Thursday, December 26, 2002

MSNBC -- Terrorism’s peril undiminished (washingtonpost)

U.S. officials expect catastrophic new attacks

Working-level and senior participants in the conflict, many of them interviewed at length, displayed a striking fatalism even when describing their common belief that the United States will eventually prevail. Nearly all of them, when pressed, said they would measure their success by the frequency, not the absence, of mass-casualty attacks against the American homeland.

There are at least two important disagreements among the officials interviewed for this story, one of fact and one of policy. They have no consensus on whether al Qaeda is replacing its top operatives with competent successors as fast as it loses them, which has important implications for the success of the president’s strategy. And they do not agree on how soon, and with how much priority, U.S. policy should turn to addressing sources of grievance in the Arab and Islamic worlds — a difference that tends them to opposite views on whether the war on al Qaeda will be enhanced or set back by war against Iraq.

Among all the upheavals of war with al Qaeda, the surest indicator of the historic stakes is the ongoing rotation of top U.S. government managers — scores at a time — into a bunker deep underground and far from Washington. No president before Bush considered the “continuity of government” to be in doubt or took the costly step of maintaining a permanent presence under shelter.

At the White House, some officials see a dangerous hole in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, a subject Bush has yet to address. If the top three constitutional successors are killed — the vice president, speaker of the House, and president pro tem of the Senate — then succession moves down a list of Cabinet secretaries. But once the House elects a new speaker, the law is silent on whether the speaker may reclaim priority and replace the former Cabinet member as president. That sets up a potential struggle at a moment when the nation would need every available resource of unity and calm.

Congress has the gravest problems of survival after a catastrophic attack. The Senate can be replenished swiftly by each state’s governor in temporary appointments. The House requires special elections, which now take an average of four months.

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