The Early History of American Counterterrorism Efforts In his new book, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, historian Timothy Naftali writes of America's early attempts to protect against terrorists. He says four years after the Sept. 11 hijackings, the United States is just starting to actively combat terrorism.
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The Early History of American Counterterrorism Efforts

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The Early History of American Counterterrorism Efforts

The Early History of American Counterterrorism Efforts

The Early History of American Counterterrorism Efforts

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In his new book, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, historian Timothy Naftali writes of America's early attempts to protect against terrorists. He says four years after the Sept. 11 hijackings, the United States is just starting to actively combat terrorism.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

After the London bombings, Americans are getting used to security checks in subways, trains and public buildings. That's a big change from a few decades ago when even searching airplane passengers was too much of an inconvenience. For a book called "Blind Spot," the historian Timothy Naftali researched America's early attempts to protect against terrorists.

Mr. TIMOTHY NAFTALI ("Blind Spot"): In the late 1960s, Americans were thinking about hijacking but they didn't associate it with international terrorism. In fact, they associated hijacking with inconvenience. They'd come to expect a hijacking just as they might expect bad weather flying to Chicago.

INSKEEP: How did they come to expect that? What was happening?

Mr. NAFTALI: There were two hijackings a month in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The airports didn't have any screening whatsoever. You could get on a plane with a gun and the person would stand up, go up to the cockpit and take over the plane and say, `Fly me to Havana.' In fact, this was happening so regularly that pilots flying in the southern United States carried maps of Jose Marti Airport with them. In Switz...

INSKEEP: In Cuba.

Mr. NAFTALI: In Cuba. The Swiss government, which then, as now, represented us with the Cuban government, had a form and all it left were two blanks for the flight number and the date so that each time a plane was hijacked and sent to Havana, the Swiss government, on our behalf, would request the return of the plane, the passengers and the crew. The Cuban government even got into the act. They decided Americans coming for an unexpected visit to Havana might be hungry. So they prepared Cuban sandwiches, which they then distributed to the passengers and then charged the State Department $30 for each one.

INSKEEP: Do you think about that time when you go through airports today?

Mr. NAFTALI: Yes. In the late 1960s, the Airline Pilots Association was demanding a much higher level of security, and the airline industry, supported by the FAA, said, `Well, that means what you're asking for is that we would be investigating every single passenger and all of their carry-on luggage. Well, that's preposterous.' It wasn't until a harrowing hijacking in 1972, where three men demanded $10 million or they would fly the plane they had hijacked into the Oak Ridge national nuclear facility, that the US government took notice and said, `My goodness, we have to do something.'

INSKEEP: Is this the first known occasion in which someone made a credible threat to fly an airplane into something and really got the attention of officials?

Mr. NAFTALI: Yes. And by the way, this became national news in late 1972. The discussions between the ground and the pilots regarding the demands of the hijackers was carried live on radios across this country, and the Oak Ridge national nuclear facility was--there was a general evacuation of the facility and of the outlying area in Tennessee.

INSKEEP: How did the president at the time, Richard Nixon, respond to this threat?

Mr. NAFTALI: Richard Nixon took terrorism much more seriously than any of the people around him. There was a constant debate between him and Henry Kissinger over this issue. Kissinger just felt that terrorism was a pinprick, it was not a strategic issue, it didn't demand much attention...

INSKEEP: This is his national security adviser.

Mr. NAFTALI: ...this is then national security adviser--whereas Richard Nixon had been concerned about the terrorism issue from his first year in office. You see, international terrorism becomes an issue when the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, begins to hijack Western airplanes. In 1968, the PLO hijacks its first plane--and that's an El Al plane. That does cause some interest but not worldwide concern, but in 1969, the PLO hijacks a TWA plane and that makes terrorism an American issue. These hijackings forced Nixon to think about the possibility of a federal air marshal system and he encountered opposition from everyone in the government.

The argument that opponents to federal air marshals made was astounding. Some might be familiar with the 1964 James Bond film "Goldfinger." And in that film, Goldfinger is able to bring down a plane by discharging his firearm inside the plane, and the argument that the FDA made and others made was, `Well, we can't allow federal officials to come on board planes because there's the chance of an accidental discharge of a firearm which could result in a catastrophic de-pressurization of the fuselage bringing the plane down.'

INSKEEP: They were more worried about Barney Fife than Yasser Arafat.

Mr. NAFTALI: Absolutely. And it was bogus. I mean, let's not talk about how to bring a plane down, but you don't bring a plane down that way. What's amazing is that in 1973 when the federal government finally mandated 100 percent screening of passengers and carry-on luggage, within the first three months, 5,000 guns were picked up at American airports. I would say that the risk of those firearms leading to a disastrous incident was much greater than that posed by a federal air marshal.

INSKEEP: Do you see a parallel between the debates inside the US government in the early '70s about how to deal with terrorism and the debates we've seen in the last few years?

Mr. NAFTALI: Oh, I see an enormous parallel because the United States government has never liked the counterterrorism mission. Every agency that should play a part in counterterrorism has consistently found reasons not to. The CIA counterterrorism involves the kinds of operations for which it needs a lot of political cover and a lot of support. The CIA is wary of some day being hung out to dry. The FBI has long feared engaging in domestic counterterrorism operations. The Pentagon doesn't like low-intensity warfare. Presidents have seen terrorism as a problem that they couldn't really solve. A lot of those issues were resolved by September 11th because terrorism finally became understood by everybody as a first-order problem. Nevertheless, the effect of years of institutional development made it very hard for the existing agencies to cooperate. And, you know, it's not that this was a surprise. You look at the story from 1969 to 2001 and you see time and again smart people saying, `This system doesn't work,' and the others responding, `Yes, but it's good enough.'

INSKEEP: Timothy Naftali of the University of Virginia is the author of "Blind Spot." Thanks very much.

Mr. NAFTALI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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