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A Portrait of a Progressive Congressman

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By David Swanson

Congressman Jim McDermott became involved in politics through his opposition to the Vietnam war. He came to Washington 17 years ago hoping to create national health coverage. Instead he's spent much of his time opposing new wars and war crimes. McDermott's record on matters of peace and war is unsurpassed in the Congress. On the matter of impeachment, however, he has lost all interest - as has every incumbent Democrat since Leader Nancy Pelosi decreed that impeachment should be "off the table."

I sat down with Congressman McDermott on Monday to discuss the Iraq War and the possibilities for peace. He offered insights and lessons from history that we would all do well to bear in mind.


McDermott sponsored a bill to create a study of the effects of depleted uranium (HR 2410). The bill recently passed the House, but has yet to become law. McDermott explained:

"If we can get it through and get it passed, we will establish a study in the Department of Defense to look at depleted uranium...and not done by the Department of Defense but done by an independent source. The Department of Defense has been rather categorical in their denial that there is any problem. But depending on how you look for something you may never find it....And what I want is for them to look at the long-term effects, not the short-term effects. Because if you look at depleted uranium in the urine, for instance, you may not find any. May be in and out. But those particles that have lodged themselves either in the lymph glands or in the gonads may ultimately turn out to be cancerous and lead to all kinds of problems that appear to be pretty obvious in Iraq.

"When I was in Iraq in September of 2001, I went down to southern Iraq, to Basra, where we dumped 300 tons of this depleted uranium in the original Road of Death and I was taken to a hospital where I was shown children with leukemia where they had, I mean, the pediatrician had tried to do some rather rudimentary epidemiological work and showed that there was about a 600 percent increase from 1990 to 2001 when I got there from 1991 when the bombing occurred. A ten year period. There was also an epidemic of children born with serious malformations, no eyes, no ears, really gross kinds of malformations. Not little things like, you know, that, obviously malformations, but these are major ones. It got to be to the point where mothers at the time of birth would say, 'Is the child normal?' rather than, 'Is it a boy or girl?'

"So, having seen that I thought, these people have been living and walking around in this dust for the last ten years, and we've got soldiers who are walking around inhaling this stuff, and to me it is the worst form of disrespect for our troops to not care what happens to them after the war. You know, it's easy to, you can make a lot of noise about armament, you know, Humvees under-armored and body armor and stuff like that, but these long-term effects are the ones that are really going to be the problems. And was really from my experience in the Vietnam thing where I saw the guys who had been sprayed with Agent Orange but didn't have the effects until much later that made me say, 'This is not something we should play around with.' But the military likes the weapon so much that they are very reluctant to look hard at it as to what its ultimate effect might be.

"So this was a study, this was a study that we hope will at least lay the groundwork so we know where these people are today and as time goes on if problems develop we'll have a basis for making a judgment. One of the things about Agent Orange was they denied it and denied it and denied it and denied it. I don't actually remember when they finally began to take seriously that they were having effects from this spray. And unfortunately they lost 15 or 20 years of good data. So, I'm a doctor, a scientist at heart and when I look at something like that I'm not sure what I'm seeing, but I've got a suspicion and it's worth observing and doing a careful study and making sure we have the basic evidence.

Swanson Is there a Senate bill and a sponsor in the Senate and timing on that?

McDermott: Yes. There was a bill put in by Sen. Cantwell, and Joe Lieberman has agreed to sign on, and it passed over there. So we, we have . . .

Swanson: It has passed both houses?

McDermott: It was not a bill. It was actually an amendment that was put on a bill. So it's, it's, yes, the concept has passed both houses. Now the questions is does it make it through a conference committee and up to the President's desk.


Swanson: We saw recently what happened with the language on no permanent bases in the emergency supplemental bill. Is that not blatantly against the rules of Congress to take something out in a conference committee that has passed in both houses?

McDermott: It used to be.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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