Los Angeles' five Jewish members in the House of Representatives hold a number of important committee and subcommittee leadership roles integral to guiding the war on terror. The Jewish Journal went to the source to find out what Americans can expect, as security challenges at home and abroad add stress to our daily lives and our political relationship with Israel.
Rep. Brad Sherman (24th District, D-Sherman Oaks), Rep. Howard Berman (26th, D-Mission Hills) and Rep. Adam Schiff (27th, D-Burbank/ Pasadena) sit on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House's International Relations Committee. Rep. Henry Waxman (29th, D-Los Angeles) is the ranking member of the Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jane Harman (36th, D-South Bay) is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security of the Intelligence Committee.
Jewish Journal: What have you been working on in Congress since Sept. 11 to address terrorism and security?
Berman: On the Judicial Committee, we've been focused of course on the counterterrorism effort, to give federal law enforcement agencies new powers in terms of surveillance, to update the laws to keep up with new technology. We're working to make enforcement more effective and move more quickly. We're tightening up some of our immigration laws regarding our ability to detain people suspected of terrorist activities.
We wanted to give these powers to law enforcement immediately but also have a two-year sunset, when the laws come up for review and we can evaluate whether there have been any law enforcement abuses. But the Senate didn't want any sunset, so the bill we passed provides for a five-year sunset. It's a compromise.
I'm the chief Democratic sponsor [with Rep. Ed Rice of Orange County] of a bill to create a Radio Free Afghanistan. We're trying to fund AM and FM stations in the Arab world, where we have very low penetration with the Voice of America, less than 2 percent. We need to deal with what these populations are hearing. They're getting all this incitement, and we need to provide something more balanced. Not pro-American propaganda, but unbiased information, as well as entertainment, in Arabic. We especially need to attract the younger people.
Harman: At the beginning of this year, a new Speaker's Working Group on Terrorism was set up, and I was the ranking Democrat on that group. Last month, the group was elevated to a full subcommittee. I've always been a strong supporter of our intelligence budget. I say intelligence spending is intelligent spending. I've been focused on this a long time. A critical thing for us to do is to reorganize the intelligence function -- there are 13 separate agencies gathering intelligence. We call them stovepipes; they have separate leadership, separate budgets. The Intelligence Authorization bill -- a big focus of this bill is the coordination of these agencies.
Waxman: The reform committee has jurisdiction over government structural changes. We've been participating jointly with the intelligence committee, figuring out how to structure the new Office of Homeland Defense.
I voted for the [anti-terrorism] legislation. I thought it was appropriate, but at the same time we have to safeguard the rights of citizens. We still have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We're giving law enforcement more power, I think appropriately, because we're dealing with a conspiracy to harm American citizens.
Sherman: We definitely need to be aware of the possibilities for civil liberties abuses. But doing nothing would have been a bad idea too. Also, we must watch out for the safety of our citizens of Middle Eastern descent, American Muslims and South Asians. So our precautions have to come in two forms: not going overboard in the direction of law enforcement, and involving law enforcement in the prevention of hate crimes.
I think we are ready to do what needs to be done against the Taliban. We're about half ready to deal with our security internally. We are not ready to deal with Saddam Hussein's nuclear development program. And we are all too ready to push Israel to change its policy.
Schiff: The two major issues being decided now are the economic stimulus package and the question of federalizing airport security. There may be some efforts to bring up some of the domestic agenda, but we may hold off on that until the next session. On the economic stimulus, my own view is that it should be of a responsible size, focused on the here and now, not creating a huge deficit five years down the line.
JJ: What do we in Los Angeles need to be concerned about? What measures are being taken to address those issues? What concerns are you hearing from your district?
Schiff: I just set foot back in Washington [after a visit to the district]. People in my district are pleased by how united their government is. They seem mostly concerned with quality of life, with how long this is all going to last, but they're prepared to make sacrifices. They see this as the challenge of their generation. People are concerned about when it will all end, and they express resolution to go on as long as it takes.
Sherman:: If you want to be especially concerned, as a resident of Los Angeles, take notice of the fact that there's a mock-up of LAX in a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. But I believe LAX is one of the best-secured airports in the country.
Harman: There's good news and there's bad news. The good news is we have well-organized "first responder" capabilities: the police and fire departments, those who get to the scene of a problem first. In August -- before the attacks -- I held a forum called "Are We Ready for a Chemical or Biological Attack?" We had a good demonstration of preparedness.
The bad news is we have very big targets. Now major efforts have been made to ensure the security of potential targets, especially, in my district, LAX and the Port of Los Angeles. LAX is the only airport that's been specifically targeted by bin Laden's organization, back in 1999. We do not have the capability to inspect all the containers coming into the ports, to check completely against the threats of chemical or biological dangers or explosives. But we are aware of these threats, and at the federal level we're working to get the necessary money. We need more inspectors and more technology.
JJ: How is the war on terrorism going to affect the U.S.-Israel relationship?
Harman: I think it's making it stronger. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and it has been for years a staunch ally on many issues, including of course counterterrorism. So I think this long history of cooperation has helped strengthen our effort to protect the homeland. On a bipartisan basis, Congress strongly supports Israel. I think it is a good thing to have moderate Arab governments in a coalition. I think working together will promote peace in the Middle East.
Waxman: I'm troubled when I see the Bush administration bend over backwards to give assurances to the Arab members of the coalition. I'm troubled because no one should be under the impression that bin Laden or his associates want to find a way for Israel and the Palestinians to live together peacefully. He has one goal, and that is the destruction of Israel. He has another goal, which is the destruction of the United States. So if we're going to go after terrorism, we have to go after organizations like Hezbollah and Jihad.
I'm outraged that the State Department is criticizing Israel for taking out suicide bombers, for doing the same thing we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. When Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon spoke out so forcefully, he was criticized, but it served as a good warning that Israel will not stand idly by. As a result, Bush is muting any signal that we're backing away from Israel. I'm going to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, but I'm concerned.
Sherman: There is no official change in any policy [regarding Israel]. Changing our policy in Israel in response to Osama bin Laden is irrelevant, impossible, dishonorable and fatal. First of all, it is irrelevant; bin Laden was plotting this attack while Israel was making the most extraordinary concessions in its history. Second, it's impossible to appease bin Laden; there are no concessions you can make that will stop terrorism. Third, it's dishonorable. Our parents, some of [The Journal's] readers, went through Pearl Harbor. Afterward, a very few misguided people said, if we stop supporting China, Japan won't be mad at us anymore. But the vast majority of Americans understood then, and understand now, that appeasement is simply the wrong way. And finally, appeasing terrorists can only encourage further attacks on our country. Do you know how many conflicts there are in the world with 12 people prepared to die for their cause, even to bring attention to their cause? The number of Sri Lankans, for example, who are willing to die is probably equal to the number of Americans who know where Sri Lanka is.
Berman: On the international relations side, while I'm generally supportive of what the administration is doing, I'm trying to ensure that in building Arab coalitions we don't do anything to force Israel to compromise its security.
My feeling is that the administration is not doing that [compromising Israeli security].
Schiff: The Subcommittee [on the Middle East and South Asia] has conveyed to the administration our strong view that there are no good terrorist organizations, and that our efforts to fight terrorism should include Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
We are committed to continuing our strong relationship with Israel and recognizing their long struggle with terrorism. I think there's been a good effort to reach out to moderate Islamic governments, but I have to say, one will not be taken at the expense of the other. We'll invite anyone into a coalition against terrorism, but at the same time, we're not going to forget who our friends are.