Sen. John F. Kerry urged President Bush on Monday to call a special session of Congress to implement the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, accusing Bush of foot-dragging and charging that the president's policies have encouraged the creation of more terrorists.
In his first response to the government's heightened terror alert along the East Coast, Kerry said Bush has been slow to embrace a national intelligence director and argued that he would have moved far more aggressively to reorganize U.S. intelligence services and also to provide anti-terrorism assistance to local fire and police departments.
Standing in front of a firetruck under a blazing sun, 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. . . . The time to act is now, not later."
Kerry said if Bush calls a special session he will go back to debate and vote "when necessary."
Edwards brought the same message to Orlando, where he urged immediate action on the recommendations of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He told residents gathered for what the campaign calls a "front porch" visit that three years after the attacks, the nation's intelligence gathering is woefully inadequate to track down terrorists and there is no coordinated national plan to help communities in the event of an attack.
"We have huge numbers of containers coming into ports every day, and we screen a tiny percentage of them," Edwards said, raising the sensitive issue of port security in this waterway state. "We don't have enough coordination with other countries around the world with them doing their part, so we don't have a lot of information we should have."
Edwards, who spent the day flying around Florida, told a local television affiliate: "When you just generally tell people you are raising the alert in the country, they don't know what they are supposed to do. . . . We need to give them as much information as we can."
James P. Rubin, a senior Kerry adviser, accused Bush of flip-flopping -- a charge the Bush campaign has repeatedly made against Kerry -- on the issue of a national intelligence czar and pointed out that the administration had been slow to support the creation of a homeland security department after the terrorist attacks. Kerry and Edwards, he said, long have called for a national intelligence director.
Although fighting terrorism has been seen as a political asset for Bush and the GOP, Kerry's campaign has not shrunk from taking this fight to Bush. The campaign's strategy has been to take seriously all terror alerts by the federal government while challenging the president's handling of terrorism and the war in Iraq.
As part of that approach, Kerry and his advisers quickly distanced themselves from comments by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who suggested Sunday that the terror alert may have been politically motivated to blunt the momentum Kerry gained from his convention last week. Saying he took the threats seriously, Kerry said of Dean: "I don't care what he says. I haven't suggested that, and I won't suggest that."
Rubin, however, said he took issue with some comments by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, saying Ridge implied that the new information was the product of new anti-terrorism and intelligence-gathering policies implemented by the Bush administration. Ridge, he said, was "not as fair-minded as he ought to be" in describing how the latest information was uncovered.
A senior intelligence official briefed Kerry on the new terror alert for about 40 minutes late Sunday night in Michigan after the Secret Service set up a secure phone line for him on his campaign bus.
On Monday morning, the Kerry-Edwards campaign mounted a full-court press to put Kerry in the thick of the debate and the story, lest his post-convention bus tour of the country become relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers. Kerry appeared on CNN's "American Morning" and later scheduled a brief news conference to read a statement for the cameras and take several questions on the subject.
Noting that Bush has often referred to himself as a wartime president, Kerry said: "When we are at war, we need to do the things that make us safe rapidly, immediately. If there is something that will make America safer, it should be done now, not tomorrow. I regret that it's taken us almost three years to get to the point where these recommendations [of the 9/11 commission] are now being adopted."
In his CNN interview, Kerry raised the charge that Bush may be responsible for putting the United States at greater risk from terrorism. "I believe this administration, in its policies, is actually encouraging the recruitment of terrorists," he said.
Challenged later to explain himself, Kerry read from an Oct. 16, 2003, memo from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in which Rumsfeld said the government lacks measurements to determine whether the United States is winning or losing the war on terrorism. The memo said, in part, "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
Kerry said it is not just to support military action against the terrorists, saying "there are so many other things that we could be doing" to counter the radical clerics and others in the Middle East.
Kerry outlined his case for charging Bush with foot-dragging, saying the president originally opposed the homeland security department, the creation of the 9/11 commission and the extension of the commission. "We cannot afford reluctance in the protection of our country," he said. "We need leadership, we need to move forward, and we need to move now."
Romano is traveling with Edwards.