America’s valuable terrorism list

The formal removal this month of North Korea from the State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring nations has touched off some controversy. These criticisms reveal a basic misunderstanding of the concept of this formal designation.

Contrary to comments made by Lionel Beehner in his Oct. 20 Times Op-Ed article, “America’s useless terrorism list,” the so-called terrorism list does not exist “solely to punish our enemies” or to strong-arm countries on other issues. Such assertions are nonsense and show no understanding of the history or purpose of the terrorism list.

The original legislation that started the list was enacted nearly 30 years ago as an export control measure. Providing a comprehensive checklist of which countries are naughty or nice was not its aim.

The provision was intended to make sure that export licenses of equipment useful for military or terrorism-related purposes received close scrutiny and were routinely OKd by low-level State Department and Commerce Department licensing officials. The issue was touched off when members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee learned that these two departments had approved export licenses for the sale of 400 heavy-duty off-road trucks used to transport tanks to Libya and for six “civilian” versions of the C-130 military transport plane to Syria.

The bill’s sponsor was the late Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), a new member of the House Middle East subcommittee (and widely believed to be the model of the Doonesbury cartoon character Lacy Davenport.) I was her national security legislative assistant when we learned in 1978 that some State Department officials were concerned that Libya might use the trucks in a possible confrontation with neighboring Egypt. Meanwhile, Lebanese-American constituents of the late Rep. Ed Derwinski (R-Ill.) objected to the proposed sale of the cargo planes to Syria, which had been shelling the Christian suburbs of Beirut.

Thus, with the committee staff, we drafted legislation that required the State Department to notify Congress 30 days before export licenses were issued for goods or services that would enhance the military or terrorism capabilities of a government that the secretary of State determined had repeatedly supported international terrorism. That provision of the Export Administration Act of 1979 quickly became known as the terrorism list. The advance notification procedure meant that the highest levels of the State Department would have to approve any proposed sale of such “dual use” equipment, and Congress could block the sales if it objected.

Subsequent amendments to foreign aid and other bills prohibited U.S. military or economic assistance to countries on the designated terrorism list, denied tax credits for income earned in such countries -- a measure to discourage U.S. investment -- and prohibited financial transactions between Americans and terrorism-list nations. The sanctions are not fool-proof, but the terrorism list has been an important tool in U.S. foreign policy. It played a role in persuading some countries, such as Syria, Libya and even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to pull back from their direct involvement in and funding of terrorist activities. Syria, unfortunately, still provides sanctuary to terrorists.

Beehner asserts that the terrorism list ignores the need to work with our international allies to apply pressure and does not tackle “the socioeconomic causes of why terrorism takes root in the first place.”

With all due respect, Beehner is wrong.

The U.S. sanctions have given Washington a greater ability to encourage our European and other allies to restrict their exports of sensitive equipment. The efforts have not succeeded fully -- some countries are more concerned about obtaining contracts than deterring terrorism. But there have been some successes, and, while I was in the State Department, we encouraged other nations to tighten their regulations over exports and funding transfers to terrorist groups. Countries that support terrorism do so because they see it as a tool of low-intensity warfare against other nations; take Iran’s repeated involvement in attacks on the United States. Socioeconomic conditions in oil-rich Libya, Iran and Iraq had nothing to do with their regimes’ support for terrorism.

Libya and North Korea negotiated for years to get off the list. Sudan and Syria have indicated an interest and have been involved in behind-the-scenes talks. (Cuba has shown no interest.) Libya and now North Korea have met the U.S. conditions for removal. Iraq, which was designated in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait, was removed in 2004 after a new Iraqi government was formed. Listing a country as a state supporter of terrorism is not an end in itself; it is a tool to try to change that nation’s behavior and make it think twice about supporting murderous attacks on noncombatants.

North Korea’s status on the terrorism list became wrapped up in international efforts to get the Kim Jong Il regime to stand down from its nuclear weapons program. The nuclear issue may be stretching the initial intent of the terrorism list when was drafted 30 years ago. Still, certainly the possibility of nuclear terrorism is one of the more horrifying scenarios facing the world.

The economic measures imposed under the terrorist list and other sanctions regimes are an important part of the efforts to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons without the U.S. having to resort to military action. Throwing the list aside would not only be foolish, it would also be a reckless discarding of an important tool that should be strengthened, not abandoned.

Michael B. Kraft, a Washington- based counter-terrorism consultant and writer, is a former senior advisor in the State Department counter-terrorism office and co-author of “The Evolution of U.S. Counterterrorism Policy” (Greenwood Press).