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Cover Story - The Troublemaker

I remember when I lost my mind.

There was something so pleasant about that place. Even your emotions had an echo in so much space. And when you're out there, without care, yeah, I was out of touch.

 

But it wasn't because I didn't know enough.

I just knew too much.

Does that make me crazy?. . . Possibly.

 

"Crazy," by musical group Gnarls Barkley

The closet in Curt Weldon's congressional office contains many curious things. There's the diplomatic pouch, a worn blue satchel that once shuttled secret missives across oceans and borders before it made its way to Weldon, by the hands of "my friends in the intelligence community," he says. "I think I'm the only member of Congress with one of these."

There's the gyroscope, a Russian model about the size of a can of beans, that was built for the guidance systems of long-range missiles and was intercepted en route to Iraq in 1995. Weldon obtained the missile part -- it came in the pouch from those friends in the intelligence community -- and hung on to it as evidence that Iraq was constructing weapons of mass destruction. "We know Iraq had WMD," he says. "The question is, why haven't we found them?"

And then, along with the pouch and the gyroscope and the untold quantities of political memorabilia from the Republican lawmaker's 20-year career in Congress -- a career that may well come to an end after Election Day -- there's the chart. The one with all the lines and pictures. The one that might have prevented 9/11.

 

One day last winter, Weldon dragged the chart out of his closet and moved furniture out of the way to accommodate the display. The chart is actually a replica of an organizational diagram of Al Qaeda. Produced years before the 9/11 attacks, the original was a marvel of progressive intelligence analysis. Its creators used sophisticated data-mining software to scour classified government databases and, mostly, the Internet in search of clues and nuggets that linked suspected Qaeda members, as well as operatives in other Islamic terrorist groups. Its designers called it "the global footprint." Weldon was, and still is, the staunchest backer in Congress of the techniques that produced the chart. And whether he would like to admit it or not, Weldon probably knows that if he loses his seat in November, the chart may have a lot to do with it.

At first glance, Al Qaeda's footprint is a convoluted web of photographs, Arabic names, and dates. Each data point is connected to others -- often many others -- by straight lines that scatter across the terrible blueprint like spilled Pick Up Sticks. The human eye cannot sensibly absorb the hundreds of connections all at once. The dozens of "Als" and "Ibns," attached to passport-sized photographs, or to a head-shaped silhouette when there is no known photo, connect to more names, more faces.

But to some trained eyes, and to Weldon, the linkages lead to obvious conclusions. The chart, he said, "could be used to show you patterns that create linkages that create relationships that, in this case, all involved terrorist activities.... This is like the one I gave to Stephen Hadley."

Two weeks after 9/11 -- Weldon recalled it precisely as September 25 -- he was visited in his office by friends in the Army's Information Dominance Center, the intelligence outfit that created the original diagram. They gave it to Weldon, who immediately took it to Hadley, then President Bush's deputy national security adviser.

Weldon said he told Hadley about the data-mining techniques: "This is the process that's been used that I've been trying to convince the government for three years to put into place, but the CIA has refused to accept." Hadley, according to Weldon, told him he would show the chart to "the big man," meaning Bush. That was the last time that Weldon saw the chart, and there is no indication that Bush ever saw it.

In the hive of images on the re-created diagram, it's easy to overlook the photograph nestled near the center. But there he is, striking a now iconic gaze: the sleepy eyes, the thin lips. Underneath his photo is this simple caption: "ATTA, Mohamed." The commander of the 9/11 hijackers. One man in a cosmos of faces, yet, fittingly, at the center of them all.

The chart could be called a smoking gun, proof that the government knew about Atta and other terrorists inside the United States, and that Weldon had backed the right horse. Except, it's not at all clear that the original showed Atta's name, or his face.

When the 9/11 commission was investigating the root causes of the attacks, staff members interviewed two men from a team at the Information Dominance Center who said that the chart was made for a secret Army project called "Able Danger." Both have said they told the commission that the chart mentioned Atta but that no one in the military hierarchy followed up on the information. Other team members also claim to have seen Atta on the chart, but still others say they didn't. In the more than 500 pages of the final 9/11 commission report, released in 2004, Able Danger isn't mentioned once.

A year later, some of the team members broke their public silence. Weldon, who had been unaware of Able Danger, was so concerned that the 9/11 report didn't include it that he orchestrated interviews for the whistle-blowers with major media organizations. Weldon had long since soured on the 9/11 commission. He tried at least four times, he said, to meet with the staff about data mining and his firsthand knowledge that intelligence agencies didn't cooperate in the hunt for terrorists. Weldon said that the discussions "would have led [the commissioners] to the story I found out about [Able Danger], because I would have put them in touch with all the people."

"I tried. I got nowhere with them," Weldon said. He drew up questions for the commissioners to pose to witnesses. They never did. When the panel finished its work in mid-2004, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the co-chairmen, held a preview meeting for lawmakers. "I was the first one there, because I wanted to be the first questioner," Weldon said. "I said, 'Lee and Tom, I supported the commission and many of your recommendations. Even though a lot of them were in the Gilmore Commission, which I created. It was my initiative that created that. My frustration with you is, I tried to meet with you and share information, and you refused to meet with me.' "

According to Weldon, Hamilton replied, "Well, you know, Curt, we had a lot of people who wanted to meet with us. We couldn't meet with every member of Congress that was working in these areas." Recalling the story, Weldon became exasperated. "I was chairman of the defense research committee," he said. "Nobody was more identified with data mining and data collaboration than I was.... I had been involved in it up to my eyeballs!"

Weldon demanded to know why investigators hadn't pursued Able Danger's claims. Hamilton and Kean said that none of their staff remembers the Information Dominance Center team members using Mohamed Atta's name. Requests to the Pentagon for Able Danger documents yielded nothing mentioning him or any of the 18 other hijackers. And Hadley cannot recall ever receiving a chart from Weldon, nor has the original been found. In Without Precedent, their book about the commission's work, Hamilton and Kean wrote, "The absence of any documents supporting the charge, the manifold contradictions in the statements about Able Danger by Weldon and others, the improbability -- if not impossibility -- of the program's ability to identify Atta, and the simple fact that people can have faulty memories about what took place years in the past, led us to the conclusion that Able Danger just did not do what Weldon said it did."

"For [them] to say that they fully investigated Able Danger is pure horseshit," Weldon said. "I mean, it is absolute garbage. I know all of the Able Danger principals. None of them were talked to. None of them were interviewed, except the two people who, on their own, went to the commission and were rebuffed.... It's a gross lie!" Weldon is unmoved by Hamilton and Kean's evidence to the contrary. He says that the commission has deliberately covered up what it knew about Able Danger -- probably to avoid embarrassment. It is a scandal on par with the greatest of the 20th century, he said. "It's worse than Watergate."

The louder Weldon shouts, the more divisive he becomes. One camp calls him a hero and a patriot; the other brands him a hyperventilating conspiracy theorist. Locked in the most competitive campaign of his career, one that the national Democratic Party believes it must win to regain power in Congress and is financing to the hilt, Weldon is probably ill-advised to be engaging in theatrics. And yet there he is.

For Weldon's critics -- and even for some of his supporters -- the maddening thing is that much of what he says cannot be completely disproved or verified. Indeed, Weldon has often been right about the course of world affairs. However, much of what he says, particularly about 9/11 and terrorism, has threads of truth, and he can overreach. The CIA has surely failed to predict major world events. But does that mean that it's totally incompetent? The 9/11 commissioners said their report isn't the last word. But does that mean that Able Danger should be part of the record, or that commissioners are willfully eschewing its significance to protect themselves? And what if a handful of analysts did identify Mohamed Atta? Clearly they, or their superiors, were unable or unwilling to effectively use that discovery. Would it have stopped the attacks? Weldon may often be right. But is he always accurate?

At a time when even the most mundane utterances of any senior politician are picked up as soon as they fall from his or her lips, Weldon -- a proud loudmouth -- is the easiest of easy targets. And yet he heads straight into the breach, almost gleefully, practically begging his opponents to challenge him. But as Weldon rails about Watergate-style cover-ups and hitches his wagon to mysterious "friends" in the intelligence world, people have started whispering. Perhaps his current vulnerability emboldens them. Behind his back -- and surely he knows this -- many in Washington ask a pointed question: Is he crazy?

Since first being elected to Congress in 1986, Weldon has walked a fine line between narcissism and heroism, between being right and being cast as a nut. The stakes have never been higher, but this isn't new territory for him. He has always managed to stay atop the tightrope, and the people around him have learned how to balance his passionate self-certainty with his short, attention-getting fuse. It's a delicate dance. As one intelligence professional with close ties to many in the whispering (conservative) class put it, "Curt Weldon is someone you want on your side. But not passionately."

Weldon: Unplugged

Curt Weldon was lost. One morning in April, en route to a hotel in Northern Virginia to give a speech on the defense budget, he took a wrong turn and ended up in the Pentagon parking lot. Getting from point A to point B in Washington is one thing that Weldon concedes he doesn't always get right.

As Weldon drove around the vast concrete field, his passenger suggested that he stop a Pentagon police officer and ask him to escort a member of Congress. "Yeah, I never like to do that," Weldon replied. Eventually, he found an exit, and then the hotel.

Weldon never commits his speeches to paper. As he stood outside a hotel ballroom waiting to go on, he asked the event planners if there were any particular points they wanted him to cover. All were inclined to let Weldon decide. The 100 or so attendees had come expecting a wonky recitation on the finer points of Pentagon budgeting. Let it rip, Curt.

The woman who introduced Weldon called him "one of our greatest patriots on the Hill." When he chaired the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, he visited 24 bases in 15 states over 40 days as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, to help decide which ones should be shuttered or moved. His staff called it "the Weldon Death March."

"Mr. Weldon is desperately dedicated to BRAC, even though it hurts his district," the emcee said. "He does what is right."

"I remember that trip," Weldon told the crowd. He went to bases all over the country, saw military housing "that you wouldn't put your worst enemy in." There were buildings with raw sewage on the first floor. Schools with asbestos. This tour wasn't about "going out meeting and dining with admirals," he assured. It was about seeing where people lived. Weldon has chaired every subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. If he wins re-election, he stands a chance, finally, in 2008, of becoming chairman.

Weldon launched -- unscripted -- into an eloquent and bracing speech about defense spending. The lead was classic Curt: "We're at a train wreck that I predicted in the mid-'90s would happen." Weldon is a former schoolteacher, but his speeches are surprisingly devoid of lecturing. It's as if he expects that his audience, if they've come to hear him, already know the basics. He moves quickly over complex, dense terrain, and reminds listeners that he has been here before.

Weldon explained that, over the past 15 years, Congress and the White House had decreased military spending as a percentage of the federal budget. But during the 1990s, the number of troop deployments had risen dramatically, to 38. From the end of World War II to 1991 -- not long after the Berlin Wall fell -- U.S. troops headed into battle just 10 times. Concurrently, there had been a "radical proliferation" of WMD, he said, from China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Russia, the country about which Weldon is probably Congress's foremost expert -- as he frequently reminds people.

More facts. The U.S. Navy had gone from a 585-ship fleet to a 283-ship fleet. Now some were saying that Congress should increase the budget even more. "You've got to understand that's not going to happen." Entitlement spending is eating up so much of the budget that 60 cents of every dollar is off the table, he said. Ordinarily, one might expect the heir apparent to the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee to tell an audience of defense contractors that the military coffers runneth over. But, as Weldon gladly admits, "I don't bullshit people."

"We have a massive problem," he told the audience. "And Democrats and Republicans have been the source of that problem." The heads in the crowd nodded."Congress doesn't like to make the hard choices," he said. After his Death March, he knew that the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which is in his district, was on the block. "They had hundreds of workers," he said. "I was the only member of my delegation to support closing" the facility.

The mood was dour. Weldon is a master orator, so he knows how to leave the audience on a high note. He told them about a congressional visit to Iraq a few years ago, when he and other members helicoptered in to meet with a two-star general and a gathering of his troops. They landed not far from the "spider hole" where U.S. forces unearthed Saddam Hussein. Weldon told the general that he wanted to talk to the enlisted personnel separately from the officers, as he always does, so they could speak freely. But first, he wanted to know about the casualties.

The general had lost some very good soldiers. There was, as it turned out, a young officer who had been ambushed a couple of weeks ago between Tikrit and Kirkuk. He was shot, but he got up and successfully directed his forces to return fire, and then was shot again and died where he fell. Weldon paused. He told the general, "I know who that young man was."

"Congressman," the general said, "I have 30,000 troops under my command. You could not know who that lieutenant was."

Weldon replied, "It was David Bernstein," and the general's eyes widened. "How would you know that?"

Weldon explained. The lieutenant was from Pennsylvania and was a West Point graduate. Weldon was familiar with the incident that the general recounted because he had nominated Bernstein, who had attended high school in Weldon's district, to the U.S. Military Academy. And before Weldon left for Iraq, Bernstein's parents asked him to deliver a three-page letter they wrote about their only son to anyone there who might have known him. Weldon said he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out the letter. "I [then] saw something I've never seen in my 20 years on the Armed Services Committee. In the middle of that battlefield, among hundreds of soldiers and a congressional delegation, a hundred yards from Saddam's hole, I saw a two-star general cry." As Weldon told the story, many of the rapt listeners in the hotel ballroom looked like they might, as well.

Weldon continued. The general reached into his pocket and pulled out a medal. It was a Silver Star, awarded posthumously to Bernstein for gallantry in action. "Would you give this to his parents?" the general asked. When the general regained his composure, he informed Weldon that his own son was serving in Iraq, and that he and Bernstein had been friends at West Point.

Weldon thanked the attendees "for your work." But, he said, "I have come to challenge you to understand the pressures the Congress faces to make the best military known to mankind on the face of the earth." With that, a roomful of strangers who had settled in for a day of speeches on acquisition and budget requirements leaped to their feet in a thunderous ovation. If they could have cast a vote right then, some might have. The woman who had introduced Weldon came to the podium, took his head in her hands, and kissed his face.

The Diplomat Without Portfolio

On the way back to his office, Weldon gave a ride to a White House fellow, Rodney Bullard, who was assigned to shadow him. The program is an elite grooming process for future government leaders. "How did you get assigned to me?" Weldon asked.

Bullard smiled and said softly, "I had a wish list."

"A troublemaker?" Weldon said, smiling too. "That's what you wanted?"

"A fiery congressman."

Weldon gave Bullard his thumbnail biography. How he grew up one of nine children, in the working-class borough of Marcus Hook between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. How his poor eyesight kept him out of the military. (He has had five eye surgeries.) How he has honed his reputation as a globe-trotter, a kind of diplomat without portfolio.

"I go to all the problem areas," Weldon said. Aside from Iraq, he traveled to the Balkans during the war in 1997, to try to broker a peace settlement. He has also made a number of visits to North Korea, where he met with senior officials to discuss the country's nuclear ambitions. Those trips are a source of unabated annoyance for the Bush White House.

In 2003, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, tried to scuttle Weldon's first foray to North Korea. It was Memorial Day weekend, and Weldon called Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card at a picnic and had Rice overruled. In Rice, Weldon has found a competitive nemesis. He noted, with satisfaction, "I'm the only member of Congress to be inducted into the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. I'm sure that didn't make Condi Rice" -- herself a formidable Soviet scholar -- "too happy." Once, aboard Air Force One, Weldon said that the president asked him, "You don't like Condi, do you?"

"I said, 'Mr. President, I've never met the woman. But sometimes, I don't think you're well served.' " Weldon offered that the president has "some good advisers," but that he is surrounded by "people who keep him too tightly controlled."

As he drove, Weldon told Bullard, "This system doesn't always take to people who push. The best way to succeed is to go to all the social events," to go along. "That's not what I'm about.

"A lot of people tell you B.S.," he said. "You've got to give it to them straight. I can read people. I can see their eyes. In the end, they know I want to do the right thing. And they want to do the right thing."

For Weldon, it was the right thing to meet with the North Koreans about their quest to build long-range nuclear missiles -- absent any executive branch officials -- because so few people seemed to take the matter seriously. In June 2005, the North Korean military was preparing to test-fire a long-range missile, raising the question of whether the regime would target the United States. In response, Weldon put out a press release reminding people of a statement he made on the House floor a decade earlier.

"This [Clinton] administration has chosen to ignore the ballistic missile threat," he complained. "CIA testimony confirms that long-range missiles -- the Taepodong-2 -- now under development by North Korea may pose a threat ... by the year 2000 or shortly thereafter." Weldon overwhelms naysayers with an abundance of facts. He makes bold claims -- "ignoring the ballistic missile threat" -- and then exhausts them with details: missile types, ready dates. If subsequent events prove him right, he comes close to gloating. Referring to the 2005 planned missile test, Weldon wrote, "North Korea's long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States has been known for some time, yet today the world acts surprised."

On a trip to North Korea, Weldon lay awake one night in his hotel room, too restless to sleep. He got up, took out an envelope, and jotted down "10 conclusions," outcomes that he figured both sides wanted. The next day, he read them to Kim Kye Gwan, who's now North Korea's chief negotiator in the six-nation talks. "He said, 'That's exactly what we want,' " Weldon recalled.

Weldon's approach to foreign policy could be called basely humanist. Having learned to fight for everything, including sustenance -- "When you're the youngest of nine kids at the table, you learn to grab your food first, or you don't eat" -- he seems to recognize that people's needs drive their actions. "It's common sense," he said of his bullet-point approach to meeting the North Koreans. "They want respect."

In foreign affairs, there are often two Curts. There's the "fiery" military intellectual, feverishly reminding the world that Taepodong-2's are pointing at Hawaii. Then there's the affable Curt, the human Curt. The one who can sit across from the nuclear negotiator as easily as he would the fire chief in Marcus Hook and ask, "What do you need?" and then try to get it. Human Curt came out in April, when he met with the South Korean ambassador about the ongoing six-party talks. "I can continue to put pressure on the administration," he said. "I will tell the northern delegation that Congress is ready to help them."

There's a very old job in government for which this portfolio is traditionally suited. It's called secretary of State. Weldon insists he doesn't want the job. "Too much protocol. Too much bullshit." And then, "I'd have to implement someone else's foreign policy. If I'm not the one writing the policy, I don't want to.

"I don't see myself as a freelance diplomat," he continued. He knows he doesn't represent the president, he has no power to negotiate treaties. He's more of a goodwill ambassador, with a rough edge. "Our goal" in North Korea, he said, "was to show the human face of America." To show them "we don't want war."

After meeting with North Korean officials, Weldon said he made a breakthrough. His official interpreter, who had accompanied U.S. representatives on many trips to Pyongyang, told him, "Congressman, that was the first time I've ever seen the North Koreans smile."

In October 2003, Rice successfully blocked Weldon's planned second trip to North Korea. He penned a scathing rebuke to Bush, calling the presidential staff's approach "arrogant and disrespectful." Weldon said that Card told him it was "one of the hardest letters the president has ever read." At the time, Weldon told his local paper, the Delaware County Daily Times, that he smelled hypocrisy. "These same neoconservatives applauded me when I went on two similar trips when [Bill] Clinton was president. Now that Bush is in power, they want me to go away, and that's not going to happen."

The CIA Made Him Do It

If moral and intellectual certitude alone could win Weldon re-election or a committee chairmanship, he could stop campaigning right now. "He was always resolute in his belief that he was on the right side of the issue," said Michael Conallen, Weldon's former chief of staff. "He's been extremely critical of this administration. Sometimes, maybe that's not the best thing to do, and some of the issues he takes are not the best thing for his personal political career."

Last year, Weldon published a book based on a two-year correspondence he had with a man who claims direct knowledge of Iranian plans to attack the United States. The source, whom Weldon has referred to only as "Ali," was an official in the shah's government, and he has told Weldon, among other things, that the Iranians are harboring Osama bin Laden, that they direct a pan-Islamic terrorist network, and that Iranian-backed suicide bombers planned to fly planes into nuclear reactors in North America. After Ali first contacted Weldon, through a mutual acquaintance who is a former member of Congress, Weldon passed along his warnings to the CIA. The agency, Weldon said, did nothing. So he wrote a book: Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information That Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America ... and How the CIA Has Ignored It.

Time and again, Ali's epistolary warnings have proved prescient, Weldon contended. But at the behest of then-CIA Director George Tenet, the Paris station chief met with Ali, who's in exile there. That official found Ali's information not only incredible but also dangerously tainted.

In April 2005, four months after Weldon said he told the new CIA director, Porter Goss, about his publishing plans, The American Prospect sternly debunked Ali's credibility. The publication revealed his real name, Fereidoun Mahdavi, and identified him as a "close friend and business partner" of a notorious character from the annals of U.S. intelligence -- Manucher Ghorbanifar, an arms dealer and a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, the Reagan administration's clandestine arms-for-hostages operation. Years ago, the CIA issued a "burn notice" on Ghorbanifar, forbidding employees to deal with him and warning that he peddled false intelligence in pursuit of his own interests.

The Prospect contacted Mahdavi, who gave confusing statements about his dealings with Weldon. He said that all of the information he passed along came from Ghorbanifar. Mahdavi also claimed that he was well known in Iran -- and therefore a target -- so he couldn't possibly contact anyone there directly and expect to avoid detection. Here was the secret source who had penned certain, dire warnings to Weldon, downplaying his own credibility and tying himself to a man whom the CIA called a fabricator.

Bill Murray, who met with Mahdavi several times when Murray was the CIA's Paris station chief, was incensed by Weldon's claims. "Mahdavi works for Ghorbanifar," whom the CIA still considered verboten, Murray told The Prospect. "The two are inseparable. Ghorbanifar put Mahdavi out to meet with Weldon.... [Mahdavi] never said a single thing that you could look back later and he said it would happen and it did happen." Murray said that Weldon's claims ultimately drove agents to distraction. "Virtually everything Ghorbanifar and his people come up with diverts us. I have hardworking people working for me, and they don't have time for this bullshit."

Weldon hasn't abandoned Ali. "The CIA never offered me a good reason why Ali should be ignored," he wrote in his book. "And because the agency would not do its job, I was obligated to do it." Some of Ali's predictions have proved accurate, such as those about Iran meddling in Iraq or its pursuing closer ties with North Korea. But, critics contend, anyone paying close attention to several newspapers will score an accurate intelligence hit now and then. Ali's boldest claims, particularly about Iran's control of a vast terrorism enterprise, have yet to pan out.

Weldon continues to insist that "everything" Ali predicted has come true. He said so to the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Ayalon, when the two met in Weldon's office in April. The ambassador called Weldon's book "visionary." Then the two discussed Iran's nuclear ambitions with the Israeli military attache, who also attended. Weldon predicted that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in two years. "We say less," the attache replied. Most weapons experts, as well as the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, believe that Iran's weapons program is at least five years from maturity and probably more, given the difficulty Iran has had producing the necessary materials for a bomb.

In the CIA's vociferous rejection of Countdown to Terror, Weldon sees an old game. He notes that the Prospect article appeared about two months before the book's publication, suggesting that the CIA launched a pre-emptive attack and sought a liberal magazine that would print the counterclaims. "In the end, the intelligence agencies are the most powerful agencies in this city," Weldon said. "And if you take them on, you don't know where it's going to come from."

"Curt's not an illogical guy," said a former CIA official who knows Weldon and has socialized with him. "But he'll listen to anyone who walks in the door. Whether they're right or wrong, he basically tees off of them, chapter and verse."

Conallen said that his former boss is no dupe. "The congressman works extremely hard to see all points of view, to research and study a particular issue or problem, and then come to what he thinks is a reasoned answer." He added, "I never saw him listen to a story and go running off with that story. He said time and time again, 'Let's check out what this guy has to say.' " People seek Weldon out, Conallen said, "because they've seen that [he] is effective. He actually is able to gain attention."

The biggest fights of Weldon's career are the ones he took on because he thought no one else would. In the early 1980s, as mayor of Marcus Hook, he helped run the Pagans motorcycle gang out of town. As a member of Congress, he personally implored the chief executive of Boeing not to close a plant in Ridley Township, thereby saving thousands of jobs. He led a vote for sanctions against Iran for its illicit weapons activities, delivering a "slap in the face," he said, to the Clinton administration, which didn't want the penalties.

Weldon built a career as the perennial David, always ready with his slingshot and sure aim. It's not in his nature to back down. It comforts Weldon, emboldens him to know that he never really left the streets of Marcus Hook. But now, Weldon finds himself in an unfamiliar, unnatural, and decidedly unwelcome position. He has become Goliath.

Running Scared

Weldon has decisively bested every congressional candidate who tried to defeat him. On average, he wins 66 percent of his constituents' votes, although he scored 59 percent (his lowest total in any election) in the last contest. And all this in a district that, since 2000, has split its ticket and sent a Democrat to the White House.

Various polls show Weldon leading his Democratic opponent, Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral, by comfortable margins. Republican pollsters, however, conducted the most-optimistic surveys. Also, Weldon's relatively low vote total in the 2004 race, in which he faced a virtual unknown, set off alarm bells. As of the end of June, Sestak had raised more than $1.1 million. That's almost 19 times the combined total raised by Weldon's three previous election opponents and was close to Weldon's $1.4 million. Recently, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds of New York stumped in Weldon's district, a sure sign that the national party thinks he's in danger.

"I don't know where this guy [Sestak] came from," Weldon said in his office, back in April. "It's obvious he's being pushed.... Bush's numbers are in the tank, and [the Democrats] are trying to tie me to him." The Weldon-Sestak race echoes a familiar chorus from the 2004 presidential contest. The Democrats are trumpeting Sestak's military credentials as a counter to Weldon's strong suit. The decorated Navy officer is a former director for defense policy on the National Security Council. His official campaign biography is devoted almost entirely to his 31-year military career, and it sports a photo of a younger Sestak, svelte in dress whites, briefing Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.

Weldon, in turn, is taking a page out of George W. Bush's playbook. Earlier this year, Democratic Mayor Bob McMahon of Media, Pa., backed Weldon at a rally. McMahon helped finance Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, a video that critically examined John Kerry's anti-war activities after his tour in Vietnam. Weldon has questioned Sestak's service, citing reports that he was removed from a senior position in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations because his hard-charging management style turned his staff against him. "My mom didn't raise no dummies," Weldon said. "I'm a street fighter, and I'll do what I have to do."

Last year, doctors diagnosed a malignant brain tumor in Sestak's 5-year-old daughter, Alexandra, and said that the condition was terminal. Sestak and his wife, Susan, chose to seek treatment at Children's National Medical Center in Washington because "of its outstanding work on pediatric brain tumors," Sestak said.

Since the campaign started, Weldon has branded Sestak a carpetbagger. Although he was born in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, Weldon charged, he left to pursue his career and didn't maintain the home base the way Weldon has. Sestak owned a house in Virginia but rented in the district, while Weldon, who owns no property in Washington, takes the train home each night, unless he sleeps in his office.

In April, The Hill ran an article on the Sestak-Weldon race. Without quoting him directly, the paper reported, "Weldon also suggested Sestak should have sent his daughter to a hospital in Philadelphia or Delaware, rather than the Washington hospital."

For Sestak's most ardent supporters -- and for many political journalists -- Weldon's comments showed that he had gone off the deep end again. Indeed, the remarks triggered a wider critique of Weldon's "looniness," as several liberal commentators put it, which included his claims about Iran, the CIA's smear tactics, and Able Danger (one blogger quipped that Weldon should be named the "Fable Arranger"). Days after the remark, a Weldon campaign aide told The Washington Post that Weldon denied making the girl's sickness an issue, but also confirmed that while talking to The Hill, Weldon had made a reference to the quality of hospitals in the Philadelphia area.

Weldon the "street fighter" had become the comfortable, 10-term incumbent. Faced with a real opponent and the possible loss of his seat, he barreled out of his corner, threw a big, rusty hook, and missed. Months later, Weldon is still trying to land knockout punches, while Sestak, careful not to make the campaign too personal, bobs and weaves. Weldon "no longer listens," Sestak said recently. "He fails to come back [to the district] and listen to opposing views." Then a jab. "I want to respect him for his public service. But I am worried that he's bent upon conspiracy theories." And then, the body blow. "I find that in the security arena, there are always individuals hanging around who have their pet theory or pet conspiracy. And they're persuasive about it, they are emotional about it, and people can become attracted to finding the Holy Grail of an answer overseas. And that individual who doesn't take the time to ensure that they have all the information from the sources is easily bent upon making a name for oneself by trying to stand up and say, 'I have the answer.' I think in the long term it does serious damage to our national security."

Final Round

Off the deep end. Sinking low. "Loony" about 5-year-old cancer patients and mad mullahs and 9/11 and the CIA. The whispering campaign has crescendoed and is now a shout in some quarters. Weldon, some say, is running scared. His answer: Keep running.

Weldon has gone farther out on a limb than ever. Maybe too far. He has hung many of his hopes on paper: letters from Ali, the pages of his book, that chart in the closet, which maybe, maybe not, contained Mohamed Atta's face.

"I don't do things because people like them. I do them because they're the right things," Weldon said. And it has cost him. Last year, he vied for the Homeland Security Committee chair. It was a natural fit. Weldon, a former firefighter, is the founder of the Fire and Emergency Services Caucus, the largest caucus in Congress. "Everyone knows I'm the first-responder guy," he said. But House leaders picked Peter King of New York, who has first-responder credentials of his own, and is an unabashed supporter of the White House. Weldon doesn't blame his colleagues. "The leadership, I think, was probably talked to by the White House, who said, 'No. Please.' "

If Weldon loses in November, his penchant for controversy will likely play a deciding role. Voters in the Pennsylvania 7th might agree, as Sestak suggests, that he has gone around the bend. Or they might not give a damn that the Army had a picture of a terrorist before 9/11; if it distracts Weldon from his primary obligations, that's a problem. Sestak has had a hard time painting Weldon as a man who has abandoned his district. But Weldon admits that his international endeavors don't necessarily pay dividends at home. "People don't always see what it does for them," he said.

If Weldon loses, it will obviate the need to answer more difficult questions. Why is he listening to questionable intelligence sources? Why is he fuming about 9/11 cover-ups? Is he crazy? Or is his passion the outgrowth of a natural instinct to question everything, to never take a fact at face value? And isn't that what we want elected officials to do? Isn't there a certain, almost quaint nobility to professional skepticism, especially these days?

Curt Weldon could be right, of course. There may be an Iranian terror network about to strike the United States. The 9/11 commission may be concealing a terrible secret. If he's right, regardless of what happens on November 7, he'll be the first in line to say, "I told you so."

 

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