Political Scene

A Fellow's Welcome to Washington
David Curtiss

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Benjamin Franklin

“There has been another incident, this one at the Pentagon. We are going to suspend our presentation at this time, and tune in the television to follow the latest developments.”
So began Sept. 11, 2001, my fifth day of orientation to the Congressional Science Fellowship/ program. My colleagues and I were at the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress’s Madison building that day, originally poised to learn more about the year we would spend as scientists working on the Hill. Instead, as we sat in a building across from the U.S. Capitol, we watched — stomachs churning — the surreal images of planes rocketing into buildings, buildings collapsing, and smoke rising from the rubble in New York City and Washington, D.C. Minutes later we evacuated the building, disgorged into the streets around the Capitol already crowded with federal employees, and we all feared the rumors of more rogue planes. Traffic was at a standstill. No one knew if the subway was running, but getting home, and away from downtown, was top priority.
Standing packed in the subway car,  I saw my fear reflected in the eyes of fellow passengers. There was no panic, only shock, disbelief, and the sense of camaraderie known to strangers together in the face of peril.  That afternoon, having reassured concerned family and friends of my safety, I watched heavily armed helicopters circle over Washington from my suburban Virginia apartment. As details of the attacks emerged, so did the magnitude of the problem: This nation’s free and open society — a hallmark of liberty — had harbored our attackers like a Trojan horse.
Just days before, as the miles ticked away on my odometer as I crossed the heartland, I could not have imagined the events awaiting me. Packing up my office in the Energy & Geoscience Institute (EGI) at the University of Utah after eight years, I had visions that I would spend my year as the American Geological Institute’s Congressional Science Fellow walking the halls of power, contributing scientific expertise to policy-making and learning the policy process — maybe even becoming a politician. While this idea may be a fair description of the fellowship experience, the reality, after a few weeks on the job, is more humbling. I have a lot to learn.
Our orientation, coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), continued another two weeks after the attack, preparing us to the extent possible for life on the Hill and for the placement process. My match was with Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., a Republican from Oklahoma who is Chairman of the House Republican Conference, a position that puts him fourth in the House Republican leadership.
The Republican Conference is an information resource for all Republican members of the House of Representatives on a variety of issues. My background in international and domestic oil and gas suited their needs, and their projects interested me. In addition to working for the leadership office, I assist the Congressman’s personal office staff as needed. I have concentrated on two interconnected issues in response to the attacks: critical infrastructure protection, particularly in the energy sector, and cyber-security.
America’s immediate and effective response to the attacks of Sept. 11 was possible in large part because the nation’s critical infrastructures remained intact, or were quickly restored: oil and natural gas supplies, electric power, information and communications (telecommunications), transportation, banking and finance, water supply, government services, and emergency services. These infrastructures are increasingly interdependent, where a failure of one may lead to a cascading deterioration or failure of others. Critical infrastructure protection to physical attacks is vital. Furthermore, the increasing dependence of these sectors on information technology in their businesses also leaves them vulnerable to cyber-attacks. If the two attacks are coordinated, the impact can be multiplied dramatically.
Both the public and government desire protection from such threats. Resuming our way of life, as our elected leaders advocate, demands it. Reducing our vulnerabilities requires increased information sharing and partnership between government and industry, as well as national and international coordination and expanded research and development. Establishing these links is critical, and both government and industry are responding.
As I wrote this in October, my office building was closed for anthrax testing. The nightly news featured continued reports of new anthrax infections. We have been told that the threat of further attacks, both traditional and biological, remains high. At the same time, as the nation works to improve critical infrastructure security and prevent future terrorist activities, we should heed Benjamin Franklin’s warning: Safety? Absolutely, but not at all costs.
Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson said it well: “There is no ‘slippery slope’ toward loss of liberties, only a long staircase where each step downward must first be tolerated by the American people and their leaders.”
Therein lies the call to action for all citizen scientists. Our work as scientists may increase the nation’s resilience to attack, which is a worthy and necessary pursuit. But a greater threat remains. Terror is not an individual or an organization. Terror is an idea. It stands opposed to liberty, an idea so vital that our Founding Fathers considered it an “unalienable right.” Freedom-loving people have fought hard for liberty. As the lines are drawn once again, our responsibility as citizens is to join this battle of ideas, and ensure that liberty prevails.

These views are solely those of the author,and do not reflect the views of Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), the House Republican Conference, or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

Contact Curtiss at the Office of the Republican Conference, U.S. House of Representatives, 1010 Longworth Building, Washington D.C. or at

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