By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007
On the eve of crucial testimony on Capitol Hill about the war in Iraq, the White House and its allies are feuding with congressional Democrats over the credibility and independence of one of today's star witnesses, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there.
Over the past several days, key Democrats have sought to blunt the impact of Petraeus's testimony, which will likely cite military progress in Iraq, by raising doubts that the Petraeus assessment would truly be independent of the White House. While praising the general personally as an honorable soldier, Democrats suggested that his testimony ought to be discounted.
"General Petraeus is there to succeed," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said yesterday on Fox News Sunday. "He may say the progress is uneven. He may say it's substantial. I don't know what he will say. You can be sure we'll listen to it. But I don't think he's an independent evaluator."
MoveOn.org, a leading antiwar group, will be even more critical in a full-page advertisement to run today in the New York Times, describing Petraeus as "General Betray Us" and a "military man constantly at war with the facts." The ad accuses Petraeus of "cooking the books for the White House," citing the general's claims of reduced violence in Iraq. It also refers to his statement before the 2004 election that he was seeing "tangible progress" in rebuilding Iraqi security forces, a statement many experts now consider excessively optimistic.
The Bush administration and its surrogates hit back hard, saying the Democrats are unable to accept good news about the war and are unfairly attacking the messenger. "Attacking the integrity of uniformed officers is unseemly, but it now looks like MoveOn is writing their talking points," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
"This idea that he and Ambassador [Ryan C.] Crocker are going to cook numbers to continue a war where people are going to get hurt and killed because they have a political agenda is ridiculous," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on Fox. "It is clear to me that he's going to give a balanced report."
Petraeus has already made clear his view that the addition of 30,000 troops and a new strategy are having an impact, albeit an uneven one, in reducing violence. Administration officials say they expect him to argue that the strategy should have the opportunity to run its course, without a precipitous drawdown in troop strength for the time being.
Democrats yesterday indicated deep skepticism about the claims of improved security and said that, even if true, they are irrelevant. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who just returned from a trip to Iraq, said Petraeus is "telling the truth" that there have been "some tactical gains."
"But they have no ultimate bearing, at this point, on the prospect of there being a political settlement in Iraq that would allow American troops to come home without leaving chaos behind," Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
In a response to President Bush's radio address on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that Petraeus's assessment, before arriving on Capitol Hill, will pass "through the White House spin machine, where facts are often ignored or twisted, and intelligence is cherry-picked."
Reid also said at a news conference Friday that Petraeus has "made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual. I have every belief that this good man, General Petraeus, will give us what he feels is the right thing to do in this report." But he added, "That is now not his report, it's President Bush's report."
The White House and its allies on Capitol Hill have pushed back hard at this critique. Administration officials said they are not directing or reviewing the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker. A senior military official close to Petraeus said the general's congressional testimony has not been provided to the White House or the Pentagon "and the first time all will hear it will be in the hearing Monday."
White House officials acknowledge that they know the key elements of the Petraeus-Crocker assessment and recommendations. President Bush heard Petraeus and Crocker outline their main points in two lengthy sessions -- one by videoconference on Aug. 31, the other when he met the two at an air base in Anbar province on Labor Day. Bush and Petraeus have not spoken since then.
"We're not by any means in the dark," said one senior administration official, who would only speak on background.
National Security Council staff members are also preparing a congressionally mandated report on whether the Iraqi government will meet various benchmarks of political and military progress. The Government Accountability Office concluded last week that the Iraqis have failed to meet 11 of the 18 goals, but the White House is likely to offer a more optimistic assessment.
After the reports and testimony are finished, President Bush will address the nation about future plans for Iraq. It will probably happen on Thursday, though White House aides said yesterday the date is not nailed down.