John F. Kerry unleashed two harsh attacks on the White House on Friday, accusing President Bush of hiding plans to send reservists to Iraq after the election and hitting Vice President Cheney's ties to Halliburton.
As part of a strategy to sharpen his differences with Bush, Kerry told voters here that the president refuses to come clean about the growing problems in Iraq and a hidden strategy for a post-election deployment. "He won't tell us what congressional leaders are now saying: that this administration is planning yet another substantial call-up of reservists and Guard units immediately after the election," Kerry said. Bush is trying to "hide it from people through the election, then make the move," he said.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said the Massachusetts senator based this new accusation on information provided by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). In a brief statement released Friday, Murtha said Pentagon officials have told him that a large number of reservists and Guard members will be called up in November with inadequate notice.
Defense officials, however, said that there is nothing secret, or surprising, about the upcoming deployment plans for the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. To maintain the troop level at about 140,000 in Iraq, the Pentagon plans to mobilize tens of thousands of troops in the coming months to carry out a one-for-one swap for soldiers who are due to come home.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, said that state National Guard officials have known about the deployments for some time and that all units preparing to go for the third rotation into Iraq have been notified. "The mobilization is phased, based on when they have to be there," Cody said.
"John Kerry's conspiracy theory of a secret troop deployment is completely irresponsible and as baseless as his claims to meet with and be endorsed by foreign leaders," said Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the Bush campaign. Earlier in the campaign, Kerry asserted that many leaders had privately told him they want him to win, but he refused to name names.
Kerry's attacks come as the Democratic nominee is zeroing in on Bush's character. After spending much of the summer complaining about the negative and misleading tone of the Bush campaign, Kerry is essentially adopting the president's tactics of focusing as much, if not more, on the trustworthiness of his opponent as on the substance of issues. "He'll do anything he can to cover up the truth, including silencing the truth-tellers," Kerry said. After telling reporters he would not run negative ads, Kerry is also going on the attack over the airwaves.
As part of the assault on Bush, Kerry sometimes distorts his opponent's position -- just as Bush has done. In a town hall meeting here, Kerry falsely claimed that 1.6 million people have lost their jobs under Bush (the actual number is about 1.1 million) and alleged that Bush "wants to privatize Social Security." The president supports a plan to allow workers to divert a small percentage of Social Security taxes into private investment accounts, but has never advocated fully privatizing the program.
Kerry also suggested that Cheney, as a former chief executive of Halliburton Co. who receives deferred compensation from the company, is profiting from the no-bid contracts awarded to the multinational firm, which provides reconstruction and other services in Iraq. "Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, has profited from the mess in Iraq and at the expense of American troops and taxpayers," Kerry said. "While Halliburton has been engaging in massive overcharging and wasteful practices under this no-bid contract, Dick Cheney has continued to receive compensation from his former company."
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported last year that Cheney's deferred compensation and stock options could represent a continued financial relationship with the company as defined by federal ethics laws. Cheney is donating all after-tax proceeds from the options to three charities.
In a new ad released just before Kerry spoke, his campaign charged: "As Vice President, Dick Cheney received $2 million from Halliburton; Halliburton got billions in no-bid contracts in Iraq . . . What did we get? A $200 billion bill for Iraq."
Despite the efforts to connect the dots, there is no evidence that these events are related. Cheney's direct compensation -- which Schmidt, the Bush spokesman, said is $683,000 through this year -- does not fluctuate with Halliburton's financial performance. Congressional hearings found no evidence that Cheney had anything to do with Halliburton's contracts. What is indisputable is that several investigations found that Halliburton overcharged the government for some services, failed to complete work it was paid for and won billions of dollars in contracts without having to bid on them.
The Kerry campaign raises Halliburton as a metaphor for both the Bush campaign's ties to big corporations and the wasteful and unwise government spending in Iraq, especially in the ongoing reconstruction. Kerry advisers say criticism of Halliburton resonates among many swing voters and energizes the Democratic base at the same time.
Cheney spokesman Anne Womack called the Halliburton ad "character assassination."
If elected, Kerry said, he would change the government contracting system by expanding audits, punishing companies that overcharge and making it easier for small companies to compete.
"As commander in chief, I will have two words for companies that cheat the U.S. military: You're fired," he said.
White reported from Washington. Staff writers Bradley Graham and Howard Kurtz in Washington contributed to this report.