A tip led to the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Because the information came during an interrogation, U-S officials say they will not pay reward money from the government's Rewards for Justice program. Still, the program is playing an important role in the war on terror. VOA's Jeff Lilley looks at what's behind the reward plan and how it's working.
As part of the war on terror, the United States is paying big money for leads on America's top enemies. The State Department is using posters, the radio and the Internet to get the message out in eighteen languages.
"The United States government is requesting your help," says a promotional advertisement on the program's website. "What you know could prevent an act of terrorism. Rewards of up to 25 million dollars are being offered for information that prevents an international terrorist act against U-S persons or property or brings to justice persons who have committed one. If you have information, call Rewards for Justice at 1-800-US-REWARDS or e-mail us at email@example.com. Your call or e-mail will remain confidential."
So far, the U-S government has made 30 payments totaling 53 million dollars since 1984. A notable success against terrorism came in 1995 when an informant provided information on Ramzi Yousef, who planned the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He was traced to a hotel room in Islamabad, Pakistan, and arrested. The informant was paid two million dollars by the U-S government and resettled outside Pakistan to escape retribution.
But the program's biggest catch came last July in Iraq when U-S forces surrounded Saddam Hussein's two sons in the town of Mosul. Paul Peterson manages the Rewards for Justice Program for the U-S State Department:"An individual was aware of the rewards program, walked into a command post and said, 'I know where Uday and Qusay are.' The information proved to be valid. The military surrounded the house based on directions of this individual. They decided they were not going to come out, and they were killed during the battle to take the place. The individual was authorized 15 million per: 15 for Uday, 15 for Qusay. The rewards committee met within 48 hours and approved the 30 million-dollar reward offer."
That is the largest payment authorized in the history of the program. It exceeds the previous record of four-point-five million dollars for information that led to the arrest of a Libyan agent in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 1-0-3 over Scotland.
In 1950 the U-S Government began paying rewards for information about common criminals. The American public has responded enthusiastically. Citizen tips have led law enforcement authorities to almost one-third of the 477 people on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's celebrated Most Wanted List.
The Rewards for Justice program aims to take that success overseas where enemies of the United States have proved elusive. Though it has been in effect for almost twenty years, the program has taken on increased importance in the war on terror.
"It's a way of making terrorists even more nervous about looking over their shoulder because in the course of their activities they come in contact with many people who would gladly turn them in for the money," says James Phillips, a specialist on terrorism at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The true believers that belong in some of these terrorist groups may not be motivated by money, but the surrounding logistical network the people that get them false documents, the people that help smuggle them across the borders, their associates in other fundraising schemes -- that is a weak link for them, and by tapping into the money hungriness of some of their compatriots, it's a way of getting at the terrorists themselves."
Currently, the Rewards for Justice program is offering up to 25 million dollars for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Charlie Sparks oversees the program at the State Department. "We think it offers a valuable tool as part of the U-S government's war on terrorism. We're establishing a track record that there is gain to be had, not just for the humanitarian aspect of saving innocent lives, but it offers a tool. As many intelligence and law enforcement organizations know, an informant program -- a rewards-type program -- is very useful, and there are people who will come forward for the money and give us information."
The Rewards for Justice program averages about 120 phone calls a day and one thousand-200 hits a week on its web site. But Paul Peterson of the State Department says most of the information is from Americans trying to collect rewards for information about crime in their neighborhoods, not international terrorism.
He says the program's biggest challenge is getting the word out in hostile regions of the world. It's too dangerous to put up posters in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where U-S forces are waging war, and people are reluctant to come forward in person with information.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says if the United States wants to get more valuable tips, it must advertise more than money rewards to would-be informants in Muslim countries. "One thing that motivates people in the Middle East even more than money is to advance the interests of their family," he says. "So if people who gave information could be assured they and their families would be resettled in a country of their choice, or even in the United States, then I would be all for that."
Other analysts think the United States may have to go a step further by offering money or "bounties" for the elimination of terrorists as well.
"There are some people who are so bad that the world really needs to be rid of them," says Paul Henze, a former U-S government analyst of foreign affairs. "Offering a financial reward is not necessarily an unwise way to deal with them because pursuing them requires spending not only millions but billions of dollars, and trying to repair the damage they do also absorbs billions of dollars. So a financial reward is a fairly cheap way of dealing with the problem."
But critics contend paying bounties lessens the possibility of getting intelligence from a live captured terrorist and could expose the United States government to charges it is encouraging murder. They believe the United States should stay with its policy of paying only for information.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation thinks it's just a matter of time before Al Qaida's top leaders are betrayed. He believes the latest terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in which many Muslims were killed, are beginning to erode support for the terrorist organization.
"Osama bin Laden's Al Qaida organization has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims and has killed more Afghans than Americans," he says. "So catching him is not just in American interests but in the interest of all Muslims, and eventually I think bin Laden will be defeated by Muslims who are fed up with his violence."
The Rewards for Justice program has translated its web page into Dari, Pashto, Arabic and Urdu languages, and U-S government officials say they are getting responses from areas of the world wherever terrorism is a problem. But they are still waiting for the tip that will lead them to Osama bin Laden, who has eluded a U-S led manhunt for more than two years.