FBI Director William H. Webster, commenting in the wake of terrorist assaults at airports in Rome and Vienna, said Monday that warnings to Americans not to travel abroad “have an enormous adverse impact on international relations” and should be issued only in “really serious” situations.
Although travelers “have a right to know there’s an ongoing risk,” they should not be terrorized themselves or “put in a fear position,” Webster said in an interview on NBC-TV’s “Today” show.
Attacks Easier Abroad
However, if terrorists are “going after Americans, it’s much easier to do it abroad, where protection, where intelligence, where law enforcement are not as keyed into this problem as . . . in the United States,” he said.
When the federal government regards a certain area of the world as hazardous to Americans, it issues an advisory cautioning against travel there. After the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 last June, Americans were advised not to use Athens International Airport, where the flight originated, because of what were called lax security measures. The advisory was lifted a month later when security was deemed improved.
To guard against terrorism at home, Webster said, Americans have to accept “some calculated, intrusive techniques” of legal surveillance that “are carefully supervised by the Department of Justice and others in authority.” Such techniques include court-authorized wiretapping and bugging.
But “I don’t want to see blanket, wholesale Draconian methods,” the FBI director cautioned. “We don’t need them in this country.”
Webster distinguished between the FBI’s current surveillance practices and those it employed during the early 1970s, when critics attacked its methods as harassment. “Today, we have guidelines and statutes that give us clear, legal direction as to what our authority should and must be,” he said.
And although he acknowledged that terrorism reached increasingly frightening levels overseas this year, he said it has been a far less severe problem at home. He attributed the United States’ better experience to “increasingly effective law enforcement, better analytical capability, getting out in front of the problem.”
Webster said the FBI “stopped over 23 (terrorist) incidents in this country before they happened.” That statistic, which he has cited previously, represents the largest number of thwarted terrorist incidents since the FBI began keeping track of them in 1982, according to agency spokesman Lane Bonner.
Several people have been prosecuted as a result of these cases, Bonner said, although he declined to comment further. Other officials have said that in one case, an Iranian-spawned terrorist scheme was blocked, but they refused to give details.