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IN WNY VISIT, CLINTON AIRS NEW CHALLENGES

The economy is headed for trouble, the threat of terrorism persists, and nobody knows what challenges face the military -- not exactly an optimistic picture painted by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Buffalo on Friday.

But in a Western New York swing that included visiting Air Force and Coast Guard personnel at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, Clinton was still upbeat about how President Bush, the federal and state governments, and New Yorkers are responding to the Sept. 11 destruction of the World Trade Center and its potential $100 billion price tag.

"I'm impressed by the president's responsiveness and willingness to help New York," she told editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. "So far, they've struck just the right balance. Overall, I give him high marks."

Normally, Clinton uses occasions like a visit to The News to touch on favorite themes like the upstate economy or rebuilding crumbling schools. But Friday she spent more than an hour dwelling on new problems America faces in the coming months and years, and reflecting on the gravity of what resulted from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"The scope, the reality, the size of the level of destruction at the World Trade Center in New York is beyond anything I've ever seen," she said. "It's the worst visual experience I've ever had in my life."

Though death and injury have touched more than 13,000 victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, the senator said virtually all Americans will feel the effect on the economy. She expects that for the next two quarters at least, covering the cost not only of cleanup but all the ancillary expenses of the attacks will result in serious economic problems.

Those ancillary expenses include aiding the airline industry and improving the security of air travel, she said, not to mention the cost of any potential military campaign. The $100 billion figure, she said, is not out of the question, especially when compared to the multibillion expenses of lesser disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing or Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

"I think the economy is headed for some rough waters," she said. "I don't see any way around it because of where we were before Sept. 11 and then what happened on Sept. 11."

That means at least two quarters of significant unemployment, stagnant growth and other economic difficulties, she said, noting that state and local governments will be affected too.

"I think we can come out of it faster and stronger if we rebuild peoples' sense of security and personal comfort level," she added, "so they can get back to living their daily lives."

Still, Clinton is hailing much of the government response to the situation. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, she said, has succeeded in crafting a coalition to respond to terrorists around the world.

And she said Bush has taken the right steps in improving airline safety and demonstrating his confidence in air travel, though she believes the government should employ highly trained security personnel instead of entry level, private security employees now guarding most airports.

Clinton said that from everything she has read and from the briefings she has received, she believes terrorists may strike again. But she also said that while U.S. law enforcement has proven adept at catching and building cases against those who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 or those who bombed U.S. embassies in Africa, the events of Sept. 11 must result in more proactive methods to prevent terrorism.

"We're better after the fact up until now," she said. "We've never had the level of heightened awareness that we need to take these potential terrorist activities as seriously as required."

That must result, she said, in more and better intelligence gatherers and analysts to better prepare for future threats, and with more emphasis on agents in the field.

Clinton said she has encountered some difficulties in Congress with senators such as Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who are creating obstacles to the funding needed to address the situation in Manhattan. And political debate goes on but in a less partisan way.

In her half-hour tour of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base late Friday afternoon, Clinton did not address any formal gatherings of reservists or Air National Guardsmen, but spoke to and had her picture taken with several small groups who were waiting for her at various locations around the base.

Clinton shook hands and posed for pictures with a Coast Guard crew whose Detroit-based helicopter was shifted here to fly patrols over the border waterways as far east as Massena.

She also met privately with the widow and two children of Niagara County Family Court Judge Paul V. Crapsi, who died last week. The widow, Elizabeth Crapsi, said Clinton had told her she had wanted to attend the funeral but was unable to do so.

At a brief news conference in a hangar behind a C-130 transport plane, Clinton said she opposed closing military bases in the current climate.

She told Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, that she hoped the House would "hold firm" against base closures.

Clinton said bases like the one in Niagara Falls have a role to play in "integrating our military capacity with our new homeland security needs."

Clinton said she also is working for more Customs personnel and equipment at local border crossings, both to speed commerce and improve security.

"I think the tragedy emphasized what we need to do," she said. "We face adversaries who operate in the shadows . . . who have taken advantage of globalization and used the advances in computers and travel and communication to be able to plot against us."

Tom Prohaska of the News Niagara Bureau contributed to this article.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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