In Navy speech, Clinton urges precautions against terrorism President orders stockpile of vaccines as protection from biological warfare

May 23, 1998|By Susan Baer and Neal Thompson | Susan Baer and Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF WRITERS

ANNAPOLIS -- Telling the latest class of Navy officers that U.S. vulnerability to new types of terrorism is "real and growing," President Clinton ordered yesterday the stockpiling of vaccines against deadly biological agents and new steps to secure the emerging cyber world.

"As we approach the 21st century, our foes have extended the fields of battle from physical space to cyberspace, from the world's vast bodies of water to the complex workings of our own human bodies," Clinton told the 908 graduating midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"If our children are to grow up safe and free," the president said, "we must approach these new 21st-century threats with the same rigor and determination we applied to the toughest security challenges of this century."

Speaking outdoors on a day as bright as the sea of dress white uniforms on the field of the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Clinton offered a somber and foreboding message. He said the military would have to join forces with the private sector to battle nontraditional threats such as germ warfare and computer hackers.

"As ever," the president said, "we must be ready to fight the next war, not the last one."

In his second commencement address at the Naval Academy in four years, Clinton ordered the creation of an unprecedented civilian stockpile of medicines and vaccines that would protect against the kinds of weapons of mass destruction most likely to be used by adversaries.

To this end, he announced further research into the development of a new generation of vaccines and antidotes that would protect masses of people if a terrorist group or enemy state launched a biological attack on the United States.

Anthrax is the only potential germ weapon for which a vaccine has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration.

Addressing the 769 men and 139 women in the graduating class and a stadium full of families, friends and undergraduates, Clinton also called for a plan to secure the connected web of computers, phone lines and electrical power that is becoming the nerve center of the nation. "If we fail to take strong action," Clinton warned, "then terrorists, criminal and hostile regimes could invade and paralyze these vital systems, disrupting commerce, threatening health, weakening our capacity to function in a crisis."

He also announced a national coordinator for combating new terrorist threats, a post to be filled by National Security Council adviser Richard A. Clarke.

Putting aside the scandals that have hounded him this year, Clinton seemed to bask in the tradition-laced ceremony and his role as commander in chief -- the title emblazoned on a blue and gold jogging suit that the graduating class gave him.

Clinton also mentioned potential problems in India that, he said, remind us "technology is not always a force of good."

He implored India, which recently conducted nuclear explosive tests, to halt its program and join the 149 nations that have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He also asked neighboring Pakistan to exercise restraint, "to avoid a perilous nuclear arms race."

Before leaving Annapolis by helicopter, Clinton stopped at a boathouse to call Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and again plead for restraint.

On a lighter note, Clinton joked about the poor performance by the Class of 1998 in the annual Herndon Monument ritual, in which freshmen attempt to reach the top of a granite obelisk coated with lard. The president said he was instructed not to take as long with his commencement speech as the midshipmen did with their climb. "Now, at four hours and five minutes, the slowest time in recorded history," he said to much laughter, "I have a lot of leeway."

Clinton's speech concluded four difficult years for the Class of 1998, which endured some of the lowest moments in recent academy history. During the graduates' first three years as midshipmen, the school was regularly in the headlines for the wrong reasons: midshipmen being expelled, arrested and charged with murder.

But the class also witnessed what some call a turnaround during the past 18 months. They took the brunt of the many restrictions implemented by the superintendent, Adm. Charles R. Larson. Also, their graduation comes at the end of the first scandal-free year of their academy careers. "We're going out on such a better note than when we came in," said C. B. Davis of Forest Hill in Harford County.

Navy football star Gervy Alota -- who hugged Clinton upon receiving his diploma from him and gave the president a lucky rubber band he'd worn in games -- said his classmates often felt like guinea pigs. They were subjected to Larson's restrictions on students' cars, civilian clothing and free time. They also had to take ethics courses added to the curriculum.

Yet many members of the class said they felt a connection to the outgoing superintendent, who was recruited to return to the Naval Academy in 1994 for a second term as its leader and who retires next month.

Clinton, in praising Larson, noted that the former commander in chief of the Pacific was the first senior U.S. official to warn him of the potential nuclear problems brewing in India.

Larson took the unusual step yesterday of tossing his hat in the air when the graduates tossed theirs at the emotional climax of the ceremony.

The hat toss was among many graduation day traditions. After a booming cannon salute to open the ceremony, the six jets of the Navy's Blue Angels aerial team roared in formation over the stadium, evoking roars of approval from graduates, underclassmen and officers.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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