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Is the White House Handling the Anthrax Issue Responsibly?; How Long Can the Campaign Against Afghanistan Last?

Aired October 14, 2001 - 17:00   ET


AL HUNT, HOST: Welcome to a special edition of CAPITAL GANG. I'm Al Hunt with Robert Novak, Kate O'Beirne and Margaret Carlson.

Bush Cabinet members today tried to reassure a jittery America. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stressed that only three cases of anthrax have been diagnosed.


TOMMY THOMPSON, HHS SECRETARY: We have a lot of chatter out there, but we have no imminent threats of any chemical or biological attack at this time in America. But the president and all of us want everybody to be very vigilant.


HUNT: Attorney General John Ashcroft urged calm after the FBI warning of another terrorist attack this weekend.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: It doesn't mean that we stop doing things and we bring America to a halt. That's exactly what the terrorist wants to do.


HUNT: The attorney general also made this revelation:


ASHCROFT: I believe that it's very unlikely that all off those individuals that were associated with or involved with, the terrorism events of September the 11th and other terrorism events that may have been pre-positioned and preplanned have been apprehended.


HUNT: Margaret, have these officials made the country feel more secure?

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, let me look at my watch: Is the weekend almost over? And what happens on Monday? Are we are not in the state of highest alert? I think that warning alarmed people, but it also confused them because they neither defined it, and can't diffuse it. So it just hangs out there.

When Secretary Tommy Thompson says there are only three cases of anthrax, that would be some comfort except for the fact that there have been no cases in over two decades, so three makes a difference. And his tack here has been to both diminish the scare and to say we're better prepared than we are.

The head of the American Public Health Association was on "Face the Nation" today and he said he has trouble sleeping at night. There was little story in the "New York Times" today which said that sales of antidepressants have surpassed sales of Viagra in the Internet. And so I do not think that the country is feeling all that cheerful about what our public officials have been able to do.

HUNT: Bob Novak, mixed message? What should be the message?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": It is a mixed message. And they were sent out by the White House to try to reassure people. And then they said, but be vigilant, but be calm.

But it's ridiculous to have all this panic over, now, what turns out to be just three cases. And you say there were no cases -- there were hundreds of cases of the variety of anthrax that the woman from NBC News had. And this guy from the American Public Health Association, he was on "CROSSFIRE," he doesn't know anything about terrorism. He's a public health bureaucrat. He used to be, for goodness sake, health commissioner for the District of Columbia. I mean, what he wants, he want $1 billion spent in his what he wants.

But I really do believe that there's a great danger from terrorism, but it's not going to come in the kind of form that these three unfortunate people...


HUNT: Kate O'Beirne...


CARLSON: Let me just answer one thing: He is an expert on contagious diseases.

Kate O'Beirne: mixed message? What should the message be?

KATE O'BEIRNE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, it seems to me that we ought to be assume -- our officials ought be assuming the worst. We actually don't know whether or not these anthrax cases are in any way related to terrorism, but I don't mind the fact that the government is assuming they might well be. I think it's a time to assume the worst.

And I don't think the public is interested in empty reassurances. And they ought to be told the facts as people know them, but know that the government is so vigilant about terrorists that it might be one of their early assumptions until it's proven otherwise. I suspect that if there were numerous outbreaks, the medical assets of the federal government would be stretched pretty thin pretty quickly, which is the point these public health officials make. In fact, the false alarms are spreading the response teams pretty thin. There are scores -- dozens of reports about white, powdery substances that wind up be nothing. A fellow opened a greeting card on a plane and confetti drops out and the plane's grounded for three hours.

It gives you some small idea of how vulnerable we are to the fear that is unfortunately now afoot. And it reminds us, because of the difficulty of dealing with all of this in so many possible different places, how critical it is to get terrorism at its source in order to prevent...


HUNT: Wait a minute. Bob, let me just jump in. I think Kate's got a very good point; it's not just the fellow who's the public health commissioner you used to work with. I suspect he did a very good job for D.C.

People like Bill Frist and Ted Kennedy say we need $1.6 billion more. I'm sorry, Bob, almost every expert says there is a potentially serious problem here. You can't just dismiss it.

NOVAK: I've tried to do some reporting lately. I didn't know anything about this two weeks ago; I don't think you did either.

HUNT: Really?


CARLSON: We all did, Bob, except for you.

NOVAK: But what people should be worried about is a mass delivery of -- by some of kind of means, of a missile or some other kind of delivery -- of anthrax which would be -- that's what this guy from the Public Health Association, Dr. Akhter, is talking about -- hundreds of thousands of people.

The idea of this kind of -- this is a criminal activity, this stuff in the mail -- but it is not -- it is quite obviously not the al Qaeda terrorists who are doing it. And I think this is just getting us away from the whole point of trying to avenge the events of September 11.

CARLSON: These particular incidents could do it, but what it has raised is the specter of what would happen if it were in the hands of people more capable of spreading it. And Senator Bill Frist today talked about smallpox. You know, it's believed it could be in the hands of terrorists, al Qaeda and others, certainly, in Iraq. And he said that would be worse than an atomic bomb.

O'BEIRNE: You no sooner read up on anthrax and come to understand that it's actually not very easy to deliver it in its most lethal form, than the conversation switches to smallpox. (LAUGHTER)


NOVAK: It is just people -- nervous Nellies just wringing their hands and worrying all the time. And I really do believe the administration -- I hope that Attorney General John Ashcroft, who I think has looked good in reassuring the country -- I think they ought to learn a lesson with this warning that something may happen this weekend. It's after 5:00 on the East right now. I don't think anything is going to happen; I pray it won't; I never thought it was going to happen this weekend.

I got the same feeling -- you remember there used to be people in the old days who said the world was going to end at this time?


HUNT: We dismissed people before who said that an airplane would go into a tower and kill 6,000 people. So it's a new time.

CARLSON: Bob is going like this at Kate and me, and I think that we are not nervous Nellies. We give the terrorist a lot of respect now; or we attribute to them capabilities we would not have before. If they can commandeer this many airplanes, they could commandeer anthrax or smallpox on a country unprepared.

NOVAK: You all agree with me that almost certainly there is no connection between the terrorists who killed 6,000 people and the nuts who are putting this anthrax in envelopes.

CARLSON: I see no connection. I see no connection. But I do believe they're capable of doing it.

HUNT: Well, I am sympathetic to the fact that they have to put out a mixed message on occasion. But I want to come back to a point I made before, and that is: We had some American University students who came in to watch our show last night. We talked to them afterwards, they said they were reassured by the president, they were reassured by Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, but when we asked them about Dick Cheney, they all said, "why is he hiding?" You can't have the vice president operating the way he is and tell people everything is OK. I think even Robert Novak will...


HUNT: We will get to that in the next segment, Kate, and we will be back with tightening the pressure on the Taliban.


HUNT: Welcome back. With the aerial attack an Afghanistan's Taliban regime starting its second week, the commander of the carrier Enterprise said U.S. warplanes have destroyed nearly all their targets. This morning's "Washington Post" reported that the Pentagon plans attack on a leading Taliban unit, while "The New York Times" reported President Bush has began discussing a successor Afghan government. The Taliban regime again offered negotiations with a third party.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is no need to negotiate. If they want us to stop our military operations, they just got to meet my conditions, and when I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations.



SOHAIL SHAHEEN, TALIBAN EMBASSY: It is better to be destroyed than to surrender to (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


HUNT: News correspondents were taken by the Taliban to a village apparently hit hard by American bombs.


ABDUL SATTAR, PAKISTANI FOREIGN MINISTER: The longer this operation lasts, the larger the number of innocent victims of this collateral damage, the more number of refugees that keep on pouring into Pakistan, the greater will be the concern of our people.


HUNT: Bob, does the Pakistani foreign minister's comments suggest a time limit on how long bombing campaign against Afghanistan can continue?

NOVAK: In a sense, I think it does, particularly for the Islamic world. Maybe we can just go ahead and do it without regard of what they think. See, the point is, the Serbs, when the NATO, which was bombing the dickens out of the Serbs with so-called collateral damage, nobody cared much, because the Serbs -- nobody likes the Serbs around the world. We were on the side of the Muslims then.

But now, there's a Muslim constituency, and whenever you bomb any place in any war you are going to have civilian deaths, no matter how technically astute you are. And so, that is a serious problem. And they report that they are going to send in now these special forces to get rid of these, what is described in "Washington Post" as an elite Taliban unit. Indicates to me that I think that the Pentagon realizes that this cannot just be an aerial campaign.

HUNT: We bombed Serbia for 77 days, Margaret. Clearly, we can't -- this campaign can't go for 77 days. I think Bob has a point there, doesn't he?

CARLSON: Well, there were never any what they call high-value targets. The targets they did hit they have gotten just about...

NOVAK: In Afghanistan.

CARLSON: In Afghanistan, what they need to destroy. And now, the question is, do you take rubble and turn it into smaller rubble. The ground troops not going in and the special forces I think is now a diplomatic matter, because they don't want to take over Kabul before there's a government to put in place.

So, this has to be calibrated with the United Nations. President Bush has agreed to have Kofi Annan appoint three people to try to put together some kind of a coalition government to govern that area. Now, the United Nations won the Nobel Peace Prize and quite deservedly so, but they are not known for speed.

So, whether this all comes together in time, you know, for Pakistan to go along with it -- I think this is a very, very critical period here where the aims of war and the schedule of diplomacy are at odds.

HUNT: Kate, do you see a critical time juncture here?

O'BEIRNE: Well, it's only been a week. It does seem that an awful lot of military objectives have already been met, given the small number of real military targets and assets the Taliban has. We are going to have to keep it up, as long as we need to keep it up, until the situation is such that the anti-Taliban forces can move around the country I think in a deputized sort of way on our behalf with probably some level of support from us on the ground, and make sure that they are gone.

And all these people who are sympathizing about those poor individuals in Afghanistan -- where were they during the Taliban regime, under which they have suffered terribly? A third of the children are orphaned, half of all the children in Afghanistan are chronically malnourished. Despite how careful we are being, of course, as Bob points out, there are all these civilian casualties, but the people of Afghanistan's lives will improve dramatically when the Taliban regime is no longer.

NOVAK: But not those who were killed in the bombing, and that is what the propaganda message by the Taliban -- I was very really interested in how sophisticated the Taliban were. I had no idea they...

O'BEIRNE: You mean the Taliban talking heads ready to go out on TV?

NOVAK: No, putting the foreign correspondents on a bus, sending them 60 miles to this village where there was clearly damage, and this is really very good propaganda for the Taliban side.

O'BEIRNE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) try to make of it whatever they possibly can, but of course it's accidental, it's not intentional, as opposed to the 6,000 innocent civilians killed here. Their pictures are all over... (CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: You don't have to tell me that!

HUNT: No one is making any moral -- there is no comparison, I think. The issue is, is there the threat of an aggravated Islamic opposition to America, which is already existing...


NOVAK: There is one other downside too, and that is I think this discourages commanders of these units and these tribal leaders from coming over to the anti-Taliban side -- at least, that's what my sources tell me.

HUNT: Margaret, we haven't heard anything from Osama bin Laden the last two or three days. Do you read anything into this?

CARLSON: Maybe he is gone, and we don't know it, or he is deep, deep, deep in his cave.

I wanted to make a point about the casualties. There was a time when in this country if there were civilian casualties we would just run and high-tail it, or our own ground troops. That is not the attitude now. There is going to be tolerance in this country to have civilians casualties and to lose our own ground troops. So...

NOVAK: But that isn't the problem -- it's not the tolerance of the United States. The United States had a lot of tolerance on civilians casualties in Dresden, in Japan, and so on.

CARLSON: Right, but in recent years, Bob...

NOVAK: But the question is the tolerance -- well, I didn't mind the casualties in Hanoi, you probably did.

HUNT: Bob, let me...

NOVAK: But I think the problem is the Muslims around the world.

CARLSON: How about Kosovo?

HUNT: Bob, let me ask you this: There is a report by Sy Hirshner (ph) in "New Yorker" that in fact we had Mullah Omar in our sights the first couple of days, and because of a bureaucratic blunder we didn't hit him. Rumsfeld was bouncing off the wall. That really doesn't square with the reports we have gotten from the Pentagon there that everything is going swimmingly, doesn't it?

NOVAK: No, because the military doesn't tell the truth. They never tell the truth in any war in any country. That's a fact of life. And that's why -- that's why the American people say they don't care about what the press tells them, they don't care about the truth very much.

But I think this was -- there are all signs that this was a tremendous blunder, because there is no legal impediment on getting rid of this guy.

HUNT: That's the last word, Robert Novak. Next on CAPITAL GANG, are America's airports becoming secure?


HUNT: Welcome back. The attorney general was asked today whether the administration still opposes using federal workers for airport security screening.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Is it best that we federalize it with governmental workers, or should we have a system whereby we set standards that we require that the standards be met and that they'd be adhered to and we enforce those standards vigorously. That kind of enforcement is something that's necessary.


HUNT: The Associated Press reports the nation's oldest airport, established by the Wright Brothers at College Park, Maryland right outside of Washington may close because of flight restrictions around the capital. Kate, is the government going to federalize airport security workers?

O'BEIRNE: Not if they follow the advice of European and Israeli experts. The president adopted in his recommendation the model used in Europe and by the Israelis. Having first put government workers in those screening positions, they have all moved away from that. Apparently, they believe the key is government oversight, government training, but non-government employees.

The head of an aviation task force committee in Europe points out: Government agencies hate to criticize each other. There's very little accountability, and you cannot get rid of government workers. So apparently, what the president would like to see done -- and hopefully the House will go along with it -- is better paid, better trained, better screened, but private airport screeners.

HUNT: Margaret, but the Israelis, they own the airline to begin with, and secondly they fly 50 flights a day. It seems to me that's not a very good model for what we want to do.

CARLSON: It isn't. And you know, already there are investigations since the stricter standards have gone in, and particularly in the L.A. Airport, and the system is still porous, people are getting through, they are piggy-backing through the locked doors, they are not screening the catering crew or the ground crew. So, even that part of it in this heightened state of alert is not working that well.

They also do not screen bags going into the cargo hold. The private firm that was doing it was fined $1.2 million for hiring felons. They are still in business. They haven't been put out of business. We do not know how to subcontract things that are true law enforcement, and this is a law enforcement matter.

HUNT: Bob, I'll bet you you'll see some nervous Nellies or nervous Normans here.

NOVAK: I have never heard of nervous Normans, but can I be permitted to say what this is really about? This is about politics. Tip O'Neill once said that all politics is local, but the corollary there is politics never ends in Washington even in crisis, and the Democrats in the Senate, who control the Senate, see 30,000 more government union members, the most faithful Democratic voting members that there are, people who work for the government and belong to unions, being added to the payroll. That's what all of this is about.


HUNT: ... Kay Bailey Hutchison.

NOVAK: I would say right now that the support is by the Democrats, and the Republicans are furious. Don't try to fuzz this over, Al. And what the attorney general said, clip was very clear, that what you have to do is you have to have standards, not these ridiculous screeners all over the country.

I fly a lot. They are idiots, the people who run these screens, because they are paid at the minimum wage. They have to be paid, but they don't have to be federal government workers and voting for Democrats...


NOVAK: At least I'm glad that Bob Novak has come out for a pay hike...


HUNT: ... one issue though, Kate, that I want to address is private plane. There are almost no restrictions on private planes. If we have a threat of terrorism in this country, isn't that a real danger?

O'BEIRNE: It doesn't seem to me that the airline safety people have begun to approach the problem of private planes. They seem to have grounded them, and when they are near particularly vulnerable sites they remain grounded, I guess. Maryland is talking about closing down a private airport that is that close to Washington, D.C. But that can't be a long-term solution given the need for private aircraft.

CARLSON: And we know that there are pilots who were trained in this country at some of these schools to crash but not land planes.

NOVAK: Al, don't you use private planes a lot?

HUNT: No, Bob, I don't, because I don't have -- I get minimum wage compared to you.


HUNT: This is Al Hunt, though, saying good night for the CAPITAL GANG. And next on CNN, "PEOPLE IN THE NEWS" with a profile of Colin Powell.




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