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By Ilima Loomis

WAILUKU, Maui (The Maui News, Aug. 22) - Hawaii is a potential target for terrorism, and it's "not healthy" for people who live here to believe otherwise, said U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

But he also said Hawaii residents and all Americans should be stronger and less fearful in the face of terrorism."I think the leadership of this country - and that includes us - should do more to put iron in our backbones," the World War II veteran said Wednesday in an interview with The Maui News editorial board.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the United States has spent billions on security and shut down some of its major public systems when a threat is perceived, he said.

Terrorists won't necessarily strike where they can achieve widespread "devastation," he warned, but will look for targets that can make Americans feel surprised and vulnerable.

"They want something that will put fear in us - and they've been successful," he said.

Inouye thought the nation's ports and harbors, including those in Hawaii, remain among its most vulnerable access points.

"I'm trying to convince my colleagues that's where we're going to find the action next time," he said.

It's not enough, he said, to rely on countries exporting goods to the U.S. to inspect and secure their cargo.

Not even 10 percent of shipping currently receives security screening in the United States, he noted.

Inouye had a mixed view of the report issued by the 9/11 Commission, which recommended that a special intelligence "czar" be appointed to coordinate intelligence gathering and oversee investigations into terrorism and national security issues.

The president should already be doing that job, Inouye said.

"If you've got the power to hire and fire, you've got the power," he said.

The president should facilitate communication between top intelligence agencies when they aren't working together, he said.

"If I were the president I'd call in the CIA guy and the FBI guy and say cut that out!" he said, noting he does exactly that with his staff when necessary.

Appointing an independent intelligence chief could put too much power in the hands of an unelected official, he added.

"Whenever they have this 'czar' business I get reminded of the KGB," Inouye said.

Inouye has served with eight U.S. presidents since Hawaii became a state and he came to Congress in 1959. Of that roster, the current President George W. Bush isn't his favorite.

"He won't be in the top five," Inouye chuckled.

But he recalled having a good working relationship with other top Republicans, including the senior George H.W. Bush and the late Ronald Reagan, and one of his favorite presidents was Vietnam-era Democrat Lyndon Johnson, whom he recalled as a "personal friend."

But today's environment in Washington is one of more animosity and partisanship than civility, with members of Congress lashing out at each other verbally as he's never seen before.

"I've never witnessed anger as you find it today, on both sides," he said.

Inouye said he continues to value bipartisan relationships, and he counts as one of his closest friends in Congress Alaska's longtime Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. He recalled a time in Washington when it was commonplace for Democrats and Republicans to set aside their differences and work together.

"I hope we can do that again," he said.

Hawaii is still a more civil place, he added.

"I can sense it here, but not as bad as on the Mainland," he said. "We still have aloha here, and that pleases me."

Inouye has a "jolly time" working alongside Gov. Linda Lingle and other top local Republicans to accomplish goals and advance projects like the proposed Hawaii Super Ferry.

"I try to set the tone," he said. "Whether I like it or not, I am the senior Democrat on the scene."

He hasn't seen the controversial anti-Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11," and he doesn't plan to - although he's tempted, because "everyone seems to have seen it."

He felt the film's high-profile message could overshadow his own politics: "I don't want people to say, 'You're saying those things because you saw that movie.'"

The media contributes to the polarization of Washington, he added, but he felt that was only natural.

"If a guy comes out with an outrageous statement, I'd expect you guys to report it," he said.

He gets his own news from a mix of sources that includes the conservative Washington Times and Fox News.

"I'd be a fool . . if I just relied on people who say nice things about us," he said with a smile.

Inouye was optimistic that the Democratic Party could reclaim the White House in 2004.

"If the election were held tomorrow, Kerry would be president," he said, adding that he felt public concern about the economy and the war in Iraq would work against the current administration.

Voters will grow more discouraged about the war as they continue to read of American soldiers dying in Iraq, he said.

"I can't see it improving in the next two months," he said.

Another factor will be high unemployment and a struggling economy, he said, and many people will draw the conclusion that there's a direct link between high oil prices and the Iraq war.

"Most people are not economists," he said.

Inouye himself is seeking re-election this fall - to his eighth term in the Senate - and he said he's been working on his campaign. He was first elected to the Senate in 1962 after two terms as the first Hawaii representative to Congress after statehood.

He's the third in seniority in the U.S. Senate, sits on the Committee on Appropriations and is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations.

If elected he'll be 86 at the end of his next term, but Inouye says he's in excellent health.

"According to my doctors, I'm in better shape now than I was 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "I know I exhaust my staff."

But he also is looking ahead to the end of his political career.

"I think my future is almost now," he said. "In three weeks I'll be 80 years old. Much as I'd like to stay around longer, reality tells me two terms at the most. That's 12 years!"

August 23, 2004

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