Nixon's own 9/11: When terrorism came of age

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Story highlights

  • The 1970s were a time of rapidly evolving threats as radical elements exploited a new age of mass international air travel and television
  • Hijackings also shaped a debate about the new scourge of international terror
  • In response, the U.S. federal government was called into action to address the threat
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Washington (CNN)It was 9/11 and an American president was fretting about how to confront a new wave of terror targeting commercial aviation.

Thirty-one years to the day before al Qaeda unleashed the worst terrorist outrage on U.S. soil, President Richard Nixon was already wrestling with the deadly potential of Middle Eastern terrorists who had seized U.S. civilian passenger jets.
It was a time of rapidly evolving threats at home and abroad as radical elements exploited a new age of mass international air travel and television to advance political agendas by targeting civilians.
    The 1970s were truly when terrorism came of age.
    In response, the U.S. federal government was called into action to address the threat of terrorism -- a responsibility that would evolve over decades into a military, intelligence and civilian operation that consumes billions of dollars a year and has changed the fabric of American life.
    In Europe and the Middle East, Palestinian extremists sowed fear and first proved, with the hijackings of U.S.-bound jets in September 1970 and deadly attacks such as the one on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, how a small band of zealots could wound mighty nation-states and reap a media bonanza.
    In Germany, the left-wing Red Army Faction targeted U.S. barracks and prominent business executives. The Irish Republican Army began bombing targets on the British mainland. In the United States, radicals from the Weather Underground bombed the U.S. Capitol amid the tumult of a popular revolt against the Vietnam War.

    Nixon's seminal 9/11 statement

    On September 11, 1970 -- a date that only took on haunting overtones with the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 -- Nixon became the first U.S. president to try to protect air travelers from extremists who sensed gaping vulnerabilities in security for commercial airliners, issuing a statement listing a string of measures including the introduction of 100 air marshals on U.S. planes.
    "Most countries, including the United States, found effective means of dealing with piracy on the high seas a century and a half ago," Nixon said. "We can -- and we will -- deal effectively with piracy in the skies today."
    The President had been jolted into action by the simultaneous hijackings of planes in Europe headed to the United States. Jets belonging to TWA, Pan Am and Swissair were seized by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The group also attempted to hijack a jet over London belonging to the Israeli airline El Al but was thwarted by security guards on board.
    The Pan Am seizure ended quickly, but the passengers on the TWA and Swissair jets were diverted to a British air base in Jordan and the drama only ended after days of tense diplomacy, when the hostages were all released in a deal in which the Swiss, German, British and Israeli governments let Palestinian prisoners go.
    The crisis opened Nixon's eyes.
    His chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, recorded in his diary on September 7, 1970, that Nixon was "very anxious to develop some dramatic administration action about hijackings, need tough shocking steps, especially guards on planes."
    Nixon responded to the trio of hijackings in a written statement listing seven steps to combat "air piracy." Beyond the air marshals, he called on foreign governments to join the United States in combatting hijackings and ordered electronic surveillance at airports to spot potential terrorists.
    Nixon also envisaged that the 100 initial air marshals would eventually grow to a force of thousands. But over the ensuing years, as the threat from hijackings receded, the force never reached full capacity.

    International terrorism emerges

    "Terrorism has a long history, going back centuries, but we began to see at the very tail end of the 1960s, (and) clearly evident in the 1970s, the emergence of contemporary international terrorism," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a RAND Corporation analyst.
    Timothy Naftali, the former head of the Nixon Presidential Library, said that the 37th president was the first to approach terrorism as a federal government issue.
    "The '70s are a pivot in how the U.S. deals with terrorism," Naftali said.
    For Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, the obsession was ending the Vietnam War, easing hair-trigger nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union and the opening of communist China -- international terrorism was a phrase that was not even in the lexicon when he took office in 1969.
    But slowly a string of largely forgotten terrorist crises and airplane hijackings in the early 1970s opened Nixon's eyes to the rising danger.
    "The '70s underscored the emergence of this new mode of political expression, this new mode of armed conflict that demonstrated that small groups with a limited capacity for violence could nonetheless achieve these disproportionate effects," said Jenkins.
    "They could cause worldwide alarm, they could oblige governments to devote vast resources to security," he explained. "Terrorists forced themselves onto the national agenda."
    The hijackings also shaped a debate about the new scourge of international terror in the media.
    The dean of the Washington press corps, New York Times journalist James Reston, wrote: "You can almost put it down as a rule that the more complicated a society is, the more vulnerable it is to sabotage."
    He continued, "It is not only the great airliners that can be disrupted at the whim of a few desperate men, but even vast modern cities like New York are at the mercy of any fanatics who know how to get at the critical centers of electrical power."
    Another Times columnist, C.L. Sulzberger, remarked that the explosion in new media technology, coinciding with commercial aviation's opening up the world, had provided a sweet spot for terrorist groups.
    The "jet age's implicit dangers and television's instant facilities ... favor revolutionists by stressing tension and emotion," he wrote. "This is an era where armed handfuls can torment entire societies."

    A call for global action

    While terrorism was never among the top rank of security threats in Nixon's mind, he was still preoccupied with the issue when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in October 1970. There he called for global action to end hijackings and the kidnappings of diplomats.
    "This problem has grown even more acute. Recent events have dramatically underscored its gravity and also underscored the fact that no nation is immune from it," Nixon warned.
    The next wake up call came in 1972 -- somewhat bizarrely, by way of a psychic. Nixon learned through his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, that the woman, Jeane Dixon, was warning of potential attacks on an Israeli or U.S. official in the United States, Naftali recounted.
    The president directed U.S. intelligence agencies to prepare contingency plans for a terror attack on U.S. soil and called for the establishment of a Cabinet committee grouping senior officials from the CIA, FBI and other agencies. The panel only met once, according to Naftali, who wrote a study of 1970s terrorism for the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. But it did mark the most organized federal response to date for meeting the scourge of terrorism.
    It would not be long before another incident -- albeit domestic -- would prompt fears about what terrorists could do if they targeted nuclear installations.
    On November 10, 1972, three convicted felons armed with handguns hijacked a Southern Airlines plane that was headed from Birmingham, Alabama, to Memphis, Tennessee.
    The men demanded a $10 million ransom and threatened to dive the plane into a nuclear research facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, if their demands were not met, an action that could have caused a nuclear disaster.
    The hijacking later ended in Cuba after 29 hours, but it triggered wholesale changes in airline security that form the backbone of what travelers must endure to this day -- including the screening of all passengers and their hand luggage. Guns were banned on planes.

    Dawn of the nuclear terror threat

    Naftali said that this was also the moment the government first began to take the possibility of nuclear terrorism seriously.
    A third major event at the time saw the genesis of America's long reluctance to negotiate with hostage takers. A policy that remained in place for decades came about by accident.
    In March 1973, Palestinian terrorists from the Black September organization took two senior U.S. diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel, and three others hostage in Khartoum and demanded the release of Palestinians in foreign jails -- including Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy.
    The demand confronted Nixon with a dilemma and a price he could never pay. Hassled by journalists on what he would do, he made up a new policy on the spot that quickly solidified into U.S. government orthodoxy.
    "We will do everything we can to get them released but we will not pay blackmail," said Nixon, in a statement that effectively doomed the American hostages, who were murdered.
    But the episode was "the origin of our current policy of no concessions, no negotiations with terrorists holding hostages," said Jenkins.
    Despite the Nixon administration's efforts, it could never put the terrorism genie back in the bottle.
    The deadly potential of the terrorism that gestated in the 1970s would reach a devastating maturity in the decades to come.
    That potential was already clear back then to sharp-eyed observers like Reston, who warned that the wave of hijackings could spread from the Middle East and become an "infectious disorder."
    "It is a quick and comparatively easy way to dramatize any cause, and it seems to have a compelling appeal to deranged minds," Reston wrote.