Bush: Insurgents in Iraq same as 9/11 attackers
President Bush, defending his troop surge in Iraq, insisted Thursday that the insurgents attacking US troops in Iraq "are the same ones who attacked us on Sept. 11."
Bush was speaking at a White House press conference on the same day an interim progress report on his troop surge in Iraq was released. Asked for proof of the connection between insurgents in Iraq and the 9/11 hijackers, Bush said both had pledged their allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
"The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq are the ones who attacked us on Sept. 11," Bush said.
The president was responding to a question from NBC correspondent David Gregory, who asked why Americans shouldn't believe he is "stubborn or in denial." Gregory was referencing a report in Thursday's Washington Post that indicated CIA Director Michael Hayden saw as "irreversible" the lack of progress in Iraq.
Facing a new report out today on the progress of his troop surge, Bush downplayed the fact that the report shows Iraqi lawmakers are making "satisfactory" progress on less than half of the 18 benchmarks that are required related to the troop buildup. The president reminded reporters that the buildup was just completed within the last month, and he tried to urge more patience in the war's fifth year.
Bush said the report shows the Iraqi government has made satisfactory progress on eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on eight more and mixed results on two.
Democrats used the occasion of the progress report's release to criticize Bush's war policy.
"Does this White House think that we don't know how to turn on our televisions?" asked Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, in a prepared statement. "Don't tell us we're making progress in Iraq when the last three months have been some of the deadliest since this war began for our brave troops who have sacrificed so much. And don't tell us it's progress when the Iraqi leadership has done nothing – nothing – to take the political steps necessary to end their civil war."
During the press conference, Bush acknowledged that public opinion is turning against the war in Iraq, but he continued to insist that he believed the fight was winnable.
"There's war fatigue in America," Bush said. "It's affecting our psychology ... it's an ugly war."
Bush insisted progress was being made in Iraq, several times invoking Anbar Provence, before continuing to try to tie the Iraq war to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden," Bush said. "We need to take al Qaeda in Iraq seriously just like we need to take al Qaeda anywhere in the world seriously."
Bush also refused to rule out committing more troops to Iraq in the future, saying he would not publicly speculate about what he will do when Gen. David Petraeus delivers a final report on the surge's progress in September.
"I'm not going to answer your question," Bush told a reporter who asked about the possibility of sending more troops to Iraq.
As Bush tried to leave the press conference, a reporter called out a question about a new intelligence report that shows al Qaeda is gaining strength and is stronger now than at any time since 2001.
Bush said it "is simply not the case" that al Qaeda is stronger now than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, although he asserted the terror group to defend some of his more controversial programs.
"No question al Qaeda is dangerous ... that's why we need terrorist surveillance programs," Bush said, in an apparent reference to his warrantless wiretapping program.
Bush's double-take was a one-time deal, though. As he left a second time, a reporter tried to get in one last question.
"Is bin Laden alive?" the reporter asked, as Bush continued to leave the room without offering an answer.
The following video is from MSNBC's News Live broadcast on July 12, and contains clips from press conference edited by David Edwards:
Excerpts from briefing:
PRESIDENT BUSH: Nothing's changed in the new room.
Anyway -- (laughs) -- yeah, I mean, as I told you last November right about this time, I -- I was part of that group of Americans who didn't approve of what was taking place in Iraq because it looked like all the efforts that we had taken to that point in time were about to fail. In other words, sectarian violence was really raging. And I had a choice to make, and that was to pull back, as some suggested, and hope that the chaos and violence that might occur in the capital would not spill out across the country; or send more troops in to prevent the chaos and violence from happening in the first place, and that's the decision I made.
So it was a realistic appraisal by me.
What's realistic as well is to understand the consequences of what will happen if we fail in Iraq. In other words, people aren't just going to be content with driving America out of Iraq, al Qaeda wants to hurt us here. That's their objective. That's what they'd like to do. They have got an ideology that they believe that the world ought to live under, and that one way to help spread that ideology is to harm the American people, harm American interests. The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that's why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home.
So I've been realistic about the consequences of failure. I have been realistic about what needs to happen on the ground in order for there to be success. And it's been hard work. And the American people see this hard work. And one of the reasons it's hard work is because on our TV screens are these violent killings perpetuated by people who have done us harm in the past. And that ought to be a lesson for the American people; to understand that what happens in Iraq and overseas matters to the security of the United States of America.
Q Sir, on that point, what evidence can you present to the American people that the people who attacked the United States on September 11th are in fact the same people who are responsible for the bombings taking place in Iraq? What evidence can you present? And also, are you saying, sir, that al Qaeda in Iraq is the same organization being run by Osama bin Laden himself?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Al Qaeda in Iraq has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. And, you know, the guys who perpetuated the attacks on America, obviously the guys on the airplane are dead, and the commanders -- many of those are either dead or in captivity, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
But the people in Iraq -- al Qaeda in Iraq has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. And we need to take al Qaeda in Iraq seriously, just like we need to take al Qaeda anywhere in the world seriously.
Let's see here, working my way around here. Sheryl.
Q Good morning, Mr. President. Given the events on the ground in Iraq and the politics here at home, has U.S. military deployment to Iraq reached a ceiling or can you allow any further military escalation?
PRESIDENT BUSH: You're trying to do what Martha very skillfully tried to get me to do, and that was to --
Q Can I have a follow-up?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, you can because you were about to realize I'm not going to answer your question, except -- (interrupted by laughter) -- except to say this.
There's going to be great temptation to -- not temptation. There will be -- you won't be tempted. You will actually ask me to speculate about what David Petraeus will talk to us about when he comes home. And I -- I just ask the American people to understand that the commander in chief must rely upon the wisdom and judgment of the military thinkers and planners. It's -- it's -- it's -- it's -- it's very important that there be that solid connection of trust between me and those who are in the field taking incredible risk.
And so Ed, I'm going to wait to see what David has to say. I'm not going to prejudge what he may say. I -- I trust David Petraeus, his judgment. He's an honest man. He's -- those of you who've interviewed him know that he's a straight shooter. He is a(n) innovative thinker. I was briefed by members of the codel that came back that said that it appeared to them that our troops have high respect for our commanders in -- in Baghdad, as do I.
Now, do you have a follow-up, perhaps another subject, another area, another --
Q Same subject
PRESIDENT BUSH: Same questions?
Q Different approach, different approach here.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Okay.
Q How hard is it for you to conduct the war without popular support? And are you, personally -- do you ever have trouble balancing the -- between doing what you think is the right thing and following the will of the majority of the public, which is really the essence of democracy?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, it is. And I -- first of all, I can fully understand why people are tired of the war. The question they have is, can we win it? And of course, I'm concerned about whether or not the American people are in this fight. I believe however that when they really think about the consequences of if we were to precipitously withdraw, they begin to say to themselves, maybe we ought to win this; maybe we ought to have a stable Iraq.
Their question, it seems like to me, is, can we succeed? And that's a very important, legitimate question for anybody to ask. I think many people understand we must succeed and I think a lot of people understand we've got to wait for the generals to make these military decisions.
I suspect -- I know this, Ed, that if our troops thought that I was taking a poll to decide how to conduct this war, they would be very concerned about the mission. In other words, if our troops said, well, well, here we are in combat and we've got a commander-in-chief who is, you know, running a focus group. In other words, politics would be -- is more important to him than our safety and/or our strategy. That would dispirit our troops.
And there's a lot of constituencies in this fight. Clearly the American people, who are paying for this, is the major constituency. And I repeat to you, Ed, I understand that they're -- this violence has affected them. And a lot of people don't think we can win. There's a lot of people in Congress who don't think we can win as well. And therefore their attitude is, get out. My concern with their strategy, something that Mike Hayden also discussed, is that just getting out may sound simple and it may affect polls but it would have long-term, serious security consequences for the United States.
And so, Ed, sometimes you, you know, you just have to make the decisions based upon what you think is right. My most important job is to help secure this country. And therefore the decisions in Iraq are all aimed in helping do that job. And that's what I firmly believe.
The second constituency is the military.
And I repeat to you: I'm pretty confident our military do not want their commander in chief making political decisions about their future.
A third constituency that matters to me a lot is military families. These are good folks who are making huge sacrifices, and they support their loved ones. And I don't think they want their commander in chief making decisions based upon popularity.
Another constituency group that -- that is important for me to talk to is -- is the Iraqis. Obviously I want the Iraqi government to understand that we expect there to be reconciliation top down, that we'd want to see laws passed. I think they've got that message. They know full well that the American government and the American people expect to see tangible evidence of working together. That's what the benchmarks are aimed to do.
They also need to know that -- that I'm making decisions based upon our security interests, of course, but also helping them succeed and that -- that a poll is not going to determine the course of action by the United States. What will determine the course of action is, will the decisions that we have made help secure our country for the long run?
And finally, another constituency is the enemy, who are wondering whether or not America has got the resolve and the determination to stay after them.
And so that's -- that's what I think about, Ed. And you know, I -- I'm -- I guess I'm like any other, you know, political figure. Everybody wants to be loved. Just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved. And so when it's all said and done, Ed, when you ever come down and visit the old -- old, tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to I say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics. And that's important to me.
Thank you all for your time. I love being here at this new building. Thank you.
(The president walks away from the podium.)
Q Can we just talk to you about the al Qaeda intelligence report, please?
PRESIDENT BUSH: What was that?
Q The --
PRESIDENT BUSH: This is amazing! The new me!
Q I know. I know. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT BUSH: The al Qaeda intelligence report.
Q The intelligence analysts are saying al Qaeda has reconstituted in areas of Pakistan, saying the threat to the West is greater than ever now.
PRESIDENT BUSH: (Inaudible) --
Q Well, as great as 2001.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Ah -- okay, here's --
Q What's happening? Okay, you tell us -- (inaudible) --
PRESIDENT BUSH: Okay, I'm glad you asked. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that opportunity to --
Q Thank you for coming back.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm happy to do it.
This is not the new me. I mean, this is just like an aberration. In other words --
Q It's over next time.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm not going to leave and then come back if somebody yells something at me.
Q Like China.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, exactly! (Laughs.) Thank you. Thank you, David. I appreciate that. Exactly. (Laughs.)
There is a perception in the coverage that al Qaeda may be as strong today as they were prior to September the 11th. That's just simply not the case. I think the report will say, you know, since 2001, not prior to September the 11th, 2001.
Secondly, that because of the actions we've taken, al Qaeda is weaker today than they would have been. They are still a threat. They are still dangerous. And that is why it is important that we succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and anywhere else we find them. And that's -- that's -- our strategy is to stay on the offense against al Qaeda. Elaine asked the question: Is it al Qaeda in Iraq? Yeah, it is al Qaeda, just like it's al Qaeda in parts of Pakistan. And I'm working with President Musharraf to be able to -- he doesn't want them in his country. He doesn't want foreign fighters in his -- the outposts of his country. And so we're working to make sure that we continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda.
But no question, al Qaeda is -- is dangerous for the American people, and that's why -- as well as other people that love freedom -- and that's why we're working hard with allies and friends to enhance our intelligence, that's why we need terrorist surveillance programs, that's why it's important for us to keep -- you know, I would hope Congress would modernize that bill -- that's why we're keeping on the offense.
Ultimately, the way to defeat these radicals and extremists is to offer alternative ways of life so that they're unable to recruit. That they can use -- they like to use frustration and hopelessness. They -- they -- the societies that don't provide hope will become the societies where al Qaeda has got the capacity to convince a youngster to go blow himself up. What we need to do is to help governments provide brighter futures for their people so they won't sign up.
And the fundamental question facing the world in this issue is whether or not it makes sense to try to promote an alternative ideology. I happen to think it does. They say, "He's idealistic." Yeah, I'm idealistic, but I'm also realistic in understanding if there's not an alternative ideology presented, these thugs will be able to continue to recruit. They'll use hopelessness to be able to recruit. And so it's -- thank you for asking that question.
Q Bin Laden --
PRESIDENT BUSH: Thank you all.
Q Is bin Laden alive? (No audible response.)