Mid-Term Election Issues

Updated September 14, 2021 | Infoplease Staff
—Borgna Brunner

Polls released shortly before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks revealed how divided the public was in its assessment of the nation's vulnerability to terrorism. A Pew Research Center poll indicated that 34% of Americans felt terrorists were less able to carry out an attack on U.S. soil, 22% felt the danger of terrorism had in fact increased, and another 39% believed there was no change in our level of danger or safety. The wide divergence in public opinion seemed to reflect the difficulty of evaluating the nebulous and uncharted war on terrorism. The U.S.-led military effort in Afghanistan destroyed al-Qaeda's headquarters and training camps, yet failed in its primary goal, eliminating Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda—two-thirds of al-Qaeda's senior leadership remain at large. More than 2,700 suspected terrorists have been questioned in 98 countries, yet U.S. intelligence estimates that terrorist training camps in Afghanistan have produced 10,000 to 15,000 terrorists over the past decade. And about $100 million in al-Qaeda assets have been frozen in more than 160 nations, yet al-Qaeda is believed to retain more than twice that amount. A synagogue bombing in Tunisia, a tanker explosion off Yemen, a nightclub bombing in Bali, and various failed or intercepted terrorist acts in recent months were ominous signs of the resurgence of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers.

National Security

National security efforts—identified by the Bush administration as falling into the four areas of bioterrorism, emergency response, airport and border security, and intelligence—have proved somewhat less complex to judge than international efforts against terrorism, and they have come under harsher scrutiny. No one will ever know whether the country's intelligence agencies could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, but intelligence has clearly been the greatest failing in domestic security. On Sept. 11, the FBI had only 20 agents monitoring al-Qaeda, despite the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole; the CIA had just 40 agents assigned to counterterrorism. FBI agent Coleen Rowley's whistle-blowing memo in May, charging the agency with disregarding warning signs of the impending attacks, was just the most dramatic example of the agency's obstructionist bureaucracy and incompetence. A congressional investigation indicated that between May and July 2001, U.S. intelligence intercepted at least 33 messages about a possible terrorist attack. The ineptitude of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was shockingly underscored when it approved student visas for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers six months after they destroyed the World Trade Center. These and other failures have led to an overhaul of U.S. intelligence, but CIA director George Tenet has warned that the “threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was…the summer before Sept. 11,” and has urged the country to accept the stark truth that safety from terrorism is fundamentally an impossibility, no matter what measures are taken: “There will be more battles won, and, sadly, more battles lost.”

Reform of airport security has proceeded at a glacial pace, and it remains to be seen whether the newly created Department of Homeland Security—which would consolidate 22 federal agencies in the most massive government reorganization since 1947—proves effective, or whether, as the Brookings Institution maintains, “The new department is only a means to an end, and it is being oversold as an end in itself.”

Civil Liberties

The means used in securing the country against terrorist attacks have been questioned as well. Civil libertarians and increasingly, the courts, have condemned the compromise on civil rights and due process in the name of national security. While security measures necessarily involve restrictions, new anti-terrorism legislation has presented law enforcement officials with sweeping new powers to conduct searches without warrants, monitor financial transactions and eavesdrop, and detain and deport individuals in secret. Under the USA Patriot Act—passed in Oct. 2001 with just one vote short of unanimous bipartisan support by Congress—about 1,200 people were detained for months without access to lawyers or the release of their names. In August, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled these secret detentions unconstitutional: “The executive branch seeks to uproot people's lives, outside the public eye, and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors.”

Targeting Iraq

President Bush's broad characterizations of the terrorist threat allowed him to expand the focus of his foreign policy from al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to any regimes hostile to the United States, regardless of their connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Soon the lines began blurring between the “evil one,” as he called Osama bin Laden, and the “axis of evil”—his label for Iran, North Korea, and most emphatically, Iraq. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge” was Bush's explanation of the necessity for a preemptive strike meant to bring about “regime change” by ousting Saddam Hussein. Although the Bush administration failed to link Iraq to al-Qaeda, such a connection eventually became irrelevant, with Bush contending, “You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.”

Bush cited the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the thwarting of UN weapons inspections, and Saddam Hussein's despotism and human rights abuses as the justification for waging war. But while few quarrelled with Bush's basic assessment of Iraq's transgressions, foreign and domestic critics remained skeptical of the allegations of the direct and imminent danger posed by Iraq, questioned the circumstantial nature of its evidence (particularly concerning Iraq's nuclear capacities), and disputed whether military means were the only answer. Critics warned that a focus on Iraq would deflect attention away from the real threat of terrorism, complicate the chance for a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and potentially destabilize the region. Much of the world also balked at Bush's unilateralism, contending that the U.S. would violate international law if it acted without UN approval. In September, Bush addressed the UN, challenging the organization to swiftly enforce its own resolutions against Iraq—for a decade the UN has feebly imposed weapons inspections—or else the U.S. would have no choice but to act on its own. Bush's multilateral gesture began drawing modest support from the international community, and in October he easily secured the support of Congress to pursue war, as well as that of the majority of Americans (62%; Pew Research). In the meantime the UN scrambled to secure a diplomatic alternative to the standoff between the United States and the notoriously untrustworthy Saddam Hussein. Bush's less hawkish and unilateral stance yielded in UN backing: on Nov. 8, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution imposing tough new arms inspections on Iraq and precise, unambiguous definitions of what constitutes a “material breach” of the resolution. Should Iraq violate the resolution, it will face “serious consequences,” which the Security Council would then determine. Saddam Hussein agreed to the terms, but few inside or outside the UN have any hope that he will comply with the agreement on a long-term basis. On Nov. 26, new inspections of Iraq's military holdings began. The United States, after examining Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration, announced that it was full of gaps—it omitted to list, for example, 6,000 poison gas bombs—and announced that Iraq was already in material breach of the UN resolution. The UN will issue a formal report of its findings at the end of January.

Sickness in the Church

In Jan. 2002, a Boston Globe article ignited a sexual abuse scandal in the American Catholic church that its own bishops came to describe “as a crisis without precedent in our times.” It was not the conviction of pedophile priest John Geoghan itself that generated the enormous public outcry—there have been civil trials of sexual abuse by the clergy since 1985—but revelations that senior church officials had systematically covered up Geoghan's criminal behavior for decades. Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, as well as five other bishops, had known of Geoghan's pedophilia for more than three decades, yet had simply transferred him from position to position, during which time he sexually molested more than 130 children. A second coverup broke in Boston in April, this time involving priest Paul Shanley, an open member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association.

The publicity in Boston unleashed allegations of abuse and coverup around the country. In the first eight months of the scandal, almost 300 U.S. priests and four bishops left the church, and another 2,000 were accused of molesting children. At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June, bishops voted to ban priests abusing children from working in parishes but did not address their own accountability: according to the Dallas Morning News, “two-thirds of U.S. bishops knowingly covered up sexual abuses by priests.” The Vatican, however, rejected the “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the bishops and asked for modifications to protect the rights of accused priests.

The church's culture of secrecy and denial gave rise to grass-roots reform movements, most notably Voice of the Faithful, whose motto is “keep the faith, change the church.” In addition to promoting greater involvement of the laity in church affairs, the group provides support to the abused—perhaps nothing has dismayed people more than the church's minimal expression of compassion for the young victims of predatory priests.

In December, the public release of clergy personnel records in Boston revealed additional cases of sexual abuse by priests and further cover-up by church leadership. With more than 400 victims making claims against the church, Cardinal Law won approval from the Finance Council of the Archdiocese to declare bankruptcy. Fifty-eight Boston-area priests then signed a petition calling for the resignation of Cardinal Law. On Dec. 13 at the Vatican, Law resigned before the pope.

Capitalism Run Amok

The wave of corporate scandals in 2002 began when Enron, the country's largest energy trader, filed for bankruptcy in Dec. 200l while under federal investigation for hiding debt and misrepresenting earnings. The company used complicated off-the-balance-sheet partnerships to inflate profits by as much as $600 million. Enron's collapse not only shook the economy, but it left most of its employees bereft of retirement funds. Arthur Andersen, Enron's accounting firm and auditor, fell next, after it was convicted of destroying Enron-related documents. In July 2002, WorldCom, the nation's second-largest telecommunications company, became the largest company to go bankrupt in U.S. history after it admitted to cooking its books. Tyco, Qwest, Global Crossing, ImClone, and Adelphia, among others, were placed under federal investigation for various misadventures in fraud and crooked accounting. And putting a face on the impersonality of Big Business were the stories of extravagantly paid CEOs who indulged in personal enrichment schemes that demonstrated astounding arrogance, greed, and a criminal disregard for their employees. The Bush administration was slow to respond to the scandals, and the measures subsequently passed by Congress were tougher than those the president had proposed.

Mid-Term Election Issues

Corporate corruption, however, did not figure as a significant issue leading up to the mid-term elections in November—the Democrats never gained ground as the socially conscious party in comparison to the generally pro-business Republicans on the issue. Nor did terrorism or Iraq strongly engage the public. Voters were most concerned with the downturn in the economy—2 million private-sector jobs have vanished over the past two years and the stock market has continued to falter—a problem for which neither party offered compelling solutions. But the Republicans were the clear victors, and they once again gained control of the Senate as well as shored up their strength in the House. The elections were an emphatic vote of confidence for President Bush—historically, it is extremely rare for the party in power to actually make gains in mid-term elections.

Sources +