Jewish World Review June 18, 2004 / 29 Sivan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Dispatch from the future | WASHINGTON — (Apocryphal Press) Sept. 11, 2005 - Meeting deep below a still radioactive Capitol in a special bunker, the Joint Senate-House Armed Services and Nuclear Emergency Committee began grilling leaders of the CIA, FBI and Justice and Defense departments today about how a radiological dispersal device, or "dirty bomb," could have been detonated near the nation's capital.

In their prepared statements, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., told the top-ranking generals and Pentagon officials before them that the committee was determined to find out who was to blame for allowing the bomber or bombers to set off the device.

Members of the 9/11 Commission were expected to grill all concerned tomorrow and begin assessing blame among the survivors.

Several high-ranking members of the administration began their formal presentations by referring to the difficulty of isolating suspects and detecting terrorist threats after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling late last year in Rumsfeld v. Padilla that assured all terrorist suspects of a Miranda warning and full legal representation in the civil courts, effectively ending military interrogations at Guantanamo, Cuba.

"We were able to track Padilla, aka Abdullah al Muhajir, from the time he landed at O'Hare (Airport in Chicago)," said one still dazed FBI agent, "and squeeze him for information, but now we have to get lawyers to represent suspects and material witnesses, and the new EU (European Union) rules won't let us ask visa applicants for personal information, and . . . ." His voice trailed off as he shrugged his sagging shoulders.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff brought up the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, saying it had resulted in far-reaching reforms that prevented military interrogators from grilling "unlawful combatants" who might have known about the bomb plot.

The general added that Army Intelligence had also been obliged to stop isolating high-ranking Iraqi prisoners at a separate locale near Baghdad International Airport after members of a joint congressional committee and a writer for The New Yorker magazine had objected to VIP prisoners being separated from ordinary POWs as a violation of the Geneva Convention. That case was being heard before the Supreme Court when it had to cancel its session after a Geiger counter indicated its chambers were unsafe.

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It was clear the committee was in no mood to accept any defense of the Army's actions. "What we have here is a clear case of negligence or worse," said a top-ranking aide to the committee. "Why weren't these suspects isolated, blindfolded and kept in solitary until they cracked? This whole catastrophe could have been prevented if our intelligence people had done their job."

Officials representing Homeland Security were not scheduled to testify until later, having explained that they were otherwise occupied at the moment.

The congressmen and senators who could make the meeting wore special protective clothing, as did today's witnesses.

As a Chernobyl-like cloud of radioactive debris floated across the nerve center of the federal government, there were reports of panicky reactions, massive traffic jams and a general shutdown of public facilities and private businesses.

The damage to the American economy was expected to be huge, and many basic services were paralyzed. The New York Stock Exchange closed early after curbs proved ineffective.

"A dirty bomb isn't a weapon of mass destruction," a scientist with the Defense Department testified. "It's a weapon of mass disruption."

The president's address last night appealing for calm and vowing that the perpetrators would be brought to justice seemed to have had no noticeable effect on the gathering sense of chaos and confusion sweeping the country.

While the fatality count was only in the hundreds as of now, with hospitals continuing to operate despite widespread panic, the first signs of radiation sickness were being reported in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia and Maryland. Interstates fanning out from Washington and Baltimore were said to be tied up as long lines of vehicles headed west brought traffic to a standstill.

The nationally broadcast congressional hearings only added to the sense of fear and rage spreading across the nation as senators and representatives read into the record a number of well-publicized warnings in the past that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations were planning just such an attack.

"Why were all these warnings ignored?" asked one indignant member of the joint congressional committee, who last year had been equally indignant on learning that intelligence officials had denied suspected terrorists legal representation.

Struggling to get into his protective suit for the ride back through what is now being called the Danger Zone around the Capitol, an Army intelligence officer could only sigh deeply when asked why this latest attack couldn't have been prevented. "We're damned if we do," he replied before pulling up his gas mask, "and damned if we . . . ." The rest of his response, like the nation's capital today, was muffled.

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