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US Lawmakers Reflect on Madrid Terror Attacks - 2004-03-17

The terror attacks in Spain last week continue to reverberate in the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers pressed Bush administration officials on what is being done to strengthen homeland security.

In statements and questioning of administration officials, Republicans and Democrats continue to raise concerns about the ramifications of the Spanish attacks for Americans.

In one hearing, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez had this question for Undersecretary for Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson. "First it was the airports, then it was the rails, who knows what it will be next," she said. "We have to have a plan and who is in charge, is basically what I am asking." She noted that local transportation authorities have been crying out for more funding, and would need substantially more to support intensified security measures on, for example, rail and other transit systems.

Mr. Hutchinson said transit companies in big cities need to develop solutions, in his words, "unique to their security requirements." He was asked what measures are planned to safeguard the U.S. rail system.

"I think it is important for the American people to understand, is that we didn't get a wake-up call last week," he said. "We were fully aware of what needs to be done in rail security, we invested in that, it's a different system, we're going to continue to work in that. Intelligence is a very important part of it. The better our intelligence is the more we can target our resources and protective measures and that really is critical when you're looking at a system that is historically wide open. We are doing much and we will do more."

That did not satisfy many lawmakers who note that despite increased overall funding for homeland security, only two percent of the budget of the Transportation Security Agency created after the September 11 terrorist attacks is devoted to railways.

Referring to the attacks in Spain, and indications of al-Qaida responsibility, Republican Congressman Christopher Cox says there should be no failure to "connect the dots" by U.S. government agencies, in seeking to avert a similar attack in the United States.

"The resources that we might devote in Spain to hardening the train system, to putting armed guards everywhere and trying to search everyone who goes onto the train and so on, as expensive as that would be, would not be as well spent [in the U.S.] as resources connecting these dots because we had some of these people, we almost had them, and had we connected the dots just a little bit better we might have stopped this," he said.

In a separate hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency is doing everything it can to help Spanish authorities. "I believe there [were] at least 10 backpacks were brought on trains and left to be triggered thereafter," he said. "I know the Spanish national police are conducting a thorough investigation. We have offered to assist in that investigation, and to date we are providing some assistance through INTERPOL with regard to fingerprints and the like."

Other lawmakers used speeches on the floor of the House to send a warning to terrorists about U.S. resolve. "This president, this Congress, and the good people of the home of the brave, will never cower, will never relent, and will never retreat in the war on terror," said Republican Mike Pence.

For his part, Democratic House "whip" Steny Hoyer said, "As today's events in Baghdad, and last week's horrific attacks in Spain make clear, this war has not been won, yet. But we send an unequivocal message to those who perpetrate such madness - we will not retreat from our objective to eliminate the source of terrorism and those who perpetrate it."

Only last month, Spain's former leader appeared before a joint session of Congress, reaffirming his commitment to the war on terror and U.S. and allied efforts in Iraq.

Many in Congress have lamented the election defeat of Spain's former ruling party, saying it demonstrates to terrorists that they can have an impact on governments.

The Republican speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, said voters in Spain chose to change their government to, in a sense, appease terrorists.