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Concerned Capitol

Margaret Warner talks to Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) about the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill, and its implications for the war against terrorism.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    We get more on the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill and other aspects of the investigation from two senators.

    Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts is a member of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism. And Republican Fred Thompson of Tennessee is the ranking member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been holding hearings on homeland defense. He also sits on the Intelligence Committee. Welcome, gentlemen.

    Did you ever think the day would come, Senator Thompson, when the business of the U.S. Congress would be curtailed and its office buildings shut down by an act of biological terrorism?

  • SEN. FRED THOMPSON:

    No, never did. You know, we live in interesting times, as they say. But, you know, it's something that we've got to be prepared for; it's something that we really have been warned against. I don't think any of us really took it to heart, up until now.

    But there's been information out there for some time that we face a new series of threats, we face a different kind of enemy out there, different kind of people who are interested in doing us harm.

    But unfortunately it takes some dramatic event to really get our attention. But our attention has been gotten and I think that we're doing a responsible job of responding to it — not going to extreme, not going overboard, not panicking or anything like that, but simply acknowledging that there is some potential harm, some potential threats out there dealing with it and going about our business.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Your thoughts, Senator Kerry?

  • SEN. JOHN KERRY:

    I think we always knew it was a possibility, but it was one of those possibilities that you leave in a theoretical status. And the optimism of the human spirit sort of pushes it off into the 'I come think it will happen' category, or hope it won't.

    Obviously, September 11th has sent shock waves through all of the entities that are charged with the responsibility for preventing or for prosecuting these kinds of efforts. I think the new alertness is already paying off. We lost the fellow in Florida, and we're obviously all affected by that.

    But the better side of this story is that we now are discovering each of these other episodes, almost immediately, we're responding effectively. We have been able to provide antibiotics to people almost immediately. And there's 100% certainty that those who get those antibiotics will not get sick, and certainly I think we all feel better about where we're heading here.

    We also need to remember terrorists are setting out to do exactly what is happening today: to send terror, to send anxiety, to disrupt.

    So it is particularly incumbent on all of us, I think, to without stepping over the line of not being cautious or sensitive, to not allow them to do that, to continue our lives. And that is what we must do in this country.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senator Thompson, do you think that the reaction, and I'm not being critical here, I'm just asking for what message you think Americans may take from this, that such a symbolic institution as the U.S. Congress has been so affected, that it may just heighten the sense of vulnerability that all Americans feel?

  • SEN. FRED THOMPSON:

    Well, I certainly hope not. I think we do have a special obligation and really a special line to walk.

    We have an obligation for one thing to the parents of those many young people who work for us. They're reading and seeing television reports, some of which are not accurate and are very concerned. So we've got to make sure that we do things that give assurance that we're looking out for those young folks. On the other hand, what we do sends a message, as you say, to all of America. So it's very important that we not overreact. But if you look at what's actually happening, we're not overreacting.

    The three Senate office buildings, the professional said an abundance of caution would be good if we had the opportunity to do some environmental checking just to make sure. And we're going to do that.

    But the Senate was in session today; the Senate will be in session tomorrow. There will be some committee actions, maybe we'll get some of those judges approved that we need. So we're going on about our business, we'll be back here Monday or Tuesday, as we otherwise would have been. So although there's an awful lot of talk, a lot of speculation, and we have the 24-hour news cycle now, and the most extreme speculation gets reported sometimes.

    The fact of the matter is that we're pretty much going on business as usual, and I believe in a real good bipartisan basis where both leaders have really come together and provided leadership to all of us. We're meeting together as a whole, Democrats and Republicans and are in total agreement as to how to handle this. I think there's some good coming out of this.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    One quick question to you before I go back to Senator Kerry, has your office received any suspect letters?

  • SEN. FRED THOMPSON:

    Not specifically of the kind that we're concerned about.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And Senator Kerry, how about yours?

  • SEN. JOHN KERRY:

    No.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    There have been some suggestions by terrorism experts that, and we don't know who the perpetrators are, but that it is fairly small scale attack, as frightening as it's been, but that it's also a way to sort of probe America's defenses to see how prepared we are for something like this and perhaps something on a much broader scale.

    What do you think, whether it's the perpetrators or anyone else who wishes us ill, would conclude from the way this country has responded to this?

  • SEN. JOHN KERRY:

    Well, if that's the strategy, it's a mistake, because, to paraphrase Admiral Yamamoto, awakened a sleeping giant. The United States of America is now closing in on a whole series of sectors. Today we just passed out of the Congress committee a rail, Amtrak security money.

    I hope we will get out of the Congress as a whole the full measure of what we need to do to federalize our airport security system. Our health system is gearing up, the Center for Disease controls – the awareness and alertness of police officers all across the country — the INS, the Immigration Service — the testing of visas, of personalities coming into the country.

    It is going to be harder and harder each day that goes by for those with this kind of evil intent to carry out their acts in this country. Now, I don't want to pretend and I'm sure Fred Thompson would agree with me, if someone wants to commit suicide and they are already here in this country, tragically, there is the ability to find some place where they can hurt some people.

    But that's why from a generational perspective in term of our country and this moment in history, it is so important for Americans to understand the full degree of the challenge that we face, and why it is so important for us to prosecute terrorism on a global basis.

    The best protection the United States of America in the long run is to prevent the will of the terrorists, to prevent their capacity to grow and prevent their ability to come into this country and carry out these acts and that is going to require a change in many of the things that we have taken for granted in past years.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Could I infer or should I from your answer that you have reason to think or you suspect that this anthrax attacks are linked to the global terrorist network?

  • SEN. JOHN KERRY:

    No. I'm purely being precautionary and I want to be very careful on that. We don't know yet.

    It is entirely possible that this could be home grown, that this could be a derivative of the type of people who pulled off Oklahoma City, or a Ted Kuczinsky, who did what he did, which was terror for a long period of time in this country, which went many years before we discovered who did it. It could be people piggybacking on the efforts.

    On the other hand, there is a coordinated aspect to it, and it certainly fits in with the warnings.

    The bottom line is we don't know the answer to that. Americans going to have to understand that this risk exists. But, boy, I think all of us want to convey to our fellow citizens that we ultimately will be able, I think, to be victorious in this effort. And while there are some threats like this, Margaret, we shouldn't change our lives in a significant way other than being alert, vigilant, aware of where we are, who's around us, but we should do the things that we have normally done.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. And, briefly, Senator Thompson, what do you think we should conclude from our reaction to this about our ability to protect against, I'm talking about a broader form of biological terrorism.

  • SEN. FRED THOMPSON:

    Well, I think there's a lot of good news that's going to be coming out of this, and that we've already seen. In an odd way, and I certainly don't want to minimize what's happened to those people directly affected, it's indeed tragic. But in an odd way we may look back upon this and say who ever did this did us a favor, because it's been a minimal attack, if it is in fact an orchestrated attack, and it has got our defenses up tremendously.

    We saw today with Secretary Thompson testifying before our committee, the national government is coordinating in a way that they haven't before, state and local governments are being coordinated with the federal government as never before. We're looking at our vaccine policy, we're looking at our prevention policy, our detection policy in ways that we never have before. So we're going to be really prepared, I believe, in short order for something that might come along that's a potentially much, much worse than what we've seen.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right, Senators, thank you both very much.