WASHINGTON – President Bush predicted Wednesday that the new year will bring advances and more international cooperation in the War on Terror, giving an upbeat assessment after meeting with his top military commanders from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There's a lot of work to be done in this War on Terror," Bush said. "But the American people can be rest assured this administration understands the task, and understands the challenges and understands our obligation to protect you, to protect the American people."
Bush heard reports from Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq; Gen. John Abizaid, chief of Central Command, and Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander in charge of training and equipping the Iraqi military and police. Also taking part in the briefing was Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.
Bush said they recognized terrorists still threaten the world.
"We talked about the areas of concern in this global War on Terror, recognizing that the enemy, which has an ideology of hate and a desire to kill, lurks in parts around the world," Bush said. "I assured those generals that this administration will do everything in our power to bring these enemies to justice."
Bush did not announce anything new after his first visit to the Pentagon this year. Instead, he repeated his arguments for staying the course that were his major focus at the end of 2005.
Public support for the war has dropped in recent months, but Bush has helped drive those numbers up just before the holidays with a major public relations blitz surrounding the December parliamentary elections in Iraq.
He said Iraqi troops were responsible for the security of the elections, with U.S. forces standing by to help if needed. He said Casey reported that the Iraqis' work was "superb."
"The number of attacks during the election were down dramatically. They performed," Bush said. "And that's part of our calibrating whether or not the Iraqi troops are becoming more capable. Numbers are one thing but the ability to perform is another."
Bush spoke a few hours before Vice President Dick Cheney was addressing the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, as part of the administration's lobbying of Congress for a permanent extension of the terror-fighting Patriot Act.
Bush's comments drew immediate criticism from Democrats, who say his tough talk moves the standoff further from a resolution before the Feb. 3 expiration of the Patriot Act's temporary provisions.
"The White House is in attack mode," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., whose lone vote against the original 2001 Patriot Act grew into a filibuster at its renewal last year. "Their insistence on having it their way or the highway...has failed."
Feingold said that if the administration continues "to show no flexibility at all, then the stalemate will continue." As for whether an agreement can be reached before Feb. 3, "It may prove to be awfully tight," Feingold said.
Many key provisions of the Patriot Act had been set to expire Dec. 31. Amid a debate over whether the act sufficiently protects civil liberties, most Senate Democrats and a few Republicans united against legislation that would have made several of the expiring provisions permanent while extending others for four years.
In a move the White House adamantly opposed but later accepted, lawmakers rushing toward a holiday recess merely approved a one-month extension of the law in its current form. That set the stage for the contentious debate to continue when Congress reassembles later this month. The new measure expires Feb. 3.
Cheney said the renewal of the law is vital to protecting Americans from suffering additional attacks like those on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Obviously no one can guarantee that we won't be hit again," the vice president said, according to excerpts of his remarks released by the White House. "But neither should anyone say that the relative safety of the last four years came as an accident. America has been protected not by luck, but by sensible policy decisions, by decisive action at home and abroad and by round-the-clock efforts on the part of people in law enforcement, intelligence, the military and homeland security."
Cheney also defended the president's authorization of warrentless domestic surveillance after the 2001 attacks. Bush has allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop -- without warrants -- on international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to Al Qaeda or its affiliates.
The program has come under fire as possibly illegal and in violation of civil liberties after its existence was reported by the New York Times last month and confirmed by the president. The revelation intensified the debate over the Patriot Act.
But Cheney said it the NSA surveillance is "fully consistent with the constitutional responsibilities and legal authority of the president and with the civil liberties of the American people."