Rendering the US superpowerless

However seriously one takes the threat of a rogue missile from the sky, it does not seem as real as some of the rogue terrorist activities on earth.

The indictment of 13 Saudis and a Lebanese on June 21 in the bombing of Saudi Arabia's Khobar Towers barracks five years earlier, killing 19 American servicemen, serves as a jarring reminder of the low-tech menace that exists even as we contemplate the far-off high-tech perils.

Departing FBI Director Louis Freeh had said that these indictments were the last thing he wanted to accomplish in office. But the likelihood that the indicted suspects, most of them in Saudi Arabia, will be extradited to the United States is slim.

Terrorists seem to be able to humiliate the American superpower simply by spreading word of some impending attack. A videotape turned up in Kuwait in which the fugitive Saudi terrorist chief, Osama bin Laden, is seen boasting of the bombing of the US destroyer Cole last October in Yemen's port of Aden. He recites a poem about "destroying a destroyer that fearsome people fear."

Within a few days, on what was described as credible evidence, the American government gave warning of a possible - it sounded like probable - terrorist attack on an American asset. In short order, the FBI personnel investigating the Cole attack were withdrawn from Yemen and the American Embassy was closed.

A US Marine joint exercise with the Jordanian Army was canceled and the Marines returned to their amphibious vessels. Ships of the US 5th Fleet anchored in Bahrain sailed hastily into the Persian Gulf. The State Department posted a general warning to Americans traveling in the region.

I am reminded of 1982, when intelligence reports about a Libyan "hit squad" on its way to assassinate President Reagan in reprisal for the shooting down of two Libyan jet fighters triggered a massive security operation, including the placing of concrete slabs in front of the White House. The tip had come from Edwin Wilson, a former CIA agent convicted of smuggling guns to Libya.

There was no hit squad, and Col. Muammar Qaddafi must have enjoyed a good laugh.

In the current situation, I have no way of judging the solidity of the American intelligence on an impending attack, but presumably the military authorities knew what they were doing. Yet the net effect, with no terrorist investment other than a few intercepted messages, was to make America look like a pitiful, helpless giant.

The threat of Islamic terrorism may also provide a common cause for Russia and the US. The bin Laden videotape, apparently intended as a recruiting aid, showed bodies of dead Muslims in places from Iraq to Chechnya. Presidents Bush and Putin reportedly discussed their common concern about Islamic terrorism at their meeting in Slovenia on June 16.

Since then, the chief of Mr. Putin's bodyguard service, Yevgeny Murov, has warned in the Russian media of a possible attempt on the life of Mr. Bush during the G-8 Summit of industrial countries in Genoa, Italy, on July 20. Mr. Murov said he was sending men to Genoa for discussions with the protective services of other participants.

The Russian news agency said the fear of an assassination attempt is so great that consideration is being given to moving the summit to a military base or a cruise ship. The Italian government has acknowledged that some meetings may be held aboard a ship in the port of Genoa.

Putin would obviously prefer engaging Bush in dealing with a common terrorist threat than arguing with him about missile defense. And the threat may well be real. Still, the picture of America cowering in fear of barefoot bombers makes this superpower look superpowerless.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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