The possibility that terrorists might already be on American soil and trained to use chemical or biological warfare against its citizens chilled the room during U.S. Rep. Greg Walden's address to the Hood River Rotary Club on Sept. 27.
"There is an interconnected network of terrorist organizations that are more than willing to share their resources and intelligence against us," said Walden, who made the local stop to brief community members on federal action in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
He said it would be a "tightrope walk" to find the balance between protecting citizens and not infringing upon their civil liberties.
"We've got to be citizen soldiers in this war on terrorism," said Walden. "We're not going to ride roughshod over the constitution but the people who died don't have civil liberties anymore and the loss of 7,000 people pales with what could happen if we had a small pox or anthrax outbreak," he said.
Walden said that security forces knew that terrorist groups had been trying to acquire nuclear weapons for years but were uncertain about whether they had been successful in that endeavor. He said an intelligence gap had been created when federal agents had been prohibited from supporting known terrorists by paying them for information. Due to that lack of knowledge, Walden said it was also unclear how far terrorists had gotten in development of biological and chemical weapons.
"I don't want everyone to go into a panic but we need to be prepared," he said.
Because of a looming threat on the homefront, Walden said federal agencies were busy scouring immigration and other records that could help pinpoint potential terrorists who had infiltrated into the American population. For example, he said there were currently 7,200 Iranian students enrolled in U.S. colleges whose activities were not tracked once they had signed up for classes. He said although citizens needed to be vigilant during a long campaign against terrorism, it was important that people of Middle Eastern descent not be targeted for abuse or retaliation since the terrorists were not representative of the mainstream Muslim faith, but were a "radical" element which was perverting those religious beliefs.
Walden said before a military campaign was waged against terrorist camps, federal officials were trying to force international banks to cut off their available operating capital and, subsequently, drive them out of their hiding places.
"Our victories will come one bank at a time, our victories will come one terrorist at a time," he said.
He said potential national security measures could include requiring passports for people crossing into the United States from the Canadian border and possibly federalizing airline security employees and providing them with better training.
Walden said whatever expanded powers Congress gives government officials to protect U.S. citizens during a time of crisis needed to have a "sunset clause" so that they had to be re-addressed once the conflict had ceased. He said that move would protect the fundamental freedom and openness which America was founded upon.