They’re even worried about a bin Laden threat from south of the (U.S.) border: Intelligence agencies and military special operations commandos are increasingly concerned about a nest of terrorists, drug traffickers and assorted organized crime figures who’ve taken up residence in South America’s tri-border area, where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. "It’s like the Wild West there; crime, religious extremism and politics are all linked under the table," says a Pentagon official.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]For several years, the CIA has had a team of agents monitoring terrorists from Hezbollah, Hamas, and more recently, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization who’ve poured into tri-border towns like Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este to cut deals with Colombian drug traffickers and European and Asian Mafia lieutenants. Counter-terrorism officials believe bin Laden has set up cells to proselytize the large Middle East expatriate population living in the tri-border area and to finance operations against the U.S. through international crime syndicates.
No link has been established between the tri-border nest and the September 11th attack, but Washington has pressed South American countries to round up suspects there and carefully screen passengers on flights out of the region. In September, for example, the Chilean Aeronautics Agency agreed to a U.S. request that the Santiago airport conduct security checks on international flights from neighboring Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay bound for the U.S.
Battling terrorists around the can be dangerous work for the CIA’s spies. And now it turns out they have to worry about the lawyers as well. Many CIA officers involved in counter-terrorism buy liability insurance to protect them from lawsuits; the agency currently pays only half their premiums. Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons, who served in the CIA for 10 years, wants to change that. He’s gotten the House to pass an amendment requiring the CIA to pay 100% of the premiums, which would cost the agency less than $1 million annually, and he’s pushing the Senate to do the same. While CIA officers don’t have to worry about Osama bin Laden hauling them into court, they can get caught in legal tangles overseas, particularly when dealing with unsavory characters in covert operations. It’s difficult, says Simmons, for spies to "function aggressively in this environment if they’re worried about getting shot and they’re worried about getting sued."