To pretend that it is taking action on a variety of public issues, Congress mandates scads of blue-ribbon commissions to study everything from soup to nuts. Most of the conclusions and recommendations of such panels find their way into the circular file. We would be better off if the findings of the congressionally mandated National Commission on Terrorism meet that fate.

The commission — composed primarily of hawkish former government officials and impaneled in 1998 after the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa — essentially recommends destroying the central tenets of American democracy in order to “save” it. The panel’s draconian recommendations include monitoring the thousands of foreign college students in America and calling on the military to take control in the event of a catastrophic act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

Although the commission noted that most foreign students come in peace to the United States and pose no threat, a “small minority may exploit their student status to support terrorist activity.” Following foreign students to keggers on college campuses all over America does not seem to be an effective way to fight terrorism. More important, the monitoring of foreign students seems better suited to the defunct police state of the Soviet Union than it does to the freest nation on earth.

Using the military to conduct law enforcement in the event of a catastrophic terrorist act is a further erosion of the posse comitatus law of 1878, which was designed to help safeguard civil liberties by keeping the military out of law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are trained to exercise restraint in the use of force; soldiers are taught to achieve their objectives through overwhelming force.

In addition to undermining cherished American civil liberties, the panel’s radical recommendations do not fit the severity of the threat. The U.S. government spends $10 billion a year in the “war” against terrorism and involves countless agencies in the fight. The panel recommended increasing counterterrorism funding and activities, yet according to the latest State Department report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, from 1994 to 1999 an average of only 11 Americans died per year worldwide from terrorism, most of which occurred overseas. The State Department’s statistics show that North America is by far the global region safest from terrorist attacks: In 1999 only one anti-American terrorist attack occurred; during five of the last six years, no deaths from terrorist attacks occurred. Any death from terrorism is a tragedy, but such statistics indicate that the government’s counterterrorism effort may already vastly exceed the threat.

Of course, the commission’s report, along with other government reports, indicates that terrorists may soon be able to acquire and employ weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons). A single successful act of “catastrophic terrorism” could wipe out tens or hundreds of thousands of people in an American city. Thus, catastrophic terrorism — unlike more traditional terrorism — would be a strategic threat to the very fabric of U.S. society.

But it is dangerous and wrongheaded to argue that we must undermine civil liberties now in order to prevent a catastrophic future attack that could promote demands for further reductions in liberties. James Woolsey, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and a commission member, uses that logic to defend the panel’s recommendations. Even with increased powers, law enforcement agencies would have difficulty preventing terrorists from obtaining and smuggling across the many thousands of miles of U.S. borders the small quantities of nuclear, biological or chemical material needed to devastate a U.S. city. Even if the military took the lead in responding to a catastrophic incident, emergency services would probably be easily overwhelmed by such an attack. Although the chances of preventing or successfully mitigating such a horrific incident are low, the probability of an attack is still uncertain. On the other hand, the threat to civil liberties proposed by the commission is a certainty and only sets a precedent for more draconian measures in the wake of an attack.

Fortunately, the United States is not forced to accept the trade-off that is implicit in the commission’s report. President Clinton, the Defense Science Board and even the commission itself admit that U.S. activism overseas leads to an increase in terrorism against U.S. targets worldwide. The commission admitted that if “Osama bin Laden were to disappear tomorrow, the U.S. would still face potential terrorist threats from a growing number of groups opposed to perceived American hegemony.” In 1999 attacks against U.S. targets worldwide accounted for 43 percent of the world’s terrorism, according to the State Department. The United States could reduce its profile as a target for terrorism by intervening militarily overseas only when vital U.S. interests are at stake. Adopting a policy of military restraint abroad would allow the United States to keep the unique constitutional liberties that the commission would blithely sacrifice.