Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry and President Bush traded charges today over the U.S. response to international terrorism, with Kerry accusing the administration of effectively "encouraging" terrorist recruitment and Bush calling that idea "ridiculous."
The exchanges coincided with Bush's decision to accept -- with modifications -- two key recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In an announcement in the White House Rose Garden with top national security officials flanking him, Bush backed the panel's recommendation to establish a new position of "national intelligence director" and a new "National Counterterrorism Center," but rejected the idea that they should work out of the White House.
Kerry, interviewed by CNN while on the campaign trail in Michigan, said before Bush's announcement, "I believe that I can fight a more effective war on terror than George Bush is. I know I can fight a more effective war."
The four-term senator from Massachusetts added: "I believe this administration, in its policies, is actually encouraging the recruitment of terrorists. We haven't done the work necessary to reach out to other countries. We haven't done the work necessary with the Muslim world. We haven't done the work necessary to protect our own ports, our chemical facilities, our nuclear facilities. There's a long, long list in the 9/11 commission recommendations of things that are undone. This administration fought against the 9/11 commission, and they haven't even moved rapidly to implement it. I think that we can do better. That's what I intend to do."
Asked about those comments, Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden that the remark showed "a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terror." Bush continued: "See, evidently some must think that you can negotiate with [terrorists], you can talk sense to them, you can hope that they change. That's not what I know. I know, in order to deal with these people, we must bring them to justice before they hurt us again. And so we're on the offense."
Bush said, "It is a ridiculous notion to assert that, because the United States is on the offense, more people want to hurt us. We're on the offense because people do want to hurt us."
Kerry refused to take back his remarks, telling reporters later, "The policies of this administration, I believe and others believe very deeply, have resulted in an increase of animosity and anger focused on the United States of America. And the intelligence agencies of our country will tell you . . . that the madrassas, the schools that are teaching terror, the people who are training terror, are using our actions as a means of recruitment."
Kerry said that while he favors being "on the offensive" against terrorists, "there are so many other things that we could be doing that also reach out to the Muslim world to try to isolate the terrorists, not to see the United States isolated."
He said many such recommendations are in the Sept. 11 commission's report, but that "the president has not engaged in those recommendations."
Kerry said he was "pleased" that Bush has now adopted some of the commission's recommendations, although he deplored what he described as a lack of urgency by the administration.
"When we are at war, we need to do the things that make us safe rapidly, immediately," Kerry said. "If the president had a sense of urgency about this director of intelligence and about the needs to strengthen America, he would call the Congress back and get the job done now."
Asked during his Rose Garden appearance if he would consider calling Congress back into a special session to deal with the proposed reforms, Bush said, "The Congress has been thinking about some of these ideas. They can think about them over August and come back and act on them in September."
In a subsequent briefing, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said congressional committees are already working on the issues, but that he doubted they would be able to produce "a product to consider" in time if the entire Congress were called back into session now.
In Miami, meanwhile, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, launched an energetic defense of Kerry's Senate record against Republican attempts to portray it as undistinguished.
"While others stood on the sidelines, John stood up to make sure we had a balanced budget," Edwards told a small but enthusiastic rally. He said Kerry also "stood up to put 100,000 cops on the street" as part of a Clinton administration initiative against street crime and "stood up for the victims of Agent Orange," the defoliant used in the Vietnam war that damaged the health of many veterans.
On the fourth day of their cross-country tour, Kerry and Edwards took their traveling road shows to battleground states on opposite ends of the country, with Kerry talking about the terror threat in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Edwards testing his southern appeal in the state that decided the 2000 presidential race. After stops in Miami early in the day, Edwards was scheduled to make appearances in Orlando and Jacksonville.
The Democratic campaign on Monday also released a 252-page book by Kerry and Edwards, "Our Plan for America: Stronger at Home, Respected in the World" -- a summary of the candidates' positions, which the campaign described as a blueprint for increasing security, reviving the economy and addressing other issues, such as health care and energy. Kerry and Edwards planned to focus on parts of the book as they campaigned this week, with national security the focus today.
A policy memo posted on the Bush-Cheney campaign Web site today said many of the policy proposals on homeland security in the Kerry-Edwards plan were lifted from ideas already advocated by President Bush.
A spokesman for Edwards said today that both Edwards and Kerry were briefed on the expanded terrorism alert by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, an arm of the CIA, which warned on Sunday about possible terrorist plans to target financial institutions in Washington, New York and New Jersey.
Campaigning in Miami this morning, Edwards invoked the name of John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona who is popular with moderate and independent voters, as someone with whom Kerry worked on investigating the status of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.
The Democratic vice presidential nominee also made an effort to reach the state's large Jewish and Cuban voting populations by emphasizing that Kerry would fight for a secure Israel and be tough on Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
An Edwards spokesman said that the campaign is "very concerned" about a repeat of Florida's contested vote count four years ago. Ultimately, after five weeks of legal challenges that went to the Supreme Court, Bush won the state by just 537 votes.
"We have legal teams in place to make sure every vote is counted, and we're working very hard to ensure no voters are disenfranchised," said Mark Kornblau, an Edwards spokesman.
Romano reported from Miami.