WASHINGTON — The United States labored 10 years to bring about the recent trial in the Pan Am bombing case. US officials worked overtime to arrest the suspects now on trial in New York for bombing two US embassies in Africa in 1998. And serious efforts are under way to find the culprits in attacks on US targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
But there's a gap in this pattern. We should devote similar attention to the longest series of unsolved anti-American terrorist attacks in the world - those in Athens. This problem will assume critical urgency with the approach of the 2004 summer Olympics scheduled for Athens.
The first attack, a brutal murder, took place more than 25 years ago, and the left/nationalist group called "November 17" has remained active ever since. Under a banner of opposing liberal democracy, capitalism, and foreigners, the group has tried to kill more than a hundred Americans. Sadly, five US Embassy officials are dead.
The toll is so low only because for years the US has spent more taxpayer dollars for diplomatic security in Greece than anywhere else in the world, money badly needed to protect other posts.
In part because the US Embassy is a forbidding fortress, the terrorists have shifted their murderous attentions, killing British and Turkish diplomats and bombing the German and Dutch embassies. They have also killed or wounded prominent Greeks and attacked numerous businesses, many of them American.
By the grim standards of modern terrorism, November 17 is a modest threat. It should have been put out of business long ago. But it has recruited new, younger assassins and greatly expanded its range of weapons and explosives. Its success has encouraged copycat activities, with more than 100 bombings in Athens just last year by a plethora of groups.
The problem is Greek government passivity. Despite scores of attacks - many with eyewitnesses - there have been no arrests. No suspects have even been identified. Many Western countries have faced radical leftists, but only Greek law enforcement has zero accomplishments.
Few Greeks believe police failure is an accident. Repeatedly, key information about investigations is leaked to the tabloid newspapers. Last fall, six months of hard work by some of Scotland Yard's best investigators - sent to Greece after the murder of the British defense attache in June - was exposed in two Athens dailies. The information could come only from inside the "elite" counterterrorist forces.
Time and again, witnesses who have given police "secret" testimony have received threatening phone calls or seen their cars firebombed by way of warning. Why should anyone help the police when they can expect their identity to be in terrorist hands in short order?
Washington bends over backwards not to antagonize friendly governments, but last year gave Greece failing grades in the security field three times. In May the State Department's annual report on global terrorism specified Colombia and Greece as the two most problematic countries.
In June, a bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism identified 146 anti-American terrorist attacks in Greece (all unsolved) over 25 years and recommended Greece and Pakistan be subject to legal sanctions for failure to cooperate. In December the Federal Aviation Administration gave Greece a failing grade in aviation security standards, not related to November 17 but symptomatic of the overall security problem.
Then, on Feb. 7 CIA Director George Tenet told a Senate committee of "a major vulnerability" of the 2004 Olympics scheduled for Athens, saying Greek authorities "need to take this terrorist threat far more seriously than it's been taken in the past."
During three years in the US Embassy in Athens, I learned the hard way why official cooperation with Greek security authorities has so far accomplished nothing. A top Greek law-enforcement official told me his agency intended to "wait out" the terrorists, hoping they would give up and retire. A political-level official of the Foreign Ministry bluntly told me Greece has nothing to fear from Washington because his ministry exercises more influence on Capitol Hill than does the State Department. Last year, a senior editor of the most respected daily paper in Athens dismissed November 17 as an American problem, not a Greek one.
The official approach is to belittle the problem abroad to protect the important tourism industry rather than enforce the law at home.
The Bush administration must treat anti-American attacks in Greece as no different from terrorism elsewhere. To start, it should tell Greek leaders it could not certify Athens as safe for American athletes and fans during the 2004 Olympics if November 17 is not destroyed.
The danger of the national humiliation that would follow an American boycott should convince Athens at last that terrorism requires action rather than rhetoric. Greek authorities can deal with this problem if they want to, and Washington should make certain they do.
E. Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official, is a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society