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Reactions from the Hill

August 20, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some congressional views of the U.S. actions today from two Democrats, Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, and Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana; and two Republicans, Sen. Rod Grams of Minnesota, and Sen. John Kyl of Arizona. Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana may also be joining us shortly. First, beginning with you, Sen. Robb, do you support the U.S. Actions today?

SEN. CHARLES ROBB, (D) Virginia: Absolutely. I think it was the right thing to do. I think timing was right, and I think it sends a very important message to the rest of the world that we have counter-terrorist capability that has global reach and that we are not going to sit idly by while our interest or particularly our citizens are attacked by terrorists, that there is a price to pay, and in this particular case, we had hard intelligence, not only about past activities but about what was going on today and what was about to happen, that those who might put our interest at risk ought to consider the consequences.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Kyl, the right thing to do?

SEN. JOHN KYL, (R) Arizona: Yes, I support the president’s action, both because of the connection of Osama bin Laden to past terrorist activities, as well as the threats that he has made against Americans around the world in the future.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hamilton, your view.

REP. LEE HAMILTON, (D) Indiana: I support it. America is the target. Americans are the target. It’s a deadly form of terrorism. The evidence here is strong and compelling of the linkage between Osama bin Laden and these actions that took place in East Africa. The United States now is moving to a new phase in its effort against terrorism, and that means, in part, military action of a preemptive kind to go after the source of terrorism.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Grams, how do you feel about it?

SEN. ROD GRAMS, (R) Minnesota: Well, I agree as well, and I think we needed to send a very strong and very clear message to terrorists around the world that Americans will not stand for this type of terrorist activity or terrorist threats, either the ones on the embassies in Africa recently, or any planned threats in the future. So I very strongly support this, and I think these raids were carried out, I hope, very successfully.

JIM LEHRER: And do you believe that they will be effective-in other words, that they will result in a reduction of terrorism or possible terrorism by these groups?

SEN. ROD GRAMS: Well, I think we can look at what happened when such a retaliatory attack was done on Gaddafi in Libya. We haven’t heard much from him since, and I hope that this same type of message is sent to Mr. bin Laden, that the United States will not tolerate this–when any American citizen is threatened anywhere in the world, that we have a very long reach, and we have a very long memory, and that we will retaliate with this type of a strike any time American lives are threatened or when any Americans are killed.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Robb, some people have suggested that just the opposite might happen, that this might trigger even worse terrorist attacks against the United States, because they would be so angry about these attacks today. How do you read that?

SEN. CHARLES ROBB: Well, there’s no question that we’re going to have to be especially watchful and take extra precautions, and we’re doing that. Additional security measures have been instituted, some upgrading of security is taking place as we speak, but some of these things are going to happen anyhow, and the question is whether or not we do something preemptive that, number one, and it’s designed-I don’t know how much has come out yet-but certainly after all the intelligence is shared, and I think more of it will be with respect to the kind of target that we’re going after, particularly in Afghanistan in the camps, we’re going to put an end to at least the ability of some of those who would conduct these terrorist activities to conduct that terrorism. And I think that we send a message not only to Osama bin Laden but to other terrorists that they don’t have automatic sanctuary just because they’re outside of the reach of our normal legal or judicial process.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hamilton, the Senator is right there, is he not? I mean, there’s more than bin Laden’s people in that-particularly in that Afghanistan terrorist complex, correct?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Yes. I think one of the reasons we struck today, as the president indicated, was that there was a meeting of terrorists in Afghanistan. We knew they were meeting; we knew where they were meeting; and we thought this was an opportune time. Osama bin Laden-

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. To interrupt, was the motive to try to do away with these people at the meeting? Was this an attempt to kill the people at the meeting?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: I think it was an attempt to go basically after the infrastructure, but we knew there were high-ranking terrorists there, and we went after them, and the infrastructure there. I don’t think we went after personalities, but the fact that you had a meeting of importance taking place there made it a target of great interest to us.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Kyl, the Pentagon and other U.S. officials have declined to go into any details about this attack. They won’t even say whether they were conducted by bombers, or whether they were conducted by Cruise missiles from U.S. ships. How do you feel about that?

SEN. JOHN KYL: I think it’s appropriate that discussions of the operations await the conclusion of the strikes in the operations because there could be additional actions necessary to be taken. You wouldn’t want to jeopardize either the operation or the people involved in conducting those operations. So the secretary is correct in not discussing the specifics of the operation at this time.

Based upon actions we’ve taken in the past, including the retaliation for the threat on-the attempt on the life of President George Bush, one can assume that cruise missiles were used, and I think there’s a fairly good understanding of the kind of weapons that we had available to us in the region, and the kind that would be necessary to strike in this particular kind of case. But in terms of the other details of the operation, I think the secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs are absolutely correct in reporting that information until they can assess the damage and until it’s appropriate to release information about the conclusion of the operations.

JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, Senator, most Cruise missiles are launched by ships, are they not, rather than by bombers?

SEN. JOHN KYL: That’s correct. They could be launched either way-by surface to vessel or by submarine. In the past, I think you’re correct, most of them have been launched by surface ship.

JIM LEHRER: And Senator Robb, that’s most likely what happened in this case, is it not?

SEN. CHARLES ROBB: Again, I’m going to accept the guidelines that the Pentagon has put out at this point. I suspect a rather significant after-action report. At this point we have some live pictures in terms of what happened just outside of Khartoum at the chemical weapons, or at least the precursor manufacturing facility. We don’t have much in the way of after-action report in terms of what happened to the camps, and I think because of the possibility of the need to follow up, I don’t think we want to speculate too much on exactly how it was carried out.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Sen. Grams, one of your colleagues, Sen. Coats, who may join us here in a few moments, a Republican from Indiana, suggested today at a news conference and a couple of other interviews that-he questioned the timing of this, the possibility that the president was trying to distract from his own problems, and that’s the reason he ordered these strikes today. Do you have a view on that?

SEN. ROD GRAMS: I think it’s a shame that these questions even come up, but I think it shows to the extent that the office of the president has been damaged, that people even question these type of motives of the president’s order to strike, and so I think this all comes down, and, you know, with these questions being raised here on Capitol Hill, and I think across the country, I think it shows exactly how much damage has been done to the office of the president, because, again, when people begin to question their leader, they begin to question the decisions that their leader makes, and, again, when this happens, we support the president.

I think this was an appropriate response. But I think in the back of many people’s minds you’re going to have these questions that are going to come to the surface, and I know I’ve talked to many reporters today, and in just about every interview the reporters asked that very question. And I think it just goes back to the controversy that still surrounds the White House today.

JIM LEHRER: Did it leap to you-to the back of your mind, Senator?

SEN. ROD GRAMS: Yes, it did. I had this question, and although, you know, I just kind of thought about it, because of the movie “Wag the Dog” and-

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. ROD GRAMS: –other things that have come up, but, you know, my first thought was, of course, that I supported the president’s action, and I thought this was a very appropriate response. But then again in reflection I think that comes to the surface of many people’s minds, and of course that was just reiterated by many of the calls that I had today.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hamilton, you’ve been asked this question before today-before right now today, as well, have you not?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Sure. It’s a fair question. I think we should address it. You know, early this morning I was reading in the paper and listening to the news the president was being attacked because he was incapacitated, because he was distracted, he could not act. A few hours later the criticism flips 180 degrees, and it is a criticism of the president for acting because he was under political domestic pressure.

I think the relevant question is not the politics. The relevant question is: Did the president act in the American national interest? I think he did. I really cannot remember a time when an American president in past years took aggressive military action when the charge was not made by someone of domestic politics.

I don’t think any American president that I have known sends young men and women into places of danger for domestic political purposes. They do it because it is their judgment that the American national interest requires it. That doesn’t make it the right judgment all the time, but it is the basis on which American presidents, Republican and Democrat, have always acted.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Kyl, what’s your view of this?

SEN. JOHN KYL: My view is that the intelligence community and the military planned this action, and recommended it to the president. It wasn’t his idea initially, but he did the right thing in authorizing it. That’s why I support the action. I’ve been critical of this president certainly in the past for being indecisive in foreign affairs and military affairs. If his domestic political difficulties gave him more courage to say yes to this operation, then all the better, but the bottom line is that Lee Hamilton is right. It was the right thing to do, and whatever the reasons, it needed to be done, and I think we’d ought to also thank the same people the president thanked, the intelligence agency and officers who’ve understood the information necessary to put the operation together, the FBI agents, who have been so good in making a case that Osama bin Laden is connected to the bombings in the African embassies, and the military people, of course, who have conducted these strikes.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Robb, what about Sen. Gramm’s point, though, that just the fact that people are asking these questions about an action like this that the president took hurts us?

SEN. CHARLES ROBB: Well, I think the thing to remember here is that by acting, we demonstrated to the international community that we would not be mobilized by domestic considerations, and I think that that was probably an important message to send at this particular time, because there were people that were suggesting that because of whatever was happening here at home, that we might not be able to respond to a true emergency, and you know that any time a president, particularly when he acts in his capacity as commander in chief, is going to be subjected to some criticism. And if you go ahead and act and recognize that this down side may exist in terms of commentary or whatever the case may be, I think you send an important reassuring message.

I would also like to suggest that there were many that participated in this process, including some of our allies with important intelligence contributions to the effort, it was a joint effort. I think once more of the information about why the decision was made and when it was made becomes public, I think there will be a reaffirmation of confidence the people have in this particular process. But it would have been, I believe, very, very dangerous to suggest that the United States was somehow not going to act because it might be construed as being political.

JIM LEHRER: Just a quick thing before we go, Sen. Robb, I’ve just been informed that the Sudanese government has taken possession of our empty embassy in Khartoum. What’s your reaction to that?

SEN. CHARLES ROBB: I think-

JIM LEHRER: I’ve just been corrected. Not the Sudanese government hasn’t occupied it; a mob of Sudanese people have.

SEN. CHARLES ROBB: Well, that’s not an entirely unexpected reaction, particularly in a country that has been the recipient of U.S. munitions, however delivered without the benefit of the entire U.S. explanation. Again, the early commentary from their public television-or from their television station was hardly supportive of the U.S. position in this case-

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. CHARLES ROBB: So I think that’s not all that surprising.

JIM LEHRER: No surprise, Sen. Grams?

SEN. ROD GRAMS: No surprise, really. I think the leadership of Sudan is probably whipping up this kind of anti-American sentiment, and this is probably, you know, one of the offshoots of that, but I think this was something that you could expect, that their leadership would take this type of activity to disgrace or to whip up anti-American sentiment.

JIM LEHRER: And more to come. And gentlemen, thank you all four very much.