Mission Creep

Defining terrorism


As the U.S. government moves past the Afghan stage of the War on Terrorism, it will need to choose its battles cautiously. Various countries are likely to invoke the new global mandate against terror to justify egregious and unwarranted violations of human rights.

Underlining this point was Barbara Walters' November interview of Russian president and former KGB spook Vladimir Putin on ABC's 20/20. One remark, regarding Putin's reaction to the September attack, made headlines: "We had talked about the possible threats to the United States, to other countries, but were not able to determine who, where, and how they could strike. And this was the first feeling I had, the feeling of anger and, to some extent, the feeling of guilt."

No headline mentioned that, in context, it was quite clear that Putin didn't feel guilty. He felt smug. His claim of remorse was actually an admonishment. This became clear when, right on cue, Walters noted that Putin had warned then?President Clinton about bin Laden but was ignored. "Even at that time we certainly were counting on more active cooperation in combating terrorism," Putin responded.

More specifically, Putin was counting on more active cooperation in combating the Chechens, terrorists or not. Muslim guerrillas trained in Afghanistan were apparently fighting alongside Chechen militants for independence from Russia. Putin wanted to share intelligence. Clinton declined, declaring the conflict an "internal Russian matter."

Putin also told Walters that while he felt "guilt…at the same time [he] understood quite well what the American people and the American leadership felt at that time," apparently comparing the World Trade Center attacks to two apartment building bombings in Moscow in 1999. The Russian government said the bombs, which killed hundreds, were the work of Chechen terrorists.

International cooperation in the War on Terrorism should stop well short of applauding or assisting Russia's actions in Chechnya, where the government has rarely distinguished between civilians and militants in a centuries-long fight to rule the territory by force.