WASHINGTON, D.C.—Anyone looking to cure what’s wrong with Congress these days might just as well skip Cipro and start handing out anti-anxiety pills. Lawmakers spent last week running around like chickens, simultaneously dosing staffers to ward off anthrax, fleeing Washington, and calling for the U.S. to nuke Afghanistan, Iraq, and anyone else in the way.
“If we’re a primary target, us leaving town limits the collateral damage to staff,” said Idaho Republican senator Larry E. Craig, in the wake of dozens of anthrax exposures on the Hill.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott wanted to close Congress for the rest of the year. “Once we get through the things that need to be done as a result of September 11 and get our appropriations bills through then we [should] recess.”
The sight of Congress fleeing the Capitol at the very moment ground troops were landing in Afghanistan proved embarrassing. “People are really pissed—going out of town looking like a bunch of cowards and chumps,” said one representative, a Democrat who would talk to the Voice only on condition of anonymity.
The Senate and House leadership reportedly met and agreed to shut down at the same time. Then, says one member of Congress, the Senate double-crossed the House by announcing it would stay open a day longer—thereby allowing the Democratic Senate to appear a little less cowardly than the right-wing Republicans who run the House.
Nobody blamed House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who looked like your average frightened guy. “He’s a wrestling coach,” said a Capitol Hill regular. “He cares about people. And he sees a lot of young people.” Apparently, Hastert was worried anthrax might waft through the tunnel that connects the Capitol to House and Senate office buildings, endangering workers. But what shook the Democrats was the sudden emergence of their own leader, Dick Gephardt, with a wild look in his eyes and talking, as one member put it, in “apocalyptical” tones. “He was scared to death,” said an observer.
As were many in Washington, where the only thing you can count on these days is the unceasing roar of jet fighters flying high above the city, spiked every so often by the screaming sirens of official motorcades complete with Secret Service details peering through open windows. The always bumbling and now jacked-up D.C. police have turned office buildings into forts, with concrete barriers and ominous security posts. Up Massachusetts Avenue, facing the vice president’s grounds, SUVs block the gate. Down the street, plainclothes officers sit in unmarked cars watching the fences. Brown military choppers, beating the air, come and go all day.
Late news that anthrax had infected two postal workers outside the Capitol area was taken as another ominous sign that the people who run the city are hiding information or, more likely, are totally clueless. By Monday, officials were investigating the suspicious deaths of two other postal employees from the same facility, and ordering anyone who had spent time there in the past 11 days to come in immediately for testing. What took them so long?
Meanwhile, the District’s hazmat squads were overwhelmed with freak calls, like someone spotting a bit of powder or some spilled jam. One woman plotted an evacuation route by back roads to West Virginia. Signs in hardware stores said: “Latex Gloves—Small to Large.”
Some bitterly suggested the Georgetown social set was hoarding Cipro. In its handling of the anthrax scare, congressional leadership may have been—to put it politely—confused and misinformed. Thousands of Capitol Hill staffers, reporters, and lobbyists lined up for testing Tuesday. By noon, some 2000 had been given six tablets of Cipro and told to take two each day before returning for further testing. In doing so, legislators were handing out a medicine known for fierce side effects, from inflamed bowels to paranoia, convulsions, and potentially fatal interactions with asthma treatments. But the same 1999 army study that recommended Cipro for anthrax also backed doxycycline, a drug with far fewer complications.
Lawmakers have been just as wild in their political response. In remarks he now says were misconstrued, Arizona senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, said at a town meeting in Tucson that the U.S. ought to retaliate with nuclear weapons if terrorists attacked with chemicals or germs. “I can’t think of any other appropriate response in the case of a massive attack with biological weapons,” he said. “We have to let terrorist states know that nothing is off the table.”
Hightailing it had the added advantage of avoiding embarrassing controversy over the sticking points in America’s response to terrorism.
For starters, members of Congress can’t agree on whether private business should continue to run airport security. The left argues that for-profit companies will never invest the wages needed to ensure safety, while the right resists the creation of thousands more government—and thus unionized—jobs. During a news conference Tuesday at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, Democrat Gephardt said he could “no longer stand by while a handful in the House of Representatives prevent dramatic reform of aviation security.”
“That is politics,” countered House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, a staunch GOP opponent of federalization. “What the Democrats want is 30,000 new dues-paying union members.”
And since the two sides can’t reach an understanding on airport protection, there isn’t any. “We haven’t done shit about airline security,” one member acknowledged bleakly.
Airport security isn’t the least of it. Lawmakers are divided on antiterrorist legislation, with liberals worrying about the Bill of Rights and conservatives dithering over allowing the government to paw through people’s finances and potentially seize their assets.
With the economy hurtling downhill, the two sides are also bickering over terms of the response package. Like Reagan before him, Bush has embraced a Keynesian approach to defense policy—in short, deficit spending—while the right-wingers wring their hands over injuring the free market and instead favor more and more tax cuts for the wealthy as an economic stimulus.
Republicans face an ideological quandary of their own making. For years, they have strived to reduce the size of government, slashing funding for social programs and returning control to the states. But in the current crisis, they find themselves as cheerleaders for the birth of the most powerful federal government the country has seen since the Second World War. The whole notion of a free market seems especially flimsy if Uncle Sam gets the right to peer through your bank records and freeze your accounts. He might even—the horror—start prosecuting you for tax violations.
Worst of all, a new congressional report reveals that national leaders—including congressional intelligence committees—sat on their hands as the CIA fell to pieces before their very eyes. Not only can’t CIA agents speak the language of countries they are supposed to be spying on, but they are not sufficiently motivated even to try spying in the first place.
This has been going on under the oversight of congressional committees, which routinely approve and authorize money. A glimpse into their thinking is contained in the following comments by the senior Republican senator on the Intelligence Committee, Orrin Hatch. Asked recently if he would still support giving assistance to Osama bin Laden, as the U.S. did when the terrorist was fighting communist troops in Afghanistan, Hatch gave a thumbs-up. “It was worth it,” he said, adding, “Those were very important, pivotal matters that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union.”
That same kind of insight, or lack of it, fuels lawmakers’ zeal for the atom bomb. In calling for nukes, they’re uprooting decades of policy. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared that “the United States will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state that is party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, unless the United States or its interests were attacked by such a state allied to a nuclear-weapon state.”
As noted by The Washington Post, this declaration has been reaffirmed by every successive administration.
Fast-forward to Indiana GOP representative Steve Buyer’s Wednesday press conference, when he told a crowd at the Indianapolis airport that he could see backing limited use of nuclear arms under certain conditions. If you can prove a real link between anthrax and Bin Laden, then “I would support the use of a limited, precision tactical nuclear device. What does that mean? When there are hardened caves that go back a half a mile. . .don’t send in Special Forces to sweep. We’d be naive to think biotoxins are not in there. Put in tactical nuclear devices and close these caves for a thousand years.”
A couple of weeks earlier, Senator Kyl acknowledged that nukes would mean civilian deaths, but said we should go ahead anyhow and think about using them, even if the U.S. can’t determine who launched a chemical or biological attack. “I would probably go a step further and say to all terrorist states that we’re probably not going to know exactly where it came from,” the AP quotes Kyl as saying, “so we’re going to hold them all responsible.”
Asked whether the U.S. had ruled out using nuclear weapons, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that historically, “the United States, to my knowledge, has never ruled out the use of nuclear weapons.” However, he’s never actually suggested using them.
A Pentagon review may well include wording that supports use of small nuclear devices for such things as hitting deep tunnels and caves, according to The Washington Post.
Important conservative military advisers in Washington have urged the Bush administration to keep the nuclear option open. The National Institute for Public Policy (a conservative think tank staffed by among others Stephen Hadley, now Bush’s deputy national security advisor and Robert G. Joseph, head of proliferation strategy at the National Security Council) said in a January 2001 report, “U.S. nuclear weapons may be necessary” to deter rogue states and for provide “unique targeting capabilities” including buried or biological weapons targets. “Under certain circumstances, very severe nuclear threats may be needed to deter any of these potential adversaries.”
While the U.S. has generally said it won’t use nuclear weapons, NATO, of which the U.S. is a member, does include nuclear weapons in its menu of possible responses to a conventional war attack. In April 1996, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said in a statement on the Libyan Chemical Warfare Facility, “If some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory.” He added, “In every situation that I have seen so far, nuclear weapons would not be required for response. That is, we could make a devastating response without the use of nuclear weapons, but we would not forswear that possibility.”
Fear of widespread germ attacks has made some on the right feel justified in considering the unimaginable. “Biological weapons can kill more people ounce for ounce than a nuclear weapon,” said Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which feeds the administration many of its policy ideas. “You need to be able to deter someone. If the only reasonable threat is nuclear, then you can’t keep that off the table.”
Additional reporting: Ariston-Lisabeth Anderson, Meritxell Mir, and Sarah Park