From the Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, July 21, 1990



Stansfield Turner

Reviewed by Jock O'Connell

"We don't make deals with terrorists" is a boast commonly voiced by U.S. politicians. Apart from implying that we Americans are somehow more resolute in the face of terrorism than some of our less stalwart European allies, the no-deal formula has a compelling logic. After all, acquiescing to terrorist demands would only seem to invite further outrages.

But in his provocative new book, "Terrorism and Democracy," former CIA Director Stansfield Turner points out that "much of the common wisdom about dealing with terrorism does not accord with what Presidents have actually done." In fact, as Turner shows, American Presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan have repeatedly bargained with terrorists, usually to secure the release of American hostages.

Turner is familiar with the appalling dilemmas U.S. President face whenever American citizens become victims of terrorism. As Director of Central Intelligence under President Jimmy Carter, Turner played a key role in the efforts to free the Americans seized when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed on November 4, 1979. Half the book is devoted to the author's remarkably candid account of the tragic mismanagement and miscalculations both by Carter administration officials and the military personnel to whom the ill-starred rescue mission of April 1980 was entrusted. He is especially scornful of Carter's National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who comes across as a Henry Kissinger manque. He even disparages the White House Situation Room, which he describes as "a windowless, wood-paneled room, fifteen by twenty feet, that looked more like a do-it-yourself cellar conversion than the nerve center of the United States government."

Turner reserves his most astringent criticism, however, for those who carried out the rescue mission. He is unsparing in his indictment of virtually the entire chain of command, even down to the pilots who flew the mission's helicopters. He faults virtually every aspect of the preparation for and execution of the rescue attempt. Even the legendary Col. Charlie Beckwith, head of the Delta Force, is said to have been "the wrong man to head the operation." Clearly, Turner believes that some of those involved in the desert fiasco should have been court-marshalled.

Turner's larger purpose in this book is to deduce some useful lessons about how we should handle future episodes of terrorism. (The concluding chapter contains ten recommendations.) The fundamental dilemma, as he well illustrates, is that the most pragmatic responses to terrorism typically run up against the public's expectation of swift and clean resolutions. For example, the extensive media coverage of the Tehran hostage crisis fanned public impatience with the time-consuming and often frustrating attempts to reach a negotiated settlement. Feeling the growing heat of public opinion, the White House ultimately authorized an exceedingly risky rescue operation.

Turner also raises questions about our habit of placing the welfare of American hostages before demonstrably vital U.S. policy interests, including at times the preservation of our own democratic values. He approvingly quotes one former Pentagon terrorism expert: "Most of the damage to U.S. interests done by terrorism has been self-inflicted." Presidential obsession with securing the release of American hostages effectively crippled Carter's presidency and came close to destroying Ronald Reagan's. In the latter case, Turner argues that Reagan's personal concern for a handful of Americans held captive in Beirut led ineluctably to the constitutional crisis known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

The one major disappointment here is that Turner has almost nothing to say about charges that have surfaced in recent months that Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign manager, William Casey, arranged with Iranian officials to postpone the release of our Tehran embassy personnel until after the election. Turner offers nothing beyond "I have not found evidence of such a deal, and it would have been so callous that I find the charge hard to believe."

On the whole, though, "Terrorism and Democracy" is a lively and thoughtful analysis of one of the most intractable challenges any U.S. administration is likely to have thrust upon it.

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