed or killed, the fact that we enjoy such unbelievable freedom and liberty in our country I think makes us a little bit more susceptible. The fact that we also, as I said before, are used to quick solutions, quick fixes, we don’t like things unpleasant playing out over a long period of time. I think all those things suggest that we might not be the best group of people to confront and resist escalating terrorism.

HEFFNER: You say, and it’s true of course, that we are activists. We see a problem and we want to do something about it. So the question obviously is asked of you many times, “What do we do?”

MCGUIRE: Well, different things for different folks. I mean, the American government has to respond on a national level in terms of its law enforcement capability. It has to harden targets, as we say, whether they are embassies, diplomatic personnel, multinational American companies with assets abroad have been for many months now upgrading their security. And that goes from having advisories in every country that their executives are going to visit to telling them which cars to take, what restaurants to go to, not to have their identification on their luggage, maintaining a low profile. Security professionals use two concepts. One is high security awareness and a low personal profile. And those are sort of the catchwords as to how to protect yourself. You should not advertise who you are when you travel or what your company, who your company is, what company you’re involved with. Those are the little kinds of things that enable people to sort of stay out of the way. And that’s really what you’re trying to do. Also obviously to the extent possible you avoid congregations of large people. Now, many of us have to go through airports, and that’s life. But you can also stay out of harm’s way in an airport by waiting off on the side, getting on the plane when everybody else has been put on the plane. Lots of those things can give you a slight edge.

HEFFNER: Major international corporations can come to you and your associates. Where do I go as a traveler, someone who gets on a plane and goes to Los Angeles, gets on a plane and comes back, and maybe goes to Europe? What for the average American who doesn’t just stay at home? Who guides him or her?

MCGUIRE: Well, first of all, I think you should be confident that the airlines are not only concerned about this, they’re doing something about it. The FAA has upgraded the security levels, the airlines themselves…

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me ask a question. Are you confident that enough is being done? I mean, it’s fair for you to say be confident, that they are aware of the problem. Are you confident that they are doing enough?

MCGUIRE: Well, I, like you, fly in my business, and I’m flying tomorrow morning. So I am sufficiently confident that I’m putting my body on the line tomorrow. I think you could always have greater security. I have been a critic of airport and airline security for example. I think it has been somewhat fortuitous or serendipitous that we have not had more incidents in the United States. It’s not been the result of incredible security at our airports. But I think it has improved significantly in the past year or two. And I think for example, there’s no more curbside checking of luggage. Basically there’s a manifest check now of luggage against the passenger. There are profiles of people now that they will start to interview if they don’t like what they see. The baggage checks and the personal checks have been upgraded. There are sweeps of the planes. So a lot of what should be done is being done. Does that mean that at no point at no time could a terrorist act take place? Of course not. But I think Americans should be reassured that the people in place are aware of the problem and are doing something about it. And what you and I were talking about before I think is important for people to hear, and that is you cannot stop living your life. You cannot stop your business. You cannot stop flying from either business or pleasure because that plays exactly and totally into the hands of terrorism.

HEFFNER: That is what terrorism means.

MCGUIRE: Exactly.

HEFFNER: And I guess the question always has to be what your assumption is as to whether we are going to be able to recognize that fact and to deal with it.

MCGUIRE: Well, I think the more you talk about it and the more you understand the dynamics of terrorism the better you are to confront it and to deal with it. It is, in its initial stages it’s a very frightening concept because it’s so aberrational, so sporadic fortuitous. People are not used to that. And consequently it does have an overriding impact on a greater number of people. Disproportionately, obviously, since we have very few terrorist acts committed in the final analysis.

HEFFNER: When Claire Sterling was here a decade ago warning us about the terror network, warning us about what was happening in the rest of the world, and assuming that someday we would be victims too, very little attention was being paid. Now do you think we’re really paying attention to it or are you and I here performing an exercise in futility that it may indeed be too overwhelmingly frightening for us as a people to deal with?

MCGUIRE: No. I think that the appropriate authorities are dealing with it. They’re dealing with it seriously and they’re dealing with it intelligently. It is a matter of high priority.

HEFFNER: But Bob, you say, “The appropriate authorities are dealing with it”.


HEFFNER: And go back to John F. Kennedy’s statement that if you’re dealing with a fanatical individual there is no way to deal with the threat of an assassin in that instance. Is there really any way that you can be satisfied sufficiently – so I’ll hedge my words – that our security people are dealing with these matters, this major matter?

MCGUIRE: Well, again you have to break it down. I am satisfied that reasonable, prudent, intelligent people who are responsible for this are dealing with it. That is not to say that they are going to stop a single dedicated assassin or terrorist who is willing to risk his safety or his life to contaminate a water supply to blow up a bridge, to plant a bomb in a locker at an airport. Of course not. I mean, no one can just speculate as to the variety of ways – they’re infinite in number – that you can do any one of those things. So you’re not going to stop the individual in a specific instance. What you can do, and I think what we are doing, is identifying the risk, assessing it, identifying the players involved, trying to get a handle on who they are, where they are. You start surveying them, you let them know you’re around. And you use your intelligence network to, in effect, subvert their efforts. By the way, there is much greater intelligence sharing in the world today than there was ten or 15 years ago with the breakdown of the Eastern Bloc intelligence apparatus, because a great deal of that was designed to support either implicitly or explicitly terrorist activity. We now have the happy aspect of a great deal more intelligence coming out of those Eastern European countries and even to a certain extent, Russia, which we did not have before.

HEFFNER: Have we learned anything from the KGB about the terrorist apparatus that they supported for so many years?

MCGUIRE: I don’t know the answer to that question. In fact, I have raised the same question in the military context of the Iraqi war. Have the Russian military given us chapter and verse of how they trained these people? Because they were the military advisors. And I would like to know the question of whether we’ve debriefed the German companies that built the bunkers and the other European companies that provided the various, you know, comfort aspects to these bunkers of either planes or Saddam Hussein’s own bunker. I assume the answer to these questions is “Yes,”, but I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Now, you’re talking about he ways in which other countries, countries in the Western world, made it possible for Saddam Hussein to do what he’s done. Where, which are the other countries where parallel activities are taking place supported in the same way by Western nations?

MCGUIRE: I’m not sure I read your question.

HEFFNER: Well, where do we have to look? If ten years ago you had been concerned and asked, “What about the German influence? What about the Soviet influence?” Are we now experiencing while we’re focusing on Iraq are other things going on around the world where the same economic motivation provides for the army and the support, the building of bunkers in other parts of the Mideast?

MCGUIRE: Well, I don’t believe so, Dick. I thought part of your question was going to sort of raise the issue of the fact that Saddam Hussein was our friend for many years and we participated in part of that…

HEFFNER: I don’t even want to think about that.

MCGUIRE: And we have a new friend in the coalition named President Assad from Syria who has been on our terrorist list for years.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re building bunkers for him now?

MCGUIRE: Well, we’re probably not building bunkers for him but he is certainly benefiting from active participation in this Western coalition at almost the same time when he was supporting and subsidizing terrorist groups and certainly seeking to subvert if not destroy Israel, which is one of our principal allies. So that, you know, these kinds of operations make strange bedfellows. And I think it is part of the criticism, we can criticize the Russians for really overly arming Iraq. But the fact is, as you know, we were trying to contain the export of the fundamentalist revolution out of Iran and we were trying to level the playing field as between Iraq and Iran so we tilted towards Iraq as did the Russians. And we’re not getting paid back for that because they were able to arm themselves to an incredible degree.

HEFFNER: Now, do you think our tilt toward Syria now will result one year, two years, ten years from now in the same kind of situation?

MCGUIRE: I don’t believe so because Syria is not as large a nation and does not have the infrastructure to export violence and revolution at a level of Iran or Iraq. They don’t have the oil, they don’t have the wealth, they don’t have the population numbers.

HEFFNER: I was hoping, Bob, that you were going to say that we now have learned our lesson and are now too smart. But you’re saying “fortuitously”…

MCGUIRE: Correct.

HEFFNER: …if I may use that word, it won’t happen.

MCGUIRE: Yeah. I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson, because I think we just deal in a very short-term way with these things. You know, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. And I think that’s in a sense unfortunately what we go on. And it is somewhat understandable here. Syria and Iraq have been longstanding enemies, as you know, and Assad and Saddam Hussein who vie for power in the Socialist Bath parties in those two countries are sworn enemies. They hate each other far more than either one of them hates the West. So we’re a little naïve sometimes in coming to regions of the world where we have not had significant experience.

HEFFNER: Plus, as we end the program, I’m glad that you feel, as you stated before, that we have had enough experience and enough wisdom to be taking steps, wise steps by wise people in this country. Thanks very much for joining me today, Bob McGuire.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, a grim subject indeed, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”