- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

The baying of congressional Democrats last week over unfounded allegations that President Bush "knew" beforehand about the September 11 attacks prompted, appropriately, a heated response from administration figures. White House Press Spokesman Ari Fleischer, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, even the president himself took turns firing back.

These and other officials explained that the lack of "actionable" information; the reality that, without benefit of hindsight, it was very hard to "connect the dots" before September 11; and the fact that the possibility of commercial aircraft being used as lethal missiles had been discussed since President Clinton was in office but had not been recognized by either administration as an immediate danger.

The most effective riposte to date, however, came from Vice President Dick Cheney. Interestingly, it was not Mr. Cheney's shot-across-the-bow to those he called "my Democratic friends" on Capitol Hill, whom he strongly discouraged from playing politics with these charges.

Rather, it took the form of a warning Mr. Cheney issued in the course of his appearances on Sunday television talk shows: Another al Qaeda attack against this country is "almost certain." He cannot say when it will eventuate: "It could happen tomorrow. It could happen next week. It could happen next year. But they will keep trying."

Every American, irrespective of party affiliation or political philosophy, is thus on notice: Notions that it is now safe to go back to business-as-usual partisanship on national security are premature and irresponsible. More to the point, Mr. Bush's critics now have the sort of warning they claim to have wanted prior to September 11.

The question then becomes: What form will the next attack take?

There is a certain irony that many of those most critical of the military for focusing exclusively on the sorts of threats confronted in the "last war" are now studiously ignoring a next-war warning first sounded four years ago. It was issued by a bipartisan commission chaired by the man who is now the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Asked by Congress to assess the danger of ballistic missile attack on the United States, the blue-ribbon Rumsfeld Commission declared:

"Sea-launch of shorter-range ballistic missiles could enable a country to pose a direct territorial threat to the U.S. sooner than it could by waiting to develop an intercontinental-range ballistic missile for launch from its own territory. Sea-launching could also permit it to target a larger area of the U.S. than would a missile fired from its home territory."

This theoretical possibility becomes palpably real when one considers that, according to a recent U.N. assessment, the Taliban had roughly 100 Scud shorter-range ballistic missiles. Al Qaeda is believed to own ships; certainly most terrorist-sponsoring nations do. In fact, there are an estimated 25,000 vessels at sea on any given day, the majority of them flying flags of convenience. For the most part, our wildly overtaxed Coast Guard has no clue what even those ships in or near U.S. waters contain, where they are headed and who are their crew. Sailing 100 miles off our shores, a ship capable of launching one of these Scud-type missile could range most of the nation's largest population centers.

Unfortunately, should the next al Qaeda attack involve such a missile being fired at us "tomorrow" or "next week," there is nothing in place to stop it. It will, all other things being equal, reach its destination with devastating effect. Worse yet, Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee whose colleagues have so recently assailed President Bush for not acting on warnings he had received prior to September 11 have recently decided to hamstring Mr. Bush's ability to address the missile threat. They propose to cut funds sought by the president and Mr. Rumsfeld to build missile defenses by roughly $800 million and introduced new bureaucratic impediments to swift acquisition of such defenses.

This proposal is the handiwork of Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat. He induced even colleagues who have long been supporters of missile defense, like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, to go along, apparently by brazenly transferring missile defense monies to shipbuilding and other member-directed priorities. As a result, the Levin proposal was adopted by the Committee on a straight party-line vote even though it cut funds from air-, sea- and land-based programs that have long enjoyed the support of legislators like Democratic Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

In fact, Mr. Reed declared in a speech at a National Defense University breakfast on May 25, 2001, that: "We are pursuing Theater Missile Defense programs such as [the Patriot] PAC-3, THAAD, Navy Area Defense, Navy Theater Wide and Airborne Laser. Those are systems we should really put some energy and resources behind, even more so than we are doing today."

Instead, the defense authorization bill the Senate will soon consider perhaps before adjourning for the Memorial Day recess inflicts deep cuts in many of these and other programs that could produce near-term contingency deployment options, leaving us defenseless even if a missile attack by al Qaeda or from some other quarter comes a year from now.

Last Thursday, President Bush told senators he would veto the defense authorization bill if it included the $450 million he had requested just last January for the Crusader artillery program, before it was canceled by Mr. Rumsfeld. The least Mr. Bush can do is inform legislators that this bill will meet a similar fate if does not provide the full and unencumbered $7.6 billion he believes is necessary to defend against what may prove to be the next, incoming terrorist attack.

Correction: In this space last week, I mistakenly described how Jimmy Carter "embraced Manuel Noriega's regime in Nicaragua." Many astute readers pointed out that, while Mr. Carter did much mischief in Panama, the Sandinista regime he embraced in Nicaragua was led by Daniel Ortega.

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