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Most Lawmakers Support Clinton's Military Strikes

But some Republicans raise questions about the timing of anti-terrorist attacks

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Aug. 20) -- President Bill Clinton's decision Thursday to order military strikes against alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan received quick, but not universal, support from members of Congress.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly sided with the adminstration, saying the president "did the right thing" by ordering the simultaneous attacks against facilities believed linked to terrorists suspected in the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in east Africa. (416K wav sound)

"Just a few days ago in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, we saw what happens when people who hate America and hate freedom decide to kill Americans," Gingrich said. "They did so in a way in which we have to respond.

Sen. Dan Coats  

"We have every reason to believe that this terrorist organization will try to hurt other Americans," Gingrich said.

Other key members of Congress also quickly voiced their approval for the decisive military action, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), and Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Questions about a Lewinsky connection

But a handful of lawmakers criticized the president's timing. Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) swiftly voiced concern that Clinton might have acted to divert public attention from his personal problems related to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. On Monday, Clinton went on national TV to admit an inappropriate relationship with the former White House intern.

Coats, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, "While there is clearly much more we need to learn about this attack and why it was ordered today, given the president's personal difficulties this week, it is legitimate to question the timing of this action."

Coats said as a consequence of the president's admission about Lewinsky, Clinton's credibility has been damaged and he should resign.

Sen. Arlen Specter  

"Once the president has broken the bond of trust with the American people, as he has done with his repeated lies, it raises questions about everything he does or does not do," Coats said. "That is why going forward with his damaged presidency is difficult, if not dangerous to the American people."

And Specter said he was concerned it would appear to international observers that Clinton's action was diversionary. (480K wav sound)

Specter reversed himself later Thursday. "I've had a chance to talk to people in Washington ... and have learned that there is grave concern about renewed terrorist attacks," he said. "At this point I think the president did in fact act properly."

'Wag The Dog' theory disputed

During a Pentagon briefing on the attack, a reporter drew a parallel between the 1997 movie "Wag The Dog," in which White House operatives orchestrated a fake war to distract the public from a presidential sex scandal.

William Cohen  

Defense Secretary William Cohen denied the attacks were influenced by the president's troubles. "The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities," Cohen said. (640K wav sound)

"That was the sole motivation. No other consideration has been involved," Cohen said.

Gingrich went so far as to dismiss the suggestions of a diversion as "sick." "I don't think people should think about that at all," Gingrich said. "This is real."

Sen. Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed that opinion, saying the attacks "were clearly designed to strike at the heart of a terrorist network that has the blood of American citizens on its hands, and which was planning further attacks on U.S. nationals."

"Terrorists around the world will realize that America's differences end at the water's edge, and that the United States' political leadership always has, and always will stand united in the face of international terrorism," Helms said in a written statement.

And Sen. Hatch (R-Utah), in one of the strongest statements of support for Clinton, said, "I don't think he could have waited any longer ... and frankly I commend him for doing it."

"I'm sure the president realizes that some would say this is a 'Wag the Dog' situation," Hatch said. "It's an appropriate foreign policy response to terrorism at an appropriate time having obtained appropriate evidence and knowledge to justify the action."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supported the president's move and said the timing should not be questioned without all the facts. But McCain did accuse Clinton of being distracted from important international affairs by the Lewinsky tempest. (256K wav sound)

"This administration, for the last seven months, has neglected compelling national security threats besides this," McCain said, citing Iraq, North Korea, the Middle East and Kosovo. "I hope the president will not confine his activities to just this, but ... address the other very compelling problems that also affect our nation's security interests longterm."

Congressmen unhappy they were not consulted

Much of the lawmaker reaction focused on whether Clinton should have consulted with congressional committee leadership before taking the military action.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond said he was not advised of the attack "until shortly before President Clinton made his public statement regarding the strikes."

Sen. John McCain  

House International Relations Chairman Ben Gilman said he had no prior knowledge of the attacks, though he was called within minutes of the announcement by Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and said he would have preferred it if Congress had been consulted.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) a member of the International Relations Committee, told CNN he feels the president "made a mistake" in failing to inform members of the Republican leadership of the planned attacks.

King conceded that the president does not need congressional approval to launch such a mission, but "for it to be successful, there must be bipartisan support." But he did call on fellow Republicans to offer their full support of the military operation.

But Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) , another member of the International Relations Committee, told CNN the attack was "not a surprise" and he had spoken to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and members of the White House national security team over the past few days about the president's plans to launch an attack.

Lantos said he has called for an attack since last week, when a suspect in the embassy bombings began to emerge. He said he was not consulted by the White House but called Berger on his own. Lantos said he understood the leadership in both the House and Senate were notified before the bombings.

When asked about the attack as a possible diversion strategy by the White House, Lantos said, "That's preposterous and beneath comment."

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Thursday, August 20, 1998

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