Lawmakers decry Mideast violence, attack on USS Cole
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As tension escalated in the Middle East on Thursday, members of Congress condemned the apparent terrorist attack on a U.S. destroyer in Yemen and echoed President Clinton's calls for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to restrain violent protesters in the West Bank and Gaza.
Senior members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were briefed by Pentagon and CIA officials about the explosion aboard the USS Cole, prompting condemnations and vows of justice from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
At least six U.S. sailors were killed, and 11 others are missing and presumed dead, after a small boat packed with explosives docked alongside the destroyer at about 12:15 p.m. (5:15 a.m. EDT) in Yemen, an Arab state which lies on the Persian Gulf.
In addition to the closed-door committee meetings, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also briefed a select group of lawmakers later in the day.
"The United States has the ability to find out who perpetrated this outrage," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said on the Senate floor. "We will find those people. There will be a heavy price to pay. We cannot allow these acts of terror to take place."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, echoed those sentiments, telling reporters: "Clearly this is a terrorist act and those who perpetrated it will be held responsible. We will find out who they are and we will not rest until we do."
Hours after the Cole incident, flare-ups between Israeli soldiers and Arab protesters resumed. In Gaza, Israeli helicopters launched airstrikes near Arafat's compound in retaliation for the killings of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Rep. Porter Goss, R-Florida, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee,
closely monitored both hot-spots, but said it was too early to tell if the events were related. However, he did say that the suspected attack on the USS Cole may have been
carried out by anti-American terrorists taking advantage of the unrest in Israel.
His Senate counterpart agreed that such a possibility existed.
"The reports are all preliminary, but we hope to know more in the next few hours," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, told reporters. "They didn't totally connect it, but they didn't rule it out."
Lawmakers did ratchet up the rhetoric against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for not using his influence to halt Arab riots early on, allowing an already tense situation to escalate.
"The general consensus is Chairman Arafat has not stepped up to show leadership," said Senator John Warner, R-Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
However, a strongly worded House measure scheduled for consideration on the floor late Thursday was pulled without explanation. The non-binding resolution "condemns the Palestinian leadership for encouraging the violence and doing so little for so long to stop it, resulting in the senseless loss of life."
Senior Capitol Hill staffers cited concerns that moving ahead with the resolution during this critical juncture could inflame tensions and make it appear that the U.S. government is issuing an ultimatum to the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, members of both parties roundly criticized Arafat for his handling of the crisis.
Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak "took great risks for peace. He went further than any Prime Minister of Israel has ever gone. And he was not met at that door of opportunity by Arafat. And Arafat has increasingly shown an unwillingness I think to step up and that may order ill for the next days," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts.