By George C. Wilson
September 12, 2001Tuesday's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were a Pearl Harbor that, while not sinking warships, blew up the national agenda and American politics.
Every member of Congress - whether Democrat, Republican or Independent - will have to rethink his or her position on issues ranging from the sacredness of the Social Security trust fund to the adequacy of the anti-terrorist, concrete barriers surrounding the Capitol building.
From this day forward, no political candidate can safely ignore the vulnerability of Americans and their infrastructure - buildings, airports, shopping malls, reservoirs and even the air they breathe - to terrorist attack. They will have to demonstrate that they are aware of and are doing something about this prairie fire of public worry.
President Bush undoubtedly will respond to the attacks by sending a number of new legislative initiatives down Pennsylvania Avenue, including more money for the active duty military and National Guard to combat terrorism. Emergency money requests for the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and federal emergency activities are among the likely responses.
Legislators trying to reserve Social Security surpluses to pay down the national debt are apt to be crushed in a congressional stampede to go along with the president and throw money at the terrorist problem. The behind-the-scenes argument between local fire departments and the National Guard of who should get the primary mission - and federal money - to help the victims of terrorist attacks has suddenly been pushed front and center. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a former volunteer fireman who founded the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, will be at the forefront of this fight as he champions existing emergency fire and police units.
The impact on Bush's single most controversial military program - the deployment of a national missile defense - could be positive or negative, depending on how the public responds to the contrary arguments members of Congress are expected to make once the smoke from today's attacks clears. Proponents now are in a position to argue that anything that reduces the demonstrated vulnerability of Americans, including a long-range missile attack from a crazed leader willing to commit national suicide, should be pursued - even though an anti-missile umbrella would not be leak-proof, and could cost $60 billion or more.
Opponents of rushing into a national missile defense can cite today's kamikaze-like aircraft attacks as proof that a long-distance missile attack should be pushed down the list of national worries and preparations. National missile defense dollars should be redirected to meet more probable threats, they likely will argue.
Charges of "intelligence gap" started to reverberate in Congress today even as smoke continued to pour out of the Pentagon. Weldon went on national television, for example, to charge that "our government failed the American people" by not detecting the terrorists' preparations.
"This is 21st century warfare," he said.
Congressional hearings, along with extra millions for the National Security Agency - which tries to eavesdrop on terrorists' conversations all around the world - as well as the CIA and the FBI are likely to accompany scoldings by the lawmakers. A number of lawmakers saw the attacks as acts of war and demanded retaliation.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was in this camp, as was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who said the president now must "go after the bastards." Given such demands, Bush will have strong congressional backing in whatever he decides to do to make good on his promise to "hunt down and punish" those responsible.
By George C. Wilson
September 12, 2001