Terrorism and Counterterrorism in America’s “Me” Decade

November 11, 2014

Violent domestic extremism has always been a part of the American political landscape. Never far below the surface, it erupts in periodic spasms. The 1970s were one such period. Often characterized as an age of “stagflation,” self-help movements, cheap illegal drugs, and bad California jug wine, the 1970s were also a time of acute political violence.

The so-called “Me” decade (the phrase is Tom Wolfe’s) is worth revisiting—not in search of tight lessons for today’s policymakers, but to provide comparative perspectives. Reexamining terrorism and counterterrorism in the 1970s helps remind us of the resilience of American society and institutions, the inherent weaknesses of terrorist groups operating in liberal democracies, and the utility of approaching terrorism as a law enforcement problem rather than as an existential threat.

The intensity and lethality of the terrorist violence in the 1970s were remarkable. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland’s START, 1,335 terrorist incidents took place from 1970 to 1979—placing the United States on par with such terrorism-wracked countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. In statistical terms, U.S. terrorism in the 1970s far surpassed post-9/11 terrorism—according to the GTD, the United States experienced a total of 170 terrorist episodes in the ten years following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Throughout the decade, an array of left-wing extremists, anti-Castro exile groups, and Puerto Rican independistas waged campaigns of mayhem that included the ambush of New York policemen, the assassination of a Cuban representative to the United Nations, and the bombing of LaGuardia Airport—an operation that killed more people than the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Since the mid-1960s, politicians, the press, and the public have demanded strong measures against campus protesters, ghetto rioters, swivel-eyed revolutionaries, and other vectors of social and political disorder. The widespread public desire to restore “law and order” played no small part in propelling Richard M. Nixon into the White House. Under Nixon, the concept of “terrorism” as a uniquely dangerous threat to the republic began to take shape. During his administration, the U.S. government made its first attempt to organize itself to combat terrorism abroad and at home.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was a key part of this effort. Since the 1870s, the bureau and its predecessor organizations had been investigating homegrown violent extremists like the Ku Klux Klan. Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau probed subversive groups such as the pro-Nazi German American Bund and the pro-Soviet Communist Party USA, as well as assorted leftist, antiwar, and civil rights organizations. But by the time Hoover died in office in 1972, the country’s climate had shifted, and popular support for investigations that seemed politically oriented began to dry up.

The Watergate scandal and revelations about domestic snooping by the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and the U.S. Army led to new legislation, congressional oversight, and administrative controls aimed at reining in a supposedly out-of-control intelligence community. In 1976, then Attorney General Edward Levi issued guidelines that put new restrictions on what were then called “domestic security” investigations—in part to fend off more far-reaching strictures contemplated by some in Washington.

During the nearly fifty-year Hoover era, the bureau gathered domestic intelligence that was unrelated to criminal prosecutions. Now, under the Levi guidelines, the bureau can conduct investigations only for law enforcement purposes. The FBI can target terrorist groups like the Weather Underground Organization—but only to prevent and solve specific crimes such as bombings.

The problem was that the FBI knew next to nothing about the inner workings of groups like the Weather Underground. Part of this gap can be explained by jurisdictional disputes between the FBI and state and local police that choked off the flow of information and hindered investigations. Moreover, informants—critical to understanding the terrorist milieu—were extremely difficult to recruit.

Most importantly, FBI officials were wary of conducting probes that might be seen as “political.” In the post-Watergate climate, involvement in politically oriented investigations could end someone’s career—or worse. In April 1978, three former FBI officials, including Mark Felt (who later revealed himself as “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame) were indicted for ordering illegal searches during the bureau’s hunt for Weather Underground fugitives.

Within the bureau, the message was clear: avoid terrorism cases. Former Special Agent Richard S. Hahn recalled in 2008 that “nobody wanted this and management, not just in the field but at FBI Headquarters, wanted nothing more to do with this. By the early 1980s, agents working counterterrorism cases were mired in a “psychological funk,” according to a senior bureau official.

But the FBI began making progress against domestic terrorism. The bureau, supplying overtime pay, equipment, and other blandishments, improved its relationship with state and local police agencies. In 1980, the FBI and the New York Police Department established the first Joint Terrorism Task Force, which would serve as a model for federal-state-local police cooperation. The bureau built up its intelligence base, expanded its network of informants, and according to former FBI Director William Webster, mounted undercover operations to “get inside terrorist groups and to predict, to learn what their activities were so that we could thwart them.” By the mid-1980s, the most dangerous terrorist groups, including the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, had been dismantled and their leaders imprisoned. Incidents declined dramatically—from hundreds a year in the 1970s to a handful a year in the 1980s.

More aggressive and effective law enforcement is only part of the explanation for the decline of terrorism during this period. Public support for violent extremism had always been negligible. The end of the Vietnam war in 1975—an engine that had helped propel a cycle of mass political protest—undercut whatever remained of the “anti-imperialist” agenda.

Liberal democracies bring two overwhelming advantages to any struggle against terrorism. The first is material resources. The second, and more interesting, is political legitimacy, which ensures at least some measure of public support for counterterrorism policies. Together, these elements help provide a considerable degree of institutional, social, and political resiliency.

Although some politicians in the 1970s insisted that violent instability threatened the foundations of the republic, there was never any real danger that terrorists would overturn the political order. Despite the protracted violence, the government never felt it necessary to wage a “war” at home—criminal investigations and prosecutions lay at the heart of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. This is worth bearing in mind as we survey today’s threat landscape populated by homegrown jihadists, “lone wolves,” and sovereign citizens.


William Rosenau is a senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation’s Center for Strategic Studies, a nonprofit research institution in Arlington, VA.


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