Rep. Curt Weldon, R-PA, delivered the following speech at Restoration Weekend, which took place at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix February 23-26, 2006. -- The Editors.
The Clinton Years: The Gathering Storm
It’s good to be with all of you. Many of you are old friends whom I’ve met with over the years. It’s great to be able to share a few thoughts with you about national security and specific projects I’m working on.
You know, in my 20 years in Congress, the one thing I’ve come to understand about our country’s history is that the success of our country’s security has really been dependent upon individual patriots. I think of people like Jay Stewart.
You might not know the name Jay Stewart. Back when Hazel O’Leary was Secretary of Energy under Clinton, Jay Stewart ran a program at the Department of Energy called “Russian Fission.” Jay’s mistake was that he came out and told the truth about Russia’s inability to control its nuclear stockpile. Hazel O’Leary and Bill Clinton’s response was to railroad Jay Stewart out of his job, to end his career, even though he had received the highest award that the Department of Energy gives to its intelligence people.
I think of Dr. Gordon Oehler. Buried in the bowels of the CIA, Dr. Gordon Oehler was in charge of non-proliferation. When Benjamin Netanyahu came out in 1997, Dr. Oehler told us that Israel had evidence that Russia was working with Iran on the Shahab missile system. He came over to brief Congress and made a fundamental mistake that you didn’t make during the Clinton years: he told us the truth. He said, “We have the same information that Israel has: that in fact there is cooperation between Russian engineers to allow Iran to build a missile system that will one day threaten Israel directly and will eventually threaten all of Europe and the U.S.”
Because of Gordon Oehler’s work, we introduced the Iran Missile Sanctions bill. I was a prime sponsor and had bipartisan support. In spite of Al Gore personally lobbying against the bill, we passed it in the House with 398 votes. I got called back down to the White House a second time. The vice president lobbied us for another 90 minutes, before the Senate voted and passed it with 98 votes. That was four months before Clinton vetoed the bill.
As you all know, last summer, Iran paraded the Shahab-3 missile system down the streets of Tehran. It’s now complete. In 1997, we could have stopped it. Gordon Oehler was that patriot who told us the truth, and for that, he lost his job.
I think of Notra Trulock, a member of the Cox Committee back in 1996 and 1997, who sat for seven months behind closed doors with the CIA and the FBI, looking at all of the information about the allegations of China stealing our technology. As you all know, the Cox Commission was established because of Congress’ concern that the Chinese had been able to obtain some of our most sensitive technology. The job of the commission was to answer a simple question: was our security harmed by the transfer of American technology to China? Even though the Commission had 5-to-4 Republican/Democrat margin, the vote on our final report wasn’t 5-to-4; it wasn’t 7-to-2. It was 9-to-0 that our security had been harmed by the technology China ended up acquiring.
But it wasn’t because they stole it. It wasn’t the theft of our technology; it was the auctioning off of our technology. In fact, I produced the two charts that the commission would not agree to reproduce, because the charts documented why technology was transferred, showing the linkages between the dollars coming from China and corrupt U.S. Defense contract officials to the Clinton/Gore re-election campaign. The result was presidential waivers that allowed the most sensitive technology to end up in the hands of the Chinese.
I think of people like Bernard Schwartz, the CEO of Loral Corporation who, in one year – 1996 – became the single largest contributor in the history of American politics. In that year, he personally gave one million dollars to the Clinton-Gore campaign. By the way, that was the same year that the Loral Corporation received one presidential waiver after another to sell the most sensitive technology to the Chinese – technology, for instance, that would allow the Chinese to merge their warheads and their missiles. Technology like machine tooling. Technology to assist in their boost-phase process for their missiles, to allow them to build longer-range missiles.
Yes, it was the Clinton administration that oversaw all that. Notra Trulock, a loyal, dedicated employee, initially received a $10,000 bonus from Bill Richardson, but when the media interest died down, they railroaded him out of his job. He lost his family and became bankrupt, because he told the truth.
What we have to understand is that patriots like these individuals and others are the most important part of protecting our national security. I lived through the 1990s, when, for eight years, the Clinton administration cut back our defense resources. John Kennedy had 52 cents of every federal tax dollar going to the military; Clinton took us to 15 cents of the federal tax dollar going for our military in 2000. We went from 9 percent of our GNP under JFK to 2-1/2 percent of our GNP with Clinton..
Those cuts Clinton made ended up cutting back our tactical fighter squadrons, Marine Corps, and Army. That’s why we’re still flying Vietnam-era helicopters. That’s why the B-52 bomber will be eligible for Social Security before I will. That’s why our Navy today, which at one time, had 585 warships; today has 288.
During that time of Clinton cuts, we saw the largest increased deployment of our troops in recent history: 38 deployments in eight years versus 10 deployments in the previous 40 years. None of those 38 deployments were paid for in advance. Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor, Macedonia, Columbia, on and on – all had to be paid for by cutting into a decreasing defense budget. Thank goodness the Congress was Republican for six of those eight years, because we were able to increase defense spending $43 billion above what Clinton asked for. I hate to think of where we’d be today if we hadn’t been able to do that in the late 1990s.
But, besides those resource cuts and increased deployments, perhaps the real unspoken tragedy of the Clinton administration was the total lack of transparency on proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction technology. I recall it well. I must have given a hundred floor speeches. When we saw technology largely from Russia and China going to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and North Korea.
I remember being in Moscow in January 1996 and confronting our ambassador, Tom Pickering. I said, “Tom, the Washington Post just ran a front-page story that we caught Russian scientists transferring gyroscopes and accelerometers to the Iraqis for their missiles, to improve the accuracy of the missiles that killed our troops in 1992, when we couldn’t stop that Scud missile from going into our barracks in Dhahran. What did the Russians say when you point out that’s a violation of one of our treaties, the Missile Technology Control Regime?” He replied, “Well, Congress and I haven’t asked them yet.” I said, “Why wouldn’t you ask them? That’s a clear violation.” He replied, “That’s got to come from Washington, so you’d better talk to the president or Madeline Albright.”
I went back to Washington and wrote President Clinton a letter. He wrote me back three months later. I still have the letter: “Dear Congressman Weldon, I share your concern. If that occurred, it would be a violation of the treaty and we’re using all of our resources to see if it’s true. But Congressman, we had no evidence.”
A month later, some of my friends in intelligence brought me a diplomatic pouch, which I still have, containing a Soviet-made accelerometer and a Soviet-made gyroscope.
I found out from my friends that we had in fact obtained 100 sets of those devices, three separate times, that had been illegally transferred from Russia to Iraq in direction violation of a treaty. We never imposed the requirements of the treaty.
In 1997, there was the story with Gordon Oehler about the transfer of technology for the Shahab missile we tried to stop. You’ve seen the reports in some of Bill Gertz’s books about the Chinese transferring technology to Pakistan for their nuclear program and M-11 missiles – all in violation of treaties. In the eight years of the Clinton administration, there were 38 violations – sanctionable violations – of arms control treaties, where Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, India and Pakistan got Weapons of Mass Destruction technology that could have been and should have been prohibited: chemical and biological precursors, missile technology, technology associated with conventional arms at their control.But the Clinton administration pretended that there was no problem, that it didn’t exist.
Those problems in the 1990s are facing us today.
I can recall the challenges we had with our intelligence. Our intelligence system was an absolute nightmare. I remember in 1999 and 2000, as the chairman of the Defense Research Subcommittee, looking at the fact that we did not have an integrated collaborative capability among 33 classified systems. The Army at that time was building a prototype, down at Fort Belvoir, called the LIWA, the Land Information Warfare Assessment Center. I went down and reviewed it. They were doing more than just information dominance: they were doing massive data mining of open-source information from outside the U.S., including profiling and analysis.
I was so impressed that I called John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense, who went down and he reviewed it. But then he did something that we later realized would shake Washington: he challenged them to do a profile of Chinese proliferation, and they did. That profile revealed some names that the Democrats did not want made public. I know the details of that data-mining effort because it was shut down by the Clinton White House in 1999 and 2000, for fear that it would bring back the memories of the China fiasco in 1996 and 1997.
When the data-mining operation was shut down, General Lambert was in charge of the Special Forces operation, and he saw one of the military analysts in an airport a month or so later and said, “Why did you destroy my data? That data was being used to understand where al-Qaeda cells were worldwide.” Eric Kleinsmith, who has testified before my committee that he was ordered to destroy that data, said, “General, I had no choice. I was told that data had to be destroyed.” The Clinton administration didn’t want that data kept at Fort Belvoir because of the Chinese proliferation study that had been done in the months leading up to that revelation.
Unbeknownst to me, that team, known as Able Danger, was doing unbelievable work on al-Qaeda cells in 1999 and 2000. Now, I knew the operation of data mining, but I didn’t know the specifics of what they were doing until last May, when I went to publish my book, Countdown to Terror, and I called them back in to give me a chart they had given me after 9/11 occurred. They said, “Congressman, let us tell you what we were doing in Able Danger.”
Now, these weren’t people off the street. These are career military intelligence officers:
- Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Schaffer, a 23-year Army veteran, bronze star recipient; letters of commendation in his file from every DIA director; deployed in Afghanistan with our troops under cover under an assumed name as an intelligence officer.
- Scott Philpot, Navy Captain, commanding one of our newest destroyers next month. An able intelligence officer working as the point person for the head of SOCOM.
- General Schoomaker, leading Able Danger.
The two of them – Schaffer and Philpot, came to me privately and said, “Congressman, our unit identified five cells of al-Qaeda a year and a half before 9/11.”
Scott Philpot said, “Congressman, I’ll stake my reputation, my career, and my family that I identified Mohammed Atta and three of the terrorists in January of 2000. We knew we had a hit of the New York cell and we knew these players were bad people. We had to transfer this information to the FBI for them to follow-up domestically, because the other four cells were overseas. We asked Lieutenant Colonel Schaffer, who had been working with the FBI on other cases to transfer the information about the Brooklyn cell. Three times, in September of 2000, on three separate occasions, Lieutenant Colonel Schaffer set up meetings with the Washington field office of the FBI.”
The woman who set up those meetings, still in the FBI, one of Tony Schaffer’s high school friends, will testify she knew the purpose of those meetings. In each case, at the 11th hour, those meetings were shut down by lawyers in the Clinton administration – perhaps because of Jamie Gorelick’s firewall, the memo that said you couldn’t share defense intelligence information, even though this was all open source. There was no reason to protect this data, and three times they were shut down.
9/11: What I Saw at Ground Zero
Then 9/11 hit us, and I lost some good friends. You see, I also worked disasters for the Congress. I used to be a volunteer fire chief, and when I went to Washington 20 years ago, I started the representation of America’s firefighters; today I’m their national spokesman. So, I’ve been to all of our disasters in the last 20 years. Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo and Katrina. The earthquakes: Loma Prieta, Northridge. The wild land fires in California, Colorado, Oregon. The Midwestern Floods. The Murrah building bombing in Oklahoma City with Chief Mars and the World Trade Center in 1993.
When I went to the World Trade Center in 1993, the fire commissioner from New York at the time was Howard Safir, and he assigned a young officer in the fire department to take me through the bombed-out parking garage. That young officer would become one of my best friends. His name was Ray Downey, another American patriot – a Marine, who left the service of his country, started a family, had five children, and joined the fire department. Ray and I would become good friends and would travel around the country together in the 1990s, talking about what we could do to better prepare America for the next attack.
Remember the Clinton administration was telling us, “Don’t worry. There’s no threat. We can cut our defense.” In spite of being hit at the World Trade Center in 1993, Kobar Towers, the African embassy bombings, and the USS Cole, the Clinton administration kept telling America, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
It was Ray Downey who gave me the recommendation and introduced the language that created the Gilmore Commission, chaired by former Virginia Governor Gilmore, that issued three reports before 9/11 about what steps we should take – none of which were followed.
On September the 11, at 9:00 in the morning, when I left the Capitol building after having completed a press conference on the need for more funding for our military for domestic protection, my cell phone rang. It was a battalion chief from New York, and he said to me, “Curt, I’ve got bad news.” I said, “What could be worse that what I’m seeing on the TV?” He said, “We want you to come up. Will you come?” I said, “Sure, I’ll be up on the first train I can get. The NTRAP’s not running right now. I’ll be up probably tomorrow.”
But he said, “Ray’s dead.”
You see, on September 11th, my friend Ray Downey, who had taken me through the Trade Center in 1993, was the chief of all rescue for New York City Fire Department. He was at Ground Zero overseeing the largest and most successful rescue in American history, pulling 70,000 people out of that complex. He and 342 other brave fire fighters from New York lost their lives, along with 2,700 brave Americans.
I went up to New York the next day, with the president due to arrive that evening. I was met at Penn Station by a battalion chief who drove me down to 20 blocks from Ground Zero. We walked the last 20 blocks. I was briefed in a tent. Joe Allbaugh from FEMA had arrived. We were talking about federal response, and the battalion chief said, “I want to take you around these two sites.” And it was an unbelievable sight before me: seven-story piles of rubble where two gigantic World Trade Center towers had been. What an unbelievable sight, to see thousands of volunteers lining up, filling up five-gallon plastic pails with debris with their hands, passing it down, dumping it out and sifting through a second time, looking for any evidence, any remains.
The battalion chief said, “Come around, Curt. We’ll walk around the back of these buildings and these piles of rubble. You can see our efforts at clean-up and rescue.” There I saw two fire fighters on their knees, about a hundred yards away from me. I asked, “Why are they over there and what are they doing on their knees?” He said, “Come closer and you’ll see.” As I got closer, I could read the back of their turn-out gear. You see, in New York, every firefighter has their name on the back of their gear and there were the names Downey and Downey. Two of Ray Downey’s five children are firefighters in New York, and there they were, looking for their dad, at the last spot he had been seen.
We didn’t find Ray Downey’s remains until eight months later, when, through DNA evidence, we could give him a proper burial. I brought his widow and five kids to my district and, with Wally’s support, we organized a parade with 40,000 people to honor Ray Downey as an American patriot and hero.
The battle against these thugs, who want to take down our society, is against people who have no value in regard for human life.
After talking to Ray’s sons, and sharing their grief for the loss of their father and my friend, they asked me to go back. I said, “I can’t go back, I’m all dirty, I don’t have a change of clothing.” They said, “Don’t worry, Curt. The firefighters want you to be there to greet the family members of the missing, because President Bush is arriving tonight and they want you to seat them until he arrives, and talk to them.”
I was reluctant, but I felt it was my responsibility, so I went. I cleaned up as best as I could, and with the president of the Firefighters’ Association of New York, we went into the Java Center. On one side of the room were the urban search and rescue teams arriving from all over America; on the other, 700 folding chairs, all neatly lined up in front of a podium, where President Bush would speak to the families that night. He was supposed to speak for 30 minutes. But, knowing the kind of human being our president is, he stayed for two-and-a-half hours. With no media, with no politicians in the room, he wept, he consoled, and he shared the grief of the families.
My job until the president arrived was to greet the family members, and two families will forever be blazoned into my memory. The first was a woman in her late 30s. She had a baby in her arms, and her brother and sister with her. When I went over to her, she was sobbing uncontrollably. I introduced myself, gave her a hug and said, “I’m terribly sorry, ma’am, who’s missing?” She said, “Congressman, my life’s over. He meant everything to me. He served his country in the military. When he got out, we got married. He’s not just my husband and the father of our children. He coached Little League for our kids. He was involved in our church. And when the neighbors had a problem with their car, he was the first one out early in the morning to get it started. Why did they take him away? He only wanted to help people.”
I said, “I’m terribly sorry, ma’am. I can’t give you words.” She said, “What do I do now, Congressman? We have ten children.” What do you say to someone whose foundation has been taken away from her because of thugs who have no value for human life?
The next person I remember was a woman in her late 50s. I gave her a hug, and she shouted out her name. She said, “Congressman, my name is Angelini.” I said, “Mrs. Angelini, I’m terribly sorry. Who’s missing?” And she said, “It’s my husband. I know he’s gone.” I said, “Well, you know, don’t think that yet. He still may be alive. He may be trapped in the building.” She said, “No, I know he’s gone. I’ve been through this before. He was going to retire from the department in three months. I know he’s gone. I’ve always gotten calls in the past when he’s been injured, but this time I got no call. Why would they take my husband? He spent his life helping other people. He would help anyone. He didn’t care about their nationality. He didn’t care about their religion or ethnic background. He spent 30 years in the department, helping others.”
I said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Angelini.” She said, “But Congressman, that’s not all. You see, our son wanted to be like his dad. He joined the fire department last year. He has a wife and two children.” Angelini father and Angelini son were both on duty at Engine 54, Ladder 4, in midtown Manhattan when the first call came in. All 15 firefighters from that station were wiped out, trying to rescue people they would never know.
9/11 to me is a personal event in my life. One of the 9/11 pilots went to the same university that I went to. He served in the Navy as a pilot and had a distinguished career. He was flying in one of the first planes and had his throat slit, as that plane was crashed into the World Trade Center tower. He left behind his wife and two kids, who live two miles from my house. His name is Michael Horrocks.
For me, the efforts of getting at the bottom of what happened before 9/11 is a personal crusade which America has to understand before we can improve and protect our country from future attacks.
I heard the story about the Able Danger team, not coming from people off the streets, but from a 20-man cell that was established by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Hugh Sheldon, who has publicly said, “This unit was using cutting-edge technology that we had never tried before.” When I saw the details of what they told me they had done, I said, “It’s got to be covered by the 9/11 Commission. That’s why I voted for that Commission. To give us the facts!” But it wasn’t mentioned. There wasn’t a footnote. I talked to two of the commissioners, Tim Rohmer and John Lehman, and they said they had never been briefed on Able Danger, never heard the name. I asked John Lehman, “What do I do?” He said, “Curt, you’ve got to pursue the story, because if you don’t, no one else will.” And so I have. And the deeper I dig, the sicker I become, because I’m now convinced the 9/11 Commission deliberately covered up the story.
I’m now convinced the 9/11 Commission with Able Danger did something far worse than what Richard Nixon did in covering up a third-rate burglary. Back in Watergate, no one was injured, no one was killed, and no money was stolen. With Able Danger, the facts and the details leading up the largest attack in the history of America, including the attack on the USS Cole, were covered up or isolated. On top of that, in October of last year, Louis Freeh, the former FBI Director on national TV, in an answer to Tim Russert, said, “If I’d have had the Able Danger information, Tim, we could have stopped 9/11 from ever happening.”
Well, last week, we had the second hearing and, for seven hours, in open and closed sessions, five Able Danger witnesses came forward. Career military officers whose careers they’ve attempted to ruin. Data analysts, people who understand intelligence far better than I’ll ever know it, testified under oath that they identified the Brooklyn cell and four of the terrorists – that they tried to pass the information and that, in their mind, they agree with Louis Freeh that that information could have prevented 9/11.
When Phil Zalacal came in, and he wouldn’t testify in open session – even though he gave us no classified information in closed session – I asked him, “Did you interview the Able Danger principals?” And he said, “No, Congressman.”
I said, “Why would you not do that? These were CIA-trained case officers and career military professionals. Why wouldn’t you want to get the facts?”
He replied, “Because we think we’ve gotten all the information we need.”
I asked, “And why would you not include that in the 9/11 Report?” He answered, “Because we thought it was historically irrelevant.”
Well, when Scott Philpot, Tony Schaffer, J.D. Smith, and the others hear the term “historically insignificant,” applied to their work, they become livid. These folks are American patriots. Philpot and Schaffer and J.D. Smith and the rest of the witnesses don’t want anything. They don’t want money. They don’t want big contracts. They simply wanted to tell the truth about what they saw and what they knew. And, because of that, they tried to destroy Tony Schaffer’s career. He was two days away from having the health care benefits for his children and his family taken away from him as the Defense Intelligence Agency tried to ruin his career. They actually called Wolf Blitzer and one of the key writers for Time magazine, Brian Bennett, and told them that the only reason I cared about Tony Schaffer was because he was having an affair with one of my staffers. So under oath, I asked Tony Schaffer if he was having an affair with one of my staffers, and he answered: “Absolutely not.”
When the Defense Intelligence Agency wrote the final report to smear him and to destroy him as a person, as we saw with Jay Stewart and Notra Trulock and Dr. Oehler, they included in the report that Tony Schaffer had stolen 20 pens belonging to the federal government. I went to Tony and I said, “Tony, what’s the story here? Did you really steal 20 government pens?” He said, “No, Congressman. The only thing I can think of is when I was 13 years of age. My father was in the Air Force and worked at one of our embassies. I went to the school there and we didn’t have enough pens for the kids in the class, so I took some pens from the embassy and gave them to the students. When I went in for my first lie detector test, before becoming a military intelligence officer, they told me to say everything in my life that I had done that I would be embarrassed over and I told them that story.”
Why would this happen? Why would this cover-up by the Clinton administration be protected by the Bush administration? Because there are bureaucrats in the Bush administration who will be embarrassed. They will be embarrassed because, in the first quarter of 2001, there were briefings given to Condoleezza Rice’s national security staff that included the facts of Able Danger. There were briefings given to Don Rumsfeld’s assistants about the work that Able Danger had done, even though the program was over. The current Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who has tried to destroy Tony Schaffer, was the head of Human Intelligence under Bill Clinton, who refused a brief from Tony Schaffer about what Able Danger knew.
Can we allow bureaucracy to destroy patriots? Can we allow our intelligence agencies to ruin the careers and the lives of people who wear the uniform and believe the words “duty, honor and country” mean something? I said on the House floor last October, “If that’s what we’ve come to and if Congress will protect bureaucrats who can destroy the lives of patriots, then I don’t want to be here. Because our country is founded on what patriots did to liberate us, to protect us. Through the more than 200 years of our country’s history, patriots have stood up and said things that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. But, if we allow the patriots who wear our uniform to be torn apart, then the uniform means nothing.
Tony Schaffer and Scott Philpot wear the uniform proudly. They continue to serve America. Scott will take over command of that destroyer next month, and he’ll do it proudly. When I talk to Scott Philpot about the evidence leading up to the attack on the Cole in 2000, he becomes very emotional and says to me, “As a naval officer, it bothers me every night that, two weeks before the attack on the Cole, we knew something was going to happen in Yemen. Two days before the attack on the Cole, we were jumping up and down because we knew at Able Danger that there was going to be an attack in the Port of Aden in Yemen. We didn’t know what ship it would be or what platform, but we knew something was going to happen.” And he added, “I’ve met with Commander Kirk Lippold, the commander of the Cole, whose career has been basically ended.”
I met with Commander Lippold several months ago, in fact, he was at my Able Danger hearing in a civilian suit, and he said to me, “I had three choices that day. I could have refueled at sea. I could have refueled at a different city. If I would have known there was any potential problem in Aden, I would have not gone into the port. But no one told me.” Seventeen sailors came home in body bags.
The damage done by the Clinton administration will haunt us forever. I guess that’s the reason why, when the story broke on Able Danger in August of last year and the New York Times ran three straight days of front-page stories, on the fourth day I got a call in my Washington office. I wasn’t there; I was back in Pennsylvania. My chief of staff called me and said, “This woman is calling you frantically. She’s on her cell phone, and she’s on vacation. She has to talk to you, Curt. It’s really important.” I told him, “I can’t talk to her. I don’t know her. I never met her. Call her back and see what she wants.” He did, and she said from her cell phone on vacation, “Tell the Congressman I did nothing wrong.”
It was Jamie Gorelick.
I found out later that Arlen Specter’s staff were called two times in August with the same response.
I had not accused her of doing anything wrong. I didn’t even know the woman. Yet she would call me to tell me she had done nothing wrong?
A New Heroism
American patriots are suffering today because they’ve simply told the truth. We need to understand that each of us has a responsibility to stand up and do the right thing. Oftentimes it’s not easy to do that. Look at David Horowitz and the criticisms he’s taken for going around the country and challenging our educational system.
But we have to understand, America’s only great when each of us realizes that we’re the patriots, who have to do the things that make the country stronger. There are people suffering far worse than we are. The soldiers in the battlefield. The military intelligence officer standing up, ruining and risking their careers. They’re doing it because they believe that duty, honor, and country mean something. And we sit back and let people, as we did in the ‘90s, convince us that there are no problems.
You know, if we don’t lead the world, no one else will. This battle against these terrorists will not succeed without America in the lead. I took a delegation to London two weeks after the bombing. We met with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street for 30 minutes and he told us, “You know, members of Congress, it’s your country that’s leading the world. We realize in Britain that we didn’t take the appropriate steps, and we got hit in our subways and our buses. But we need your vigilance. We need your steadfast leadership.”
The same thing was said after the attacks on the trains in Spain, the bombings in Amman, Jordan, and yes, even in Beslan. I know, because I went to Beslan. Two weeks after the attack on the elementary school, I wanted to go and stand with the Russian people, to show that we are in the same battle and that we will fight the same enemies. The State Department didn’t want me to go; neither did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Russia. But those who know me know I’ll never take “no” for an answer, so I went.
What I Saw, Part II: Beslan
I remember standing in that auditorium, that gymnasium – being a teacher, I’d been in schools like this throughout America. It was a building in a U-shape: two brick classroom wings connected by a gymnasium, only this gymnasium and this school was burned to the ground. The blackboard rims were still there, but they were all scorched. The stench of the smoke was still there because it was two weeks after the children had been killed.
My host was a speaker at the local Parliament and he told the story, because his 10- and 12-year-old children were in the building when the terrorists arrived. It was the first day of school on September 1, 2004 and everyone was assembled, meeting with the teachers in the courtyard, when out of nowhere, a van pulled up and 30 terrorists got out, with masks on their faces. The children had done nothing. The community was not at war. North Ossetia, in the southern part of Russia is a peaceful nation, a peaceful republic.
The terrorists started ordering the children into the building and handling them roughly. Young 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds, when they weren’t running fast enough, were picked up by the back of the neck and the seat of their pants and thrown through the windows of the school building. The same thugs who hit us on 9/11, the same thugs who hit the USS Cole, the same thugs who hit Britain and Spain and Jordan, were now attacking young children. When they got them all inside the building, they sealed off the exits. For the first 24 hours, while hundreds of children sat on the gymnasium floor with their parents and grandparents, the terrorists stood the young fathers up, one at a time, and shot them in front of the children and threw their bodies out the back windows of the school.
Then, for the next 48 hours, they denied the children food and water and wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom. On the third day, the people of the town overran the police barricades, because their children were inside, and shots rang out. A major firefight ensued, and, when it was all over, what was left was what I saw when I got there: a burned-out school building.
Then something strange happened. After we presented the flag of our country and the resolution that Congress had passed, showing solidarity with the people in this war against these radical extremist thugs, we were driving back to the airport and we passed the cemetery that we had passed on the way in. I said to my two colleagues who were with me, Rep. Mark Souder from Indiana and Trent Franks from Arizona, “We can’t pass this cemetery, because this is where the children are buried. There’s no American media because the town’s sealed off. But the Russian media’s following us. We have to show our reverence for these families and the 380 that were killed. So let’s stop the bus and get out and, Trent, I’d ask you to say a prayer. I’m going to walk up the center. We’ll pick out a grave at random and you say a prayer.” And he agreed.
So we stopped and got off the bus and we walked up the center of the cemetery. I just randomly stopped at one of the gravesites, among hundreds of freshly-dug graves. It was two weeks after the attack. The cameras were rolling as we bowed our heads and Trent started praying. As my head was bowed, I opened one eye and the flowers on the gravesite caught my attention because they were red, white and blue. Now that’s not surprising because they’re the colors of the Russian flag. But then I noticed the tail end of the ribbon attached to the flowers, and because I read Cyrillic, I could read the letters, “U.S.A.” How in the world? Two weeks after the attack on the school in Beslan, with the city totally isolated, no air transport, no trains, no traffic allowed in? We were the only ones in. How could America be there at this cemetery?
I closed my eyes while Trent finished the prayer, and then I opened both eyes and said to the two of them, “Kneel down with me,” and we did. We unfurled the ribbon on that gravesite. Those flowers had been sent, somehow, some way, by the families of Columbine, Colorado.
We are the leader in this movement against terrorism. America is the shining beacon, and we have to understand this fight is not just about our own protection. It’s about security around the world. We have to stand up with those patriots who are willing to pay the ultimate price and let them know that we’re going to stand with them. Whether we’re journalists, whether we’re financial people, whether we’re activists, whether we’re talk radio hosts, we have to play our part.
Yes, the odds are against us. There are those who want to tear us down. There are those who want to forget about security and politicize what’s happening in the world and we can’t let that happen. There’s too much at risk.
A Trip to War-Torn Iraq
I know this in a very personal way because of my first trip to Iraq in 2004. I’ll close with this story. I took a bipartisan delegation to Iraq and Afghanistan a month after we had uncovered Saddam in his hole. My delegation of Democrats and Republicans went to Baghdad and were briefed by Paul Bremer and General Sanchez. They told us how proud they were of our troops and the effort that we were making. And then General Sanchez said, “Congressman, do you want to go up north to where the fighting is?” and I said, “Absolutely.”
So they put flight jackets and helmets on us and these brave soldiers – and they are brave! You’d be so proud of them when you see them in action, some of them 19, 20 years old with the maturity of a 40-year-old. These brave soldiers put us in their helicopters and flew us in Blackhawks up north to the area between Tikrit and Kirkuk.
As our helicopter started to come down, we could see hundreds of soldiers all milling around: special ops, Army, Marines, and, because we’re doing joint operations, even Air Force and Navy personnel. There were also some from other countries. They were all coming around to see the activity and why these helicopters were coming in, in the middle of a war zone. I think they also knew that we were carrying 40 cases of Tasty Cakes and 10,000 Valentine cards from kids back home.
As our helicopters landed and the rotors on my helicopter died down, this 6’3” two-star General came over. I knew right away who it was: the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, General Ray Odierno. General Odierno put out his hand and, with a very strong handshake, said, “Congressman, I can’t tell you how happy we are to have you here. It means a lot to the troops.” I said, “General, we’re behind the troops all the way. Let them understand America and the people are with them.”
He began to brief us, in the middle of that field, 100 yards from Saddam’s hole. Among hundreds of soldiers, he told us of the success of the troops. How the garden reservists have joined in with our active duty personnel and how they’re really working together, 30,000 troops in the 4th ID. He told us how they’re going from town to town, showing the Iraqis how to make local elections occur and how to make decisions for themselves.
Then I said, “General, would you tell me about your casualties?” Because casualties are always a part of war. It’s why, in the end, we have to try to do what we did in Libya, in getting Qaddafi to give up his weapons without firing a shot – an unsung success of George Bush, I might add.
He began to tell me about his casualties, saying, “I’ve lost some good Americans. In fact, I lost one a couple weeks ago: a 24-year-old West Point grad. In fact, Congressman, he was from Pennsylvania.” He told me how this young American patriot, one of many, was doing his job, leading his group along the dirt road between Tikrit and Kirkuk, when his unit came under heavy attack. Al-Qaeda terrorists don’t fight directly; they hit and run. This young soldier was hit and went down, but he got back up again. He kept ordering his troops with him to respond and to protect the civilians around them, and they were successful, but not before he was hit a second time and went down and died there on that dirt road.
The general told me that the troops stood around this young lieutenant and prayed, many different religions but they all prayed together because he was their friend and their leader. They picked his body up and took him to be placed in a proper configuration to be brought home to his family. I told the General that I knew who that lieutenant was. He responded, “Congressman, I have 30,000 troops under my command. You could not know who that lieutenant was.”
I said, “It was David Bernstein.”
The general’s eyes widened and he said, “Well, it was Bernstein. How would you know that?” I answered, “Well, you told me that he was 24, that he went to West Point, that he was from Pennsylvania. You told me the details of the incident. You see, General, Bernstein was from my Congressional district. I nominated him to West Point. When the Academy selection committee went through the high school students that year, we knew that he was one of our best and that he would succeed. We knew he’d be a leader. We knew he was destined to do what he wanted, and that was to be a soldier.”
I added, “You won’t believe this, General, but in the back of my jeans, I’m carrying a three-page letter from Bernstein’s parents. Because, you see, I went through the grief that they suffered when they lost their only son. And, when they heard I was coming to Iraq, they asked me to bring the letter in case I happened to meet someone who knew him.”
I pulled the letter out of my back pocket and it described what their son meant to them and how proud they were of him. In the letter, they told me that their son had written to them that he was so proud to serve in our military, that he believed what he was doing was so important, that he was helping young people in Iraq have the same opportunity that he had had growing up in Pennsylvania.
He said, “Mom and Dad, if I die here, you know I died happy. I died helping other people. That’s what my life is about in America. That’s why I’m in the military.”
As I unfolded the letter and gave it to the general, I saw something I hadn’t seen, having met a lot of generals in my 20 years on the Armed Services Committee: in the middle of that battlefield, among hundreds of soldiers and a Congressional delegation, a hundred yards from Saddam’s hole, I saw a two-star general cry.
When he regained his composure, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a medal and handed it to me, saying, “Would you give this to Bernstein’s parents?” I said I would, and I did. Bernstein received the Silver Star posthumously on November 5 of last year.
When the general regained his composure enough to speak, he said, “Congressman, I can’t believe this. You know my 24-year-old son, who also graduated from West Point, is in the Marine Corps. You see, my son and Bernstein were friends.” His son was serving in Baghdad at the time. He later had a massive wound to his shoulder but recovered.
What we have to understand is that the success of the security of this country and the world doesn’t just depend on who’s in the White House, or who’s running our agencies, or who’s commanding our troops. It depends upon what we’re willing to do to keep this country strong. Sometimes it means, we’re gonna have to take on unbelievable odds and fight the system and fight our own party and our leaders. But that doesn’t matter. That’s why we’re there. Those soldiers do it every day. Ray Downey did it. The Angelinis did it. Bernstein did it. And so I challenge you to go out to the rest of the country and you keep the fight up. I’ll be there with you.