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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Pay-as-You-Go Evacuation Roils Capitol Hill

Democratic lawmakers criticize efforts to charge U.S. citizens seeking to leave Lebanon. The State Department says it will waive the requirement.

July 19, 2006|Johanna Neuman and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As U.S. citizens scrambled to escape the fighting in Lebanon and the Pentagon announced a massive evacuation effort, another kind of battle -- this one bitterly political -- broke out in Washington over whether the evacuees should be billed for the costs of their own rescue.

Those seeking to leave were being asked to sign a promissory note, pledging to repay the U.S. government within 90 days for the costs of their evacuation. The paperwork in Beirut sent tempers through the roof in Washington, not to mention among some under fire in Lebanon who have been asked to sign the notes.

"We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq, we've paid Halliburton money that they haven't even earned, and yet we charge individual Americans who are caught in the crossfire in Lebanon for their transportation costs to get out," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Calling on President Bush to reassure the public that "this is not just another manifestation of the Katrina mentality," Pelosi added, "A nation that can provide $300 billion for a war in Iraq can provide the money to get its people out of Lebanon."

At the White House, Press Secretary Tony Snow blamed Congress for a 2002 mandate requiring the administration to recover evacuation costs "to the maximum extent practicable."

The provision, he said, "is causing heartburn for a number of people, but it is the law, and the State Department has to abide by it."

Throughout the day, congressional leaders and the administration traded accusations over who was to blame, and each urged the other to rush through a waiver to the repayment law. Tuesday evening, the State Department announced that it would waive the requirement that American citizens leaving Lebanon repay the government for travel costs.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, announced that it was sending nine naval ships -- six already in the region and three from Europe -- and thousands of Marines and sailors to aid in the rescue and provide security.

"We're trying to move quickly, trying to move large numbers of people as fast as we can," Vice Adm. Patrick W. Walsh, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, said from his headquarters in Bahrain, speaking to a briefing for the media in Washington.

Four of the ships are amphibious vessels that can hold more than 1,000 people each. Helicopters and landing craft from those ships will be used to bring people from the port to the vessels, which would remain well offshore to stay out of harm's way.

"I'm concerned about attacks on our ships, you bet," Walsh said. He also said the Navy was contracting with commercial vessels.

The increased capability means that as of today, "we will see a dramatic ramp-up" in the number of American evacuees, said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs.

In addition, she said, the administration is ready to begin evacuating Americans from southern Lebanon as well as Beirut.

About 25,000 American citizens are in Lebanon, according to U.S. government estimates. The State Department was unsure how many sought to leave but made clear that all who wanted to would be evacuated.

Many in Washington were consumed Tuesday with the pace of the rescue. Noting that Italy and France had already moved 1,600 Europeans to Cyprus, Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both Democrats from New Jersey, issued a statement calling it "unfathomable why the U.S. -- with the most sophisticated military in the world -- lags behind a number of other countries that have already evacuated hundreds of their citizens."

The State Department has been authorized to seek reimbursement for rescues since 1956, according to the department. On a number of occasions in the past -- in Tehran after the Iranian revolution of 1979, in Iraq and Kuwait on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in strife-torn Liberia in 1996 -- Americans have been asked to fill out pledges, though the government often declined to collect.

But four years ago, Congress tightened the law on seeking repayments.

"Congress said, 'No, no, no, we want to get our money out of them' -- I'm paraphrasing -- and they strengthened the language," said Snow, the White House spokesman.

Pelosi bristled at that interpretation, saying it was "never Congress' intent to prevent the U.S. government from evacuating our citizens from a very dangerous area."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) criticized the administration for hiding behind congressional history, contending that Bush could waive the requirement whenever he wanted.

"Today, the press secretary for an administration not known for its deference to laws passed by Congress hid behind a claim that congressional legislation was responsible for the current situation," Reid said in a statement.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a letter to show that it was the State Department that had requested the new language.

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