Trumpeting America as liberator, the White House conferred the highest civilian honor yesterday on three men intimately involved with the decision to invade Iraq or the troubled aftermath of the invasion.
President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Tommy Franks, the now-retired Army general who led the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; former CIA director George Tenet, who told Bush it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction; and L. Paul Bremer, who presided over the first 14 months of Iraq reconstruction.
Past recipients have included Mother Teresa, Mr. Rogers, Rosa Parks and Pope John Paul II.
In the East Room of the White House, Bush said he had chosen the trio because they "played pivotal roles in great events" and made efforts that "made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty." Before an invited audience of 120, which included Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his nominated replacement, Condoleezza Rice, Bush hung the heavy gold medals, on royal-blue velvet ribbons, around the men's necks. Franks and Tenet grinned broadly. Bremer later wiped his eyes.
Some Democrats questioned the choice.
"My hunch is that George Bush wasn't using the same standard when honoring Tenet and Bremer that was applied to previous honorees," said David Wade, a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost last month's presidential election to Bush. And Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday he "would have reached a different conclusion" on Tenet. "I don't think [he] served the president or the nation well," Levin said.
The president heralded Tenet for being "one of the first to recognize" the growing threat to America from "radical terrorist networks." He made no mention of the failures outlined by the 9/11 commission that forced the administration to overhaul the nation's intelligence operations.
He praised Franks for his Iraq war plan, which utilized "a force half the size of the force that won the Gulf War" to reach Baghdad in less than a month, "the fastest, longest armored advance in the history of American warfare." Bush did not note that more Americans have died after the toppling of Saddam Hussein than during that initial charge.
Bremer, Bush said, "worked day and night in difficult dangerous conditions" to rebuild Iraq and help leaders chart the country's political future. "Every benchmark . . . was achieved on time or ahead of schedule, including the transfer of sovereignty that ended his tenure," the president said. He did not add that the transfer was hurriedly arranged two days early because of fears insurgents would attack the ceremonies.
The Medal of Freedom was established by President Harry Truman in 1945 as a way to honor allies who had helped the war effort, and most initial recipients were not American citizens, said Jim Salmon, who tracks the medal's history for a Web site. In 1963, President John Kennedy, by executive order, restricted the award so that it could be given only by the president. Since that time, presidents have used the medal to honor a wide variety of individuals in sports, arts, letters, charity and social justice.
Yesterday's medals, said Salmon, "are a unique situation. This is not the norm, for there to be three people in the same genre, with the same basic events," honored so quickly after their service or after pointed questioning by congressional leaders, as all three men were in the past two years.
Reporters peppered White House press secretary Scott McClellan yesterday in two sessions over the timing of the medals and whether the ceremony indicated that the president had forgiven Tenet, who resigned in June after seven years leading the agency, for intelligence failures dealing with 9/11 and Iraq.
"They have made many incredibly positive contributions to our nation," McClellan said. The recipients "have worked to liberate some 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq from oppression and tyranny. And they have worked to help transform a very dangerous region in the world that has been a breeding ground for terrorism, a breeding ground from where people hijack planes and flew them into buildings."
Paul Rieckhoff, a former Army lieutenant who served in Iraq and now runs an organization of veterans against the war, said the awards are "a slap in the face to the troops" from "an administration that loves the big PR move. . . . It validates how out of touch Washington is with the reality of what is on the ground in Iraq."
And Brookings Institution fellow Michael O'Hanlon, who monitors Iraq, suggested that if the president wanted to honor service in Iraq, he could have selected other people to honor. "I wouldn't expect him to show any wavering" over the decision to go to war, O'Hanlon said of the president, "but I'm troubled by the use of this award in a different way. He could have called attention to the bravery in Iraq, without having to make it about the most controversial figures in the whole operation."
In Iraq yesterday, U.S. military officials announced combat deaths of two Marines, bringing the toll to 10 Marines in three days. A suicide bomber blew up seven people and wounded at least 13 at a Green Zone checkpoint in Baghdad. Military brass announced that the U.S. military would have a record high of 150,000 troops on the ground in the nation through the Jan. 30 election and "a little bit after." In Mosul, gunmen killed a provincial council member, and soldiers discovered eight more bodies of Iraqis, bringing to more than 150 the number of likely victims of insurgents targeting Iraqi police and security forces in that city in the past six weeks.