CLAYTON, Mo. – President Bush accused Democrats of waving "the white flag of surrender" with proposals that would bring the troops home from Iraq and insisted that he will keep combat forces fighting as long as they are needed to achieve victory.
Offering a spirited defense of his national security policies, Bush also said there was "no excuse" for newspapers to disclose a secret government program that tracked millions of financial records in search of terrorist suspects.
Bush said the program had been a vital tool in the war on terror when it was reported last week in the media.
"There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it, and no excuse for any newspaper to print it," Bush said.
Bush's statement, which he read from a piece of paper during a speech at a political fundraiser, won a standing ovation from the Republican faithful who paid nearly $1 million to hear him speak.
With opposition to the war threatening to hurt the GOP in this fall's congressional elections, Bush gave an impassioned plea for voters to re-elect Republicans who have supported his national security policies. He repeatedly pointed his finger in the air to emphasize his points and at several points his voice rose to a shout.
"Make no mistake about it, there's a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done," Bush said. "They're willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off and the world will be worse off."
Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a resolution by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq over the next year. Only 13 senators supported it, while 39 supported a more moderate measure that would have urged the administration to start withdrawing troops by year's end.
"The stakes are vital, and it's important that Missouri send a United States senator who understands that retreat is not an option for the United States of America," Bush said at the fundraiser for Missouri Sen. Jim Talent.
The terrorist financing program was revealed first last week by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. The newspapers reported that Treasury officials, beginning shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, had obtained access to an extensive international financial data base — the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift.
The New York Times late last year also disclosed that the National Security Agency had been conducting warrantless surveillance in the United States since 2002 of people with suspected Al Qaeda ties.
In St. Louis, Bush visited at a VFW hall with soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He then headlined a fundraiser Wednesday evening at the Ritz-Carlton for Talent where he helped bring in nearly $1 million, supported by about 500 donors who gave roughly $750,000 for Talent and another $200,000 for the state Republican Party.
For the second time, Talent's fate could be linked to Bush. The president's popularity and frequent trips to Missouri helped Talent win a slim victory in 2002. This year, Missouri auditor Claire McCaskill is trying to use the senator's ties to Bush to defeat him in November.
McCaskill's strategy seems to be paying off with rising poll numbers that give her an edge while the war in Iraq is mired in violence and a rising cost in taxpayer dollars and human lives.
The White House considers McCaskill one of the Democratic Party's best candidates challenging a Republican incumbent. The president's aides express confidence that Talent will win, but say it will be a tough, expensive fight.
Bush tried to boost the Iraqi mission in brief remarks to the media at the end of his private meeting at the VFW hall. He said the troops are spreading democracy and peace and that even though he understands their work is hard, it is necessary.
"We're winning," Bush said. "And the world is going to be better off because of your courageous service, and I thank you for it."
The faithful gave Bush a long and boisterous standing ovation, and one man in the crowd shouted, "Four more years!" Bush laughed at the suggestion of more than two terms — not allowed under the Constitution — and quickly responded, "No more wife."
Bush's visit to Missouri also included a special meeting with Andrew Benecke, an 18-year-old whose academic achievements earned him the honor of being named a Presidential Scholar this year. But Benecke's treatments for bone cancer meant he couldn't come to the White House for a special ceremony Monday for all the winners.
Instead, Bush presented the St. Louis teenager with his medal under the wing of Air Force One, as his beaming parents looked on.