Battered by recent questions over pre-war intelligence gathering as well as the escalating guerrilla-warfare U.S. troops are facing in Iraq, the Bush administration is hoping that Iraq reconstruction director Paul Bremer’s stateside visit this week will help assuage fears in Congress and nationally about the volatile situation.
“He’s aware, and the administration is aware, of the high stakes,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We just passed the casualty mark of the Persian Gulf War, and there’s pictures of dead American soldiers on the front page of The New York Times.”
Bremer’s brief visit to the Hill this week “is a sign of the [administration’s] rising concern about the situation in Iraq, but I don’t think it’s a sign of panic,” McCain said.
Indeed, several Members said Bremer’s trip appears designed not only to switch the conversation from whether Bush officials purposefully used erroneous intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons plans to justify the war, but also to highlight some of the successes of the U.S. reconstruction effort.
Bremer was scheduled to take the hot seat on several network political talk shows over the weekend and is likely to conduct other media interviews about the status of Iraq reconstruction throughout the week, said a Defense Department spokeswoman.
“We’ve got a public relations campaign to tell people what we’re up to and that’s what we’re doing,” added Tom Korologos, a former GOP lobbyist who is now Bremer’s senior counselor in Iraq. “What’s not being told is the progress we’re making. The [lack of] security thing is sucking all the air in the media.”
Korologos said Bremer’s visit had been planned for weeks, and he insisted that Bremer was not being called in to be an emergency manager for the White House in addition to his role in Iraq.
“This is not a crisis-hurry-up-and-go-to-Washington trip,” he said.
Still, many GOP Members applauded Bremer’s trip home as a welcome diversion from the partisan back-and-forth over the White House’s potential misuse of intelligence data.
House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) said Bremer’s public appearances will give the administration the opportunity to explain how the United States has been able to make significant progress in restoring basic utilities and other government services to large swaths of Iraq.
“I told [Bremer] when I was over there, ‘You need to find ways to get the message back to the United States that things are going much better than we’re reading in the newspapers,’” said Goss, who visited Iraq over the July Fourth recess.
Goss also noted that he believes the public relations portion of Bremer’s trip is appropriate given the changing circumstances in Iraq.
“I don’t know where the public relations and briefing lines cross. … I would call it an update on a very volatile and fast-moving process and situation,” said Goss. “The White House and the administration leadership are very much focused on a national platform of informing the people about what’s going on in Iraq.”
Bremer is also scheduled to meet with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the president’s National Security Council as well as squeeze in a Congressional briefing on Tuesday.
Many Members predicted a tough line of questioning from Congress. “He may be a lightening rod for all the criticisms [of the administration’s handling of Iraq],” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Intelligence panel.
Indeed, Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) noted that Members of Congress will likely chide Bremer and the administration for letting the situation in Iraq deteriorate.
“He needs to know that we think things are slipping, and he has a very short period of time in which to work,” said Bereuter, a member of the Intelligence panel. “We need to put this into … turbo-drive, before the situation gets away from us.”
Bereuter said Members will take the opportunity to highlight other concerns they have about Iraq, such as whether Iraq’s deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein, is still at large and influencing the level of cooperation the United States is getting from ordinary Iraqis in the reconstruction effort.
“The basic problem is … we have not decapitated the leadership of Iraq,” said Bereuter. “It’s the keystone of reconstruction. … That’s a message [Congress] can give the administration while he’s here.”
Bremer’s trip is likely to only intensify Congress’ desire for more information on the war in Iraq. And as Congressional interest in Iraq rises, so too might the number of Congressional delegation trips to the country.
Goss said he was committed to sending regular CODELS every couple of months to Iraq to make sure Congress was adequately informed on the changing situation.
Still he said the situation for Members remained very dangerous, and the trips should be as low-maintenance as possible.
“There are limits to oversight. You don’t want to go over there and create an additional security problem,” Goss said.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who accompanied Goss and others to Iraq, said the six-mile stretch of road between the Baghdad airport and the central city was so dangerous that Members had to be flown on helicopters, and even then, had to take indirect routes to foil would-be guerrilla fighters.
Now Roberts said the chances of Iraqi guerrillas using surface-to-air missile against helicopters and airplanes had increased the danger to Members of Congress travelling to Iraq.
“The situation from a security standpoint has gotten worse since we were there,” said Roberts. “I’m not sure right now is a good time for Members to go.”
But McCain, who is leading a five-member CODEL in mid-August to Iraq, said he would go anyway and even joked that he would “walk” the dangerous Baghdad airport access road.
“I know I will die in bed,” said the Vietnam veteran who spent five-and-a-half years enduring torture and solitary confinement in a prisoner-of-war camp.
As for the other members on his trip, McCain said, “As long as they stay close to me, they’ll be OK.”