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U.S.: Is Closing Congress Victory For Terrorists?

  • Andrew Tully

If the goal of terrorists is to terrorize, have they succeeded now that the U.S. House of Representatives is taking a recess to allow an inspection of all buildings used by Congress and members of the Senate have sent their staffs home for the same reason?

Washington, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Capitol and the office buildings that serve it will be virtually deserted for several days to give health officials an opportunity test them for the presence of anthrax.

On 15 October, an aide to the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), opened a letter addressed to Daschle that contained a powder that was found to have a form of the bacterium that can become easily airborne and therefore is more efficient in infecting bystanders.

Congressional officials announced yesterday that more than 30 people, including members of Daschle's staff, had tested positive for exposure to anthrax, although there was no evidence yet that anyone had contracted the disease. The officials also said anthrax spores had been found in the congressional mailroom.

Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the House will recess after the close of business yesterday so testing of the Capitol and its office buildings can be conducted. He said the House will not reconvene until next 23 October, at the earliest.

Daschle, however, said the Senate will remain open for business.

"It is my strong determination, and Senator [Minority Leader Trent] Lott's as well, that we will not let this stop the work of the Senate."

But Daschle's announcement must be put in perspective. The Senate leader said only the members of the Senate will be on duty. Their staffs will be "excused," as he put it, until the building tests are complete. Therefore, only the 100 Senators, plus guards and perhaps a few aides, will be occupying the nation's legislative headquarters. Normally, 20,000 people work in the Capitol and its office buildings.

There is no evidence so far that the anthrax letters -- which also have been received in New York and the southern U.S. state of Florida -- are directly related to the 11 September terrorist attacks that killed more than 5,000 people. But Tom Ridge, the new director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, says the anthrax mailings and September's bloody attacks are, as he put it, "beyond coincidence."

Some observers have called the exodus from the Capitol unprecedented. Others -- including one former member of Congress -- recall two bombing incidents at the Capitol that led to brief recesses.

Unprecedented or not, the question remains: Have the terrorists terrorized America's legislators enough to keep them from doing their job? Are they setting a poor example for Americans, whom U.S. President George W. Bush has urged to get on with their lives even though there may be terrorists in their midst? In short, is this partial closure of Congress a victory for terror?

In a way, yes, according to Roger Pilon, director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy center in Washington. Pilon told RFE/RL that Congress already has been acting hastily to pass legislation that is designed to improve national security but that he says may also restrict Americans' civil liberties.

In fact only yesterday, the House passed legislation that would fight international money laundering and thereby hinder the financing of terrorism. Pilon noted that it passed by a vote of 412 to one -- after only 15 minutes' debate.

Pilon said this measure is only one of several bills that the U.S. Justice Department wants enacted to help it fight international terrorism. In calling for passage, Attorney General [Justice Minister] John Ashcroft recently told Congress that he was not merely bearing a "wish list".

But Pilon says Ashcroft's legislative package is just that, and Congress is granting that wish hastily, in part because of this abrupt Capitol recess.

"We are seeing legislation run through with very little thought. We all know that the Department of Justice has a 'wish list,' as do other federal and state law enforcement agencies. But under normal times, cooler heads prevail."

But one former House member says he believes Pilon is taking too dim a view of the legislation. Former Congressman Bill Frenzel (R-Minnesota) says members of the House have had plenty of time to study the measure regardless of whether they made a long public show of debating it. Frenzel rejects Pilon's argument: "I do not believe that. We've had Congress give a pretty thorough look to those bills, and we may find that in an excess of zeal to protect our national security that we've overstepped. But this is only a matter of law, not constitution. We can easily correct it."

In fact, a third observer -- Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia -- says he believes that House members have taken extraordinary measures to pass only part of the bill now, so that they can give further study to other parts of the legislation, which some see as being too restrictive of civil liberties.

"The money laundering provisions were one of the least controversial provisions in the package proposed by the Justice Department. Democrats and Republicans of all stripes were able to agree on that. The more controversial provisions have been set aside, they will be fully debated, some of them will not pass."

But the question remains whether the nearly complete evacuation of Congress plays directly into the hands of the terrorists. Frenzel dismisses the thought absolutely. The former congressman says the leaders of the House and the Senate are merely taking reasonable precautions in the face of a serious threat.

"The House is going to great lengths to ensure the safety of its members, its staff and Capitol visitors, et cetera. And so I do not believe that this should give any comfort to our tormentors. I would think that it would simply stiffen the back of the Congress."

Sabato agrees. In fact, he says what gives more comfort to terrorists is the way the American news media have been covering the anthrax scares.

"On the whole, I think this is really being overblown. It was impossible to exaggerate the effect of 11 September. It is possible to exaggerate the effect of a few random anthrax letters that are having very little real impact on most people."

Nationwide, four people are known to have contracted anthrax and nine others have tested positive for exposure to the disease, in addition to those exposed to the bacterium at the Capitol. One of those who contracted the disease died nearly two weeks ago, in early October.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into strong similarities between the anthrax-tainted letter sent to Daschle in Washington and a letter with anthrax that was sent to a television news station in New York. But so far, no firm connection has been established.

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