- WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said Thursday that it is "highly likely"
that a terrorist group will launch or threaten a germ or chemical attack
on American soil within the next few years.
- In an interview in the Oval Office, Clinton
said he had been persuaded by intelligence reports that the United States
needs to bolster its defenses.
- "I just want the American people
to know what they need to know and have a realistic view of this,"
the President said in the 45-minute interview, "not to be afraid,
or asleep. I think that's the trick."
- Without providing specifics, Clinton
warned that any attack with germ or chemical weapons would prompt "at
least a proportionate if not a disproportionate response." The United
States has signed treaties not to use chemical or germ weapons.
- Clinton said he is weighing a proposal
from the Defense Department to establish a commander in chief for the
defense of the continental United States, a step that civil liberties groups
- Such a program would go far beyond the
civil defense measures and bomb shelters that marked the cold war, setting
up instead a military leadership to help fight chaos and disarray if an
attack occurred. Pentagon commanders oversee regions around the globe,
but not the continental United States.
- Critics fear such moves could open the
door to rising military influence and a loss of individual rights, but
Clinton insisted that such erosions would never occur.
- Clinton gave the interview as his lawyers
ended their defense presentation at his impeachment trial in the Senate.
Since the Monica Lewinsky issue surfaced a year ago Thursday, the President
has given almost no interviews to major American news organizations.
- With his Presidency under fire, it is
unclear how much of the proposed new military funds -- more than $2 billion
-- Clinton will be able to get through the Republican-dominated Congress.
But Congress has usually supported White House efforts to fight terrorism.
- Despite the political pressures, Clinton
appeared relaxed and deeply engaged in the complex scientific and policy
issues raised by what the White House has called 21st-century threats.
He smiled repeatedly, yet spoke of spending sleepless nights pondering
new security challenges after the end of the cold war.
- In the interview, Clinton said he hoped
a major legacy of his Presidency would be to stave off unconventional attacks.
He said he would delighted if, decades later, Americans look back on any
such threat as "the dog that didn't bark."
- Clinton described how he had come to
see germ, chemical and computer attacks as the greatest emerging threat
to national security, and the White House said Thursday that he would propose
$2.8 billion in his next budget to fight such terrorism.
- On Friday Clinton plans to announce the
Administration's program to combat exotic forms of terrorism that he said
would dominate national defense in the next century. The steps include
developing new vaccines, stockpiling antibiotics, setting up emergency
medical teams in major cities and a corps of computer experts who could
respond quickly to electronic attacks.
- Clinton said that of all the new threats,
the one that "keeps me awake at night" is the possibility of
germ attack. "A chemical attack would be horrible, but it would be
finite," he said, adding that it would not spread. But a biological
attack could spread, he added, "kind of like the gift that keeps on
- During Clinton's Presidency, terrorism
has emerged as one of the nation's thorniest security challenges, its dangers
more diffuse than those of the cold war yet more immediate.
- Clinton said he had began worrying about
biological terrorism and other unconventional threats six years ago, in
February 1993, after Islamic radicals exploded a bomb under the World Trade
Center in New York. The bombing killed six people and injured more than
- He said his concerns about the danger
of germ or chemical attack were deepened by reports that Iraq had retained
some chemical weapons and by the activities of a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo,
which attacked the Tokyo subway system in 1995 with a nerve agent, killing
12 and injuring 5,000.
- Clinton said he thought it was more likely
that a rogue state would more likely attack American surrogates overseas
that wage terrorism in the United States itself.
- He noted that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi
fugitive who is accused of masterminding the United States Embassy bombings
in Africa in August, has "made an effort to get chemical weapons"
and "may have" tried to get germ weapons. "We don't know
that they have them," Clinton said.
- Clinton said "a lot of what we've
done already," some of it secret, "has delayed" foreign
efforts to develop and deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
- He said that ultimately, the best defense
against unconventional warfare and biological terrorism in particular
would be scientific strides in deciphering the genetic material in microbes
and humans, so vaccines could be tailored for quick response to an attack.
- This, he said, would allow defense to
stay ahead of the offense. His hope, he said, was that the United States
would use "each new wave of technology to close the gap between offense
- Specifically he endorsed the Human Genome
Project, a costly federally funded effort to map human genetic material,
saying it would be an important part of the shield that his Administration
- Clinton's personal interest in the threat,
aides agree, has become a powerful force behind secret meetings, actions
and directives meant to bolster antiterrorism work and to counter what
aides describe as a growing danger to civilians.
- The budget outlined by the White House
today, to be formally presented by the President on Friday at the National
Academy of Sciences, includes $10 billion to defend against terrorism,
weapons of mass destruction and "cyber attacks," according to
the White House statement.
- Most of the money -- about $8.5 billion
-- is earmarked for the defense of American embassies and other buildings
and personnel against conventional weapons like car and truck bombs. The
rest is divided among existing and new programs to counter biological,
chemical and computer attacks, especially those that could cripple key
parts of the Government or the economy.
- Over the last two years, the Administration
has almost doubled the money spent to protect Americans against attacks
with unconventional weapons. In fiscal 1998, this budget was $770 million;
in the new budget, it rises to $1,336 million.
- Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company