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Kirk’s Military Experience Comes in Handy

Once a month Rep. Mark Kirk’s (R-Ill.) access to classified information actually increases when the House gavels out for the weekend.

That’s when Kirk heads over to the Pentagon’s National Military Joint Intelligence Center, what civilians know as the “war room,” to stand watch and fulfill his commitment as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer.

The Illinois Republican joins some 50 to 60 people who read intelligence reports from around the world and inform the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House situation room if, as he says, “something blows up.”

And just because it’s the weekend doesn’t mean the officers can let their guard down —even a little.

“There seems to be an unwritten rule that all crises happen on Sunday and Saturday night,” he said with a laugh.

Even though Kirk is in just his second term in Congress, the direct experience in covert operations has made him — along with fellow GOP Reps. Mike Rogers (Mich.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.), who spent time in the FBI and CIA, respectively — an expert on terrorism and military action as the United States prepares to attack Iraq and the nation’s top decision-makers debate the significance of classified information.

By now the “war room” weekend experience is old hat to Kirk, who spent four years assigned to the CIA while a full-time Naval officer. In that role, he participated in the military’s Operation Northern Watch against Iraq in April and May 2000 before winning a seat in Congress. Kirk has been heading over to the Pentagon once a month for the past nine years; he even met his wife, Kimberly, also a watch officer, there.

‘A Tough Half Hour’

Kirk also has a better understanding of the threat North Korea poses. While on watch at the war room one weekend in 1994, North Korea launched a missile into the Pacific Ocean without warning the Pentagon or any other country. Kirk and all those on hand had no idea where the missile would land, and they calculated that they had just 28 minutes before the point of impact.

President Bill Clinton was alerted and calls were exchanged between the extremely agitated Japanese and a number of nervous U.S. allies. Kirk said the missile “resolved itself” in the western Pacific far from any land mass. But the incident rattled everyone on watch.

“It was a tough half hour,” Kirk recalled. “Everyone was pretty much drenched in sweat.”

Despite the years of combat and intelligence experience, Kirk does not consider himself a hawk, especially when it comes to waging war in Iraq even if he generally supports the way President Bush has handled the situation.

“The veterans among us are pretty universally reluctant warriors,” he said. “When you’re in the field you want to go into battle only if it’s absolutely necessary because you know the names of everybody there and there better be a damn good reason to go.”

Once a war starts, however, the dynamic shifts, Kirk said.

“The sunshine patriots just want to run away at the first sign of trouble. But if the State Department can’t work it out [through diplomatic means] then we want to hit the other side with everything we’ve got to make sure the war is over quickly.”

Simmons, who earned two Bronze Stars as an Army officer in Vietnam and also served as a CIA officer there, expressed similar sentiments when Bush first sounded the drums of war last fall.

Simmons knows how demoralizing it is to fight an unpopular war. During a tight re-election campaign last fall, he expressed serious misgivings about rushing into war with Iraq unilaterally without exhausting diplomatic efforts.

The two-term Republican who served as staff director to the prestigious Senate Intelligence Committee under Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) also discounted administration claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons capabilities.

But in the past few months, Simmons has liked Bush’s efforts to win a resolution granting the use of force from the United Nations. He also approves of the way the administration has tried to convince key allies and Members of Congress that Hussein is a dangerous menace.

Even though Simmons does not have a seat on the exclusive Intelligence panel, the chairman and the rest of the leadership allow him to sit in on classified briefings and receive classified materials. This information, as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s public disclosures, has convinced him that war in Iraq is warranted even if he still does not believe Hussein has attained nuclear power.

The Drone Question

In the past few weeks, Simmons has zeroed in on the problem posed by Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicles, what the administration views as a deadly drone that Hussein could use to spread chemical and biological weapons inside the United States.

The Connecticut Republican is so convinced that the primitive craft could wreak havoc in the United States that he carries a 9-by-11 glossy photo of it as a prop when he appears on television.

Last week, during an open session of the House Armed Services Committee, Simmons also hammered Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, the head of the newly created Northern Command in charge of homeland security, about how he would protect the country against such a drone. Simmons ardently believes the makeshift drone could be dissembled, put in a crate and easily shipped to the United States because only 2 percent of all containers are inspected at U.S. ports of entry. He described a scenario where “five guys in a pickup truck” retrieve the aircraft, take it out to a rural area in Loudoun County, Va., assemble it in a barn and launch it in parking lot or a country road.

Once up in the air, Simmons said, the drone could fly to Washington, dumping a biological or chemical weapon in its path.

Simmons said he was completely unsatisfied with the general’s answer.

“His response was we hope that citizens in the community will observe the activity and report it. … We hope that will happen,” Simmons said, incredulously.

“This is my fundamental concern,” he added. “And I feel like I have a responsibility to talk about this and sound the alarm about this because I think that this kind of scenario it’s what’s on the mind of the president and the secretary of State.”

Rogers, himself a former Army officer and FBI agent, also points to the drone’s discovery by U.N. inspection teams as one of a series of Iraqi disarmament missteps.

Rogers, also a second-term lawmaker, stays in touch with colleagues in the FBI.

“We tend to chat and talk and trade information,” he said in an interview.

In fact late last week, Rogers was convinced that the U.S. military was close to nabbing Osama bin Laden, although he declined to give a timeline.

“We may in fact be very, very close to Osama bin Laden,” Rogers said emphatically.

Last week Rogers’ intelligence background came in handy when he and two other House Members traveled to Turkey to make the case to political leaders there that they should reconsider their refusal to let U.S. troops operate out of that country’s military bases during a possible war with Iraq.

“I was trying to tell them how important it was to use their bases, how it would help reduce soldier casualties and make it much quicker and safer,” he said.

Rogers acknowledges that he has a vested interest in reducing casualties. His brother is currently in Kuwait as a member of the 101st Airborne division.

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