Bob Woodward is at it again. The official American response to foreign-inspired internal terrorism is the subject of a hit-and-run electronic attack engineered mainly by Bob Woodward, one of the prime movers in uncovering Watergate for the Washington Post. He is co-author with Christian Williams, Richard Harwood, and Alfred Sole of Under Siege (NBC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.). It is an evening of harrowing action, complex concepts, and controversial solutions, all handled just a bit too glibly.
In the drama, a seemingly unaffiliated Arab fundamentalist with a couple of accomplices has decided to teach the United States (``dogs in an imperialist kennel'') a lesson in its home territory: ``We have much to teach; there is nothing you can do but learn.'' So this man, Abu Ladeen, explodes a truck bomb at an Army base, blows up three domestic airliners, lobs bombs at the Capitol and a shopping mall, and threatens further destruction.
``It is hard to believe this is America; it could be South America,'' says one arrogant observer. ``When you start bombing stores and shopping centers, you're hitting at the heart of the American people,'' says another, supposedly a typical politician. Yes, there's a lot of biting political satire mixed in with the speeding cars and billowing explosions.
While the director of the FBI (Peter Strauss) is determined to locate the terrorist and bring him to trial by all legal means, the CIA director, the secretary of state, and the presidential aide counsel the President to take immediate action against those possibly but not assuredly responsible (mainly Iran). Both the secretary of defense and the FBI director are adamantly against irresponsible retribution. Meantime, the terrorists are at large, threatening and planning more destruction.
Directed gingerly, as if it were too hot to handle, by Roger Young, the film is acted with solemn self-importance by an extraordinary cast of talented actors, including, besides Peter Strauss as the holier-than-thou FBI director, Hal Holbrook, E. G. Marshall, Paul Winfield, and Fritz Weaver.
Through a series of unbelievable coincidences and questionable ``scientific'' sleuthing, the story arrives at still another dilemma: what to do with the terrorist when he is caught and makes it clear that his main aim is to gain a platform for his crazed ideas.
``Wrap it up quickly'' is the decision at one level, with the sentence to be carried out by what this film asserts is an assassination force, the ``International Response Team.'' Which leads us to still another controversial crossroads that the film only partly resolves with a Watergate-like conclusion in which an arrogant newspaper editor assumes a key judgmental role.
``Under Siege'' is the television equivalent of ``a good read.'' It moves along swiftly and is difficult to put down. But it raises questions far more important than the melodramatics it portrays. Issues of how democracy should react to domestic danger; individual civil rights vs. the national security; democratic idealism vs. pragmatic realism. ``Under Siege'' will be discussed nationally and internationally long after its image dies on the home screen. Some words from an expert on terrorism
``The general consensus is that terrorism is going to come here. Probably in a year or two, maybe less. I think the real question . . . will be the tug of war between . . . perceived national security measures and civil liberties,'' said Prof. Robert Kupperman, senior adviser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Georgetown University, at a press conference held after a screening of the film at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters.
He thinks that the essence of ``Under Siege'' is real.
``It's something you've got to be concerned about. And it's very easy to pick on any one point of reality or lack of reality . . . but that's artistic license. . . . Soldiers at checkpoints, National Guardsmen who aren't experienced almost willy-nilly arresting people. Even a kind of McCarthyism could beset this country. . . . Woodward . . . raised the right questions.
Dr. Kupperman predicts that in the future terrorism could take new forms: ``Attacks against infrastructure . . . electrical power . . . pipelines . . . against microchip dependence, data systems. . . . Lines of code that when injected into complicated command and control systems such as that which might control SDI . . . will destroy hundreds of thousands of lines of code and randomly jump from one RAM to another. . . .''
Dr. Kupperman believes that there is a danger, however, of overemphasizing the threat of domestic terrorism. ``Believe me, driving your own car is a much more dangerous activity than worrying about terrorists. But a lethal automobile accident doesn't endanger vast national feelings and does not force us into making difficult moral choices. We treat it . . . as an overwhelming national security problem comparable to arms control issues. . . . They're really not at the same level of threat. . . . And I think that we also have to understand . . . that terrorism doesn't arise in a vacuum; it arises in an atmosphere of anger and frustration.''