WASHINGTON -- Speaking in unusually forceful terms, President Clinton condemned the Oklahoma City bombing as "an attack on the United States" and vowed that punishment would be "swift and certain and severe."
Mr. Clinton repeatedly cautioned Americans yesterday against jumping to conclusions about who was responsible. Addressing fears by Arab-Americans of a backlash against their community, he said authorities still do not know who was behind the attack and warned the public not to "stereotype anyone."
Law enforcement officials have refused to say publicly whether they believe foreign terrorists played a part in Wednesday's dTC bombing. Two suspects being sought by the FBI are described as white men of unidentified ethnic origin.
Speculation about a Middle East connection was heightened by two events yesterday. The Justice Department said a man who arrived in London, reportedly en route to Amman, Jordan, was being brought back to the United States by FBI agents as a "possible witness" in the case. And Defense Secretary William J. Perry confirmed that the Pentagon had agreed to provide Arabic translators to help in the investigation.
At an afternoon news conference at the White House, Mr. Clinton initially ducked a question about whether the United States would retaliate militarily if it turned out that another country was behind the bombing. A few minutes later, however, he appeared to leave the door open to a military strike.
"Nobody can hide in this country, nobody can hide anyplace in this world, from the terrible consequences of what has been done," he said. "Make no mistake about it: This was an attack on the United States, our way of life and everything we believe in."
The president praised the federal investigation as "awesome, intense, comprehensive and dogged," and said the public would be "very proud" of the progress that had been made, if, he implied, they knew as much about it as he did.
Mr. Clinton's statement that the bombing "is not a question of anybody's country of origin" or "anybody's religion" drew praise from Arab-American leaders, who have condemned the bombing and sought donations of money and blood for the victims.
"The president did the right thing, but it will need to be repeated," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington.
Mr. Zogby expressed concern, however, that Congress would now move quickly to approve the Clinton administration's anti-terrorism proposal, which, he warned, could "create a state of siege in America and gut the Constitution."
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate terrorism subcommittee and a Republican presidential candidate, announced yesterday that the panel would hold a hearing next Thursday on the measure, which would set up a secret court to rule on the cases of immigrants accused of ties to terrorist organizations.