WASHINGTON – The White House denied reports Thursday that it considered shielding key officials from the public when they deliver a pivotal report on the Iraq war to Congress in September, but critics pointed to the reports as further evidence of a Bush administration evasive over war policy.
By congressional mandate, the administration must report on progress in Iraq by Sept. 15. It has long been expected that the two top U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Iraq — Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker — would deliver the report in public. News in recent days have suggested otherwise, drawing considerable ire from war opponents.
The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday suggested in a story that it wasn't clear yet whether Petraeus would testify in open session, and Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the White House proposed limiting Petraeus and Crocker's testimony to a closed session.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe adamantly denied those reports.
"Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will testify to the Congress in both open as well as closed sessions prior to the Sept. 15 report. That has always been our intention," Johndroe said, speaking to reporters at President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where the president is vacationing.
"And I think it's unfortunate that anyone would suggest that (Petraeus and Crocker) would not do that, trying to start a fight where there really isn't one, because this has always been plan, and in fact, it's even called for in the legislation," Johndroe added.
When a reporter followed up at the ranch with a question about the White House possibly arranging for a closed session, Johndroe said: "No, no." And asked if he was denouncing the Post's story, Johndroe said: "Yes. Although I don’t — I won't use that term that you used. I just don't think it's correct."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t buy the administration's protests and said it would be "unacceptable" if Petraeus and Crocker didn't appear in public.
"The White House's effort to prevent Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker from testifying openly and candidly before Congress about the situation in Iraq is unacceptable," Reid said in a prepared statement.
"Not only does it contradict the law President Bush himself signed in May, but it appears to be yet another politically driven attempt to avoid giving Congress and the American people an honest and open assessment of a war we can all see is headed in the wrong direction," Reid said.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, House Democratic Caucus chairman, also browbeat the administration.
“From the inaccurate prediction that we would be greeted as liberators, to the claim about weapons of mass destruction, to the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, the war in Iraq has seen too many reports and rosy assessments that put spin first and facts second. Unfortunately, the White House intends to continue this pattern," Emanuel said Thursday.
"The president’s report should provide a complete picture of Iraq’s security and political progress," he added.
The September report is a follow-up report to one given in July. The reports must address 18 benchmarks of Iraqi progress toward better security and government accountability.
Meanwhile, a military official says the number of troops in Iraq could reach an all-time high this fall. Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that troops could reach 171,000 around the time the report is delivered.
Ham said the timing of the rotation of troops in and out of the Iraqi theater would create the temporary peak.
Once the rotations are finished, the troop numbers would level out at about 162,000, about what it is today. Ham said that is expected to be the level into next year, depending on the recommendations in the September report.
"Clearly Al Qaeda in Iraq and others are cognizant of the timing of recommendations and decisions," Ham told Pentagon reporters during a briefing. "So I think it is prudent to expect them to try to influence the decision-makers. And clearly, the commanders in the theater are cognizant of that as well."
Ham added that while Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other service chiefs are also doing their own review of progress in Iraq, he believes they will combine their effort with Petraeus, and that the president will be given one comprehensive report from the military.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.