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29 October 2001

Who’s in charge?

Deadly anthrax attacks have caused widespread panic in America. So where is the firm political leade

By Andrew Stephen

It “would be an exaggeration to say it is all a shambles” in Washington, I wrote two weeks ago. Alas, I must now report that it is no longer an exaggeration. Washington is in a shambles – lacking effective leadership, rudderless, bumbling on hopelessly and leading the American people perilously close to real mass hysteria.

This finally came home to me a few days ago when Tom Ridge – formerly governor of Pennsylvania, but made the US “director of homeland security” by President George Bush last month, amid much drama – was asked about something that was buzzing around all the media people in the room at a White House press conference: that an employee of the New York Post had been found infected with anthrax. Ridge, 56, narrowed his eyes. “New York Post?” he repeated, as it dawned on everybody that the man supposed to have his finger on every bit of intelligence affecting domestic security did not even know of this latest anthrax outbreak.

Looking round desperately for support from those clustered around the podium with him, Ridge looked relieved when Tommy Thompson – 60 next month and, like Ridge, a former Republican state governor appointed to the cabinet by Bush (in Thompson’s case, as secretary of health and human services) – came to the rescue. Yes, he knew about the New York Post casualty, but the test had turned out to be negative.

Wrong, Tommy. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, was closing itself down after a letter containing anthrax dust had been sent to the Democratic leader of the Senate, Tom Daschle; but the Senate itself stayed open, with Senator John McCain muttering that his colleagues would surely win a profile in courage award. At the weekend, anthrax was found in the ventilation system of the House. Daschle, meanwhile, was reassuring Americans that the powder sent to his office was almost totally harmless. But that was before two postal workers died after unwittingly inhaling it when it was in a sealed envelope en route to the Senate office, and before two more became gravely ill.

Back to Ridge, the country’s security supremo: the powder sent to Daschle was not “weaponised”, he said, meaning it was probably not the work of a rogue state such as Iraq (as most insiders firmly believe), but of relatively unsophisticated individuals. But then Dick Gephardt, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, described the powder as “weapons-grade”, that is, it was “small in size and . . . aerosolises”. Senator Joe Lieberman described it as “significantly refined anthrax”. Hundreds of the (predominantly white) staff on Capitol Hill were hurriedly tested and treated for possible infection – while nobody thought to test or even warn the (predominantly black) postal workers at the Brentwood sorting complex down the road that handled the Daschle letter. Indeed, the postmaster general and the FBI director held a press conference at the 7,000-square-foot Brentwood office, during which the postmaster general coolly let it drop that the very building where everyone was listening to him might be contaminated, and would be tested the next day. Then Joseph Curseen, 47, and Thomas Morris, 55, succumbed to the very illness to which the FBI director and postmaster general had so casually alluded – and the two top officials themselves had to rush off for tests.

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The White House, meanwhile, is advising Americans to enjoy a normal life with their family, to go out for meals and to shop in the malls, but simultaneously says that there is a “100 per cent chance” of more major domestic terrorism.

Senate and House offices will now probably remain closed for weeks. And Vice-President Cheney, who has been largely invisible since 11 September, warns us that this is a war where there are likely to be more killed at home than there will be fatalities among US troops abroad.

At the same time, turf battles rage furiously in the administration. Ridge is meant to have access to, and liaise with, the CIA, FBI and the many other government departments that touch upon domestic security: but all the signs are that he has made few inroads into an entrenched system. When Otto Schily – the German federal minister of the interior and, in effect, Ridge’s opposite number – visited Washington last Tuesday, the deeply unreassuring John Ashcroft, Bush’s appointee as attorney general and yet another Congressional reject, made sure that he, rather than Ridge, was seen to be the main host.

Which brings me to another widespread fallacy I discovered in Britain: the notion that while George Bush may be a limited man, he at least has a team of top-quality advisers. This is simply not so. Rather, he has surrounded himself largely with reddened faces previously from Congress or corporate America, men more used to bluffing their way through petty party politics or company reports than coping with life-or-death crises. The only two men of genuinely high calibre are the secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, but even in these cases both men have drawbacks. To secret servicemen, Powell is known as “a screamer” – not in the British slang sense, but because he frequently shouts and loses his temper with those who work with him.

The only politician to have emerged from the past six weeks with his stature truly enhanced is Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York; Bush could do worse than offer him a job in his administration. But for the moment, we daily endure the sight of members of the administration in a panic.

Last Tuesday, it was the turn of Thompson again: he said that the US currently has 15.4 million doses of smallpox vaccine, adding that diluting these existing vaccines fivefold would enable 75 million people to be vaccinated while still providing 90 per cent protection. And so the US becomes ever more mired in panic, pointedly lacking any coherent message or leadership. The likes of Thompson have already convinced a nation that if it does not soon die en masse from anthrax, then smallpox is just around the corner. Republican Senator Bill Frist, who is also a doctor, reminded us that bubonic plague, or mass poisoning, are distinct possibilities, too.

My American friends will not be pleased to read an honest report of the mess that Washington is in; the climate here dictates that any criticism of the Bush administration is, by definition, tantamount to pledging support for terrorists. This is far from the case here. But the United States desperately needs firm and inspiring political leadership – and avoiding such a glaring reality can only end up harming us all.

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