Pass the water

John McCaslin
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Posted: Mar 10, 2005 12:00 AM

It was cold cuts, salad and soup for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his wife, Diane, after a Kennedy Center performance by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in advance of this week's "blizzard" (Washington terminology for a light dusting of snow).

They pulled up to K Street's Teatro Goldoni, one of their favorite restaurants, which had closed early owing to the forecast of "inclement weather" (Washington terminology for anything that falls from the sky when the temperature is lower than 50 degrees).

The city's first couple had no problem securing their favorite power booth and were promptly served by the skeletal staff.

King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway, who were in town to mark 100 years of U.S.-Norwegian diplomatic relations, also attended the concert. They'd been luncheon guests of President Bush and first lady Laura Bush earlier in the day.

'ATLANTIC STORM'

It wasn't your typical congressional retreat.

Twenty-eight members of the House Homeland Security Committee huddled for two days this week along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay in Wye River, Md., responding to real-world simulations of both nuclear and biological terrorism.

In one exercise, congressmen were confronted with the nightmare scenario of a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb - transported by truck in a lead-sealed container to evade radiation detection - being detonated at midday at Grand Central Station in New York.

A subsequent bioterrorism exercise, "Atlantic Storm," was formulated by a team led by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Biosecurity. It required lawmakers to confront real-time decisions in the face of a terrorist-caused smallpox outbreak - initially confined to Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Turkey.

As committee members were asked to consider sharing a limited supply of U.S. smallpox vaccine stocks with the affected countries, it became clear that America itself was being hit with smallpox attacks. If that wasn't hellish enough, a few days into the disaster, terrorists followed up with anthrax attacks in major U.S. cities.

Committee Chairman Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, said yesterday that such threats are real, referring to them as "civilization busters" with a potential of killing tens of millions of Americans and inflicting economic damage that could virtually destroy the United States as we know it today.

Asked by The Beltway Beat if it was his most "morbid" retreat, the chairman replied: "It was riveting, extremely riveting. . . . As grisly circumstances as one would care to imagine. It certainly focuses one's attention."

SAY WHAT?

September 11 made something else very clear: Americans speak few languages other than English.

Never before, according to the U.S. intelligence community, has proper foreign-language expertise been so greatly needed as today to understand national security threats and foreign-policy issues.

"The 9/11 joint inquiry reported a year and a half ago that our intelligence community is at 30 percent readiness in languages critical to national security," notes Rep. Rush D. Holt, New Jersey Democrat and member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

In addition, a State Department-commissioned report last year determined that Uncle Sam had only 54 Arabic speakers working in the entire Foreign Service.

It was Holt at the time who asked David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, how many of his 1,400-member team spoke Arabic and understood the technology of weapons of mass destruction. He replied he could count them on the fingers of one hand.

"I posed similar questions to some members of the special forces who had been combing the mountains of Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden," Holt recalls. "I asked how many of them spoke Pushtu. . . . If Osama bin Laden is truly American public enemy No. 1, how do we expect to track him down if we cannot speak the languages of the people who are hiding him?"

This week, the congressman and others spoke in favor of House Resolution 122, which reflects the warning of Undersecretary of Defense David Chu in his opening remarks at the National Language Conference last June. Chu said the United States needs "a permanent change in our approach to the peoples and cultures of the rest of the world."

One figure presented this week shows only 9 percent of Americans speak two languages fluently, compared with 53 percent of Europeans.

TOURING AMERICA

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was reminded this week that the Mexican state of Yucatan has published an 80-page "travel guide" with detailed information on how to enter the United States illegally, including descriptions of various routes to be used or avoided.

The Mexican government has similarly published a "Guide to the Mexican Migrant," offering advice that includes how to evade immigration officers once safely in the United States.

Not surprising that a group of House Republicans is now calling on Rice to protest the government of Mexico's encouragement of illegal immigration when she meets with Mexican officials this week.

A strongly worded letter to Rice, signed by 32 congressmen, condemns Mexico's immigration policies and urges the secretary to warn Mexico "to cease and desist from its flagrant campaign to encourage its citizens to violate the immigration laws and sovereign borders of the United States of America."

The lawmaker who authored the letter, Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, says "enough is enough."

"We want the government of Mexico to understand that its aggressive encouragement of illegal immigration is a daunting if not insurmountable barrier to continued good relations," he says.

He has reason to be disgusted. Along the Southwest border, including Arizona during 2004, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 1.1 million people - 3,121 each day - up from 905,000 the previous year. Worse yet, the Border Patrol says it is catching only 1 in 4 illegal immigrants - the majority of them Mexicans.

BETTER HALVES

Who better for Laura Bush to single out while guest of honor at this week's State Department conference celebrating International Women's Day than Condoleezza Rice?

"No doubt many young girls are dreaming of becoming secretary of state because of the example they see," the first lady observed. "I am proud that President Bush surrounds himself with smart, strong women."

MEDIA MICROSCOPE

Speaking of the State Department, James P. Rubin, former assistant secretary of state and chief diplomatic spokesman under President Clinton, was back in town the other day opining how patriotism, propaganda and public opinion play into the war in Iraq.

Rubin was one of several high-profile panelists of The Week Opinion Awards and Forum, in partnership with the Aspen Institute. An earlier discussion, moderated by Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, addressed the hot-button issue: "Opinion Journalists: Serving What Master?"

(No, radio host Armstrong Williams was not on hand, but Peter Beinert of the New Republic, David Brooks of the New York Times, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington and Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette.com each weighed in).

Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium was the venue for a dinner capping off the dialogue, albeit George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's "This Week," and Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, still found time to debate whether the press is out of touch with America.

Worth noting on the dinner guest list: Queen Noor of Jordan.

DRIFTING BACKWARD

For decades he's brought home the bacon, but outspoken Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd isn't popular these days with everybody in his beloved West Virginia.

Politics aside, West Virginia Republican Party Treasurer Hiram Lewis IV says it is upsetting to watch Byrd "destroy his credibility and become the basis of jokes over the national airwaves which, in turn, make West Virginia look like a backwards state."

He was referring, in part, to recent remarks made by Byrd (the senator insists his words were taken out of context) that some perceived as comparing Senate Republicans to "Nazis."

"We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men," Byrd stated. "But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends."

He then quoted historian Alan Bullock as saying that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler "turned the law inside out and made illegality legal."

"It is sad to see a senator that has contributed so much to this state over the years be reduced to a bumbling fool," says Lewis, who adds the 87-year-old Byrd either must come to grips with the fact that President Bush won re-election in West Virginia by more than 90,000 votes "or retire."

PLANTING SEEDS

Don't look now, but hemp could have been stashed in your car without your knowledge.

"Because there are at least 1.5 million cars on the road with hemp door panels, tens of millions of dollars spent annually on hemp food and hemp body care, and hemp paper is being made in the U.S., people are asking tough questions" about why Uncle Sam won't allow industrial hemp farming, says Alexis Baden-Mayer, director of government relations for Vote Hemp.

Regardless, four state legislatures - California, New Hampshire, Oregon and North Dakota - are likely to pass legislation this year allowing farmers to grow cannabis almost 50 years after the centuries-old crop was prohibited.

(Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia already allow hemp farming on a commercial or research basis.)

"Hemp farming has become a lucrative crop for farmers in Europe, Canada and Asia, so farmers here are asking, 'Why are we being left out?'" says Baden-Mayer, pointing out it is legal for U.S. companies to import, process, sell and consume hemp seed and hemp fiber products.

The government's ban on hemp cultivation stems from marijuana prohibition, although industrial hemp and marijuana come from different varieties of the cannabis plant.