IN THE 1980S, AMERICANS GOT used to being targets abroad. Shocked by a series of truck-bomb attacks on U.S. troops and installations, the government spent millions to fortify embassies and build impenetrable new ones. It worked. Can those lessons help now, when the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City attacks have shown that terror can hit at home? Americans may well apply some of the defensive tactics honed abroad, but the task is not so simple. "Terrorism poses some of the most difficult of all dilemmas for a democratic government," says former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft. "It's so easy to do; it takes so few people; the materials are so readily available. But to counter it is so expensive in dollars and, more importantly, in civil liberties."
The first reflex last week was to "harden" government facilities. Officials placed more than 8,000 federal buildings on "second-level alert," requiring all employees and visitors to identify themselves "until further notice" - notice that may be a long time coming. In Washington, D.C., and New York, where the risk was deemed greatest, bomb-sniffing dogs screened suspicious cars and packages. Security at the White House was especially intense. As one press aide returned to her office from a nearby bakery, Secret Service agents seized the pastry she was carrying and X-rayed it. The new security concerns can only increase pressure on the president to accept a Treasury Department recommendation that Pennsylvania Avenue be closed to traffic in front of the White House, a step he has resisted.
Next come the builders. Private-security firms across the country reported a surge in requests last week for guards and protection planning. Worried officials may try to emulate Wall Street, which has set a standard for physical security in response to the 1993 WTC bombing. The trade-center plan includes an online ID system, hundreds of new security guards and a network of 6,000-pound concrete barriers thinly disguised as planters. All delivery drivers are photographed, logged in, issued badges and monitored on closed-circuit television. Another pricey option: structural modifications to prevent "progressive collapse," the avalanche of concrete that multiplied fatalities in Oklahoma City.
But terrorism specialists argue that trying to construct Fortress America out of steel, plastic and concrete isn't practical. "If you want to counter terrorism, 80 percent is a matter of getting good intelligence," says L. Paul Bremer, who headed the Reagan administration's counterterrorism office. "You can fiddle around with the other 20 percent all you want, but in terms of prevention, intelligence is the key"
The idea of granting U.S. law enforcement broader investigative powers evokes bitter memories. Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's misuse of bugs and undercover agents against civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, the Ku Klux Klan and the antiwar movement of the 1960s led to scandal in the mid-1970s. Carter administration officials, many of them veterans of the antiwar movement, drew up stringent restrictions. Based on a First Amendment argument, the Carter reforms required investigators to have a "criminal predicate" a link to an actual or suspected crime before opening an investigation. "You can't just investigate on a hunch," says Skip Brandon, a former FBI counterterrorism expert, who recalls how criticism over FBI surveillance of pro-Nicaragua groups became a sensitive issue during the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1989 the agency's inquiries into Amnesty International's correspondence to the East bloc were questioned. During the Persian Gulf War, Arab groups complained of intrusive phone calls from agents. As a result, liberal organizations that track domestic extremists, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, may be freer to gather intelligence on the hate groups than the cops. "We know less about these groups than the press does," says former FBI associate deputy director Oliver (Buck) Revell.
The contrast with the internal security policies of America's allies is striking. At the height of its war with the Irish Republican Army, England monitored every telephone call between Ireland and England-with technical assistance from U.S. agencies given much more latitude than their domestic counterparts. British forces in Northern Ireland compiled a database of details about the interiors of thousands of Belfast homes and used it to quickly check the stories of suspects, much in the same manner that an Oklahoma highway patrolman can check the driver's license and registration of someone caught speeding. England's Prevention of Terrorism Act, renewable annually by Parliament, permits suspects to be held without charge for a week. And British security forces are given broad authority to run informants and wiretaps. France, Italy, Germany and Belgium all have used similar techniques to defeat domestic terror campaigns.
Oklahoma City could put the FBI back in the game. "The domestic law-enforcement agencies can do a lot of things, given the money and told the priorities," says Bremer. Given permission, he says, the FBI could fairly quickly get informers inside domestic extremist groups such as the Michigan Militia. Until last week, a Clinton administration counterterrorism bill that would speed deportations and expand the FBI's wiretap powers faced stiff opposition from civil libertarians; the gun lobby opposed chemically "tagging" certain explosives. Now the bill will likely pass easily. Lawmakers are sure to compete over who can devise the toughest new domestic counterterrorism measures. The challenge is to ensure that Americans can protect their lives-and their liberties too.
PHOTO: "Intelligence Is the Key': Structural changes might have reduced carnage in Oklahoma City, but the best defense against terrorism is advance warning
No structure is ever completely secure, but in the two years since the World Trade Center explosion, builders have learned how to better protect against terrorism:
Wrap columns with steel to reinforce and protect against "pancaking."
Paint with shatter-resistant coating and install heavy curtains or blinds to stop flying glass.
Install Video cameras and public -address system. The Trade Center installed battery-powered lighting and stairs with phosphorescent paint that glows in the dark.
issue magnetically encoded photo-ID cards that restrict employee access to essential floors only. Hire 24-hour patrol for the grounds and building.
Erect concrete planters or other large buffers to stop vehicles from ramming the building.
Move outdoor parking away from the building. Funnel deliveries through central checkpoint; log all arrivals and departures. At the Trade Center, trucks must go through three checkpoints and drivers are photographed.