It was billed as a candid chat between President Bush and American troops in Iraq about the upcoming constitutional referendum and the progress of the war. But critics are calling it a carefully scripted media play that was preceded by a dress rehearsal.
The teleconference took place on Thursday when 10 hand-picked soldiers from the Army's 42nd Infantry Division were assembled in class-photo-style seating in a building in Tikrit — the birthplace of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — to speak to the president, who was in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. According to The Associated Press, the questions asked during the call were carefully choreographed to match the president's goals for the war in Iraq and Saturday's crucial vote on the nation's new constitution.
"This is an important time," deputy assistant defense secretary Allison Barber told the troops before Bush arrived, according to the AP. "The president is looking forward to having just a conversation with you." Barber said the president wanted to cover three topics: the overall security situation in Iraq, security preparations for the weekend vote and efforts to train Iraqi troops (see "U.S. Sending 1,500 More Troops To Iraq This Fall").
After asking for some water bottles to be removed from the shot, Barber then staged what was described as a brief rehearsal, in which she asked the soldiers to act out the order of their answers and which topics each would cover.
"If the question comes up about partnering — how often do we train with the Iraqi military — who does he go to?" Barber asked.
"That's going to go to Captain Pratt," one of the soldiers said.
"And then if we're going to talk a little bit about the folks in Tikrit — the hometown — and how they're handling the political process, who are we going to give that to?" she asked. Barber later said the soldiers were coached on general themes the president wanted to discuss, not specific questions.
Once Bush got on the line, he thanked the soldiers and told them that the American people were behind them. "You've got tremendous support here at home," Bush said. A recent AP-Ipsos poll showed less than 40 percent of Americans approved of the way the president is handling the war in Iraq and that just over 50 percent now believe the war was a mistake.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied that the event was staged and said the troops were expressing their own feelings. He explained that "coordination" is often needed to overcome such technological challenges as delays in transmission in the satellite feed.
"I think all they were doing was talking to the troops and letting them know what to expect," McClellan said, explaining that the president wanted to talk with troops on the ground who have firsthand knowledge about the situation.
"The troops can ask the president whatever they want," McClellan said. "They've always been free to do that." According to the Los Angeles Times, Bush did not invite the soldiers to ask any questions and none of them elected to do so.
Time magazine reporter Tim Allen told CNN that the White House has said the exchange was "rehearsed, but not scripted," and that it's not unusual for lower level officers to be briefed before speaking to the commander in chief. What's unusual, Allen said, was for the typically buttoned-down Bush White House to allow the reporting pool to see this type of prepping.
"It bolsters the perception that this administration relies too much on spin," Allen said.
According to the AP, the soldiers all gave the president an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq.
1st Lt. Gregg Murphy of Tennessee told the president that preparations for the vote were on track. "Sir, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing a success. ... Back in January, when we were preparing for that election, we had to lead the way. We set up the coordination, we made the plan. We're really happy to see, during the preparation for this one, sir, they're doing everything."
Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo from Scotia, N.Y., told the president that the training of Iraqi troops was going well. "I can tell you over the past 10 months, we've seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners," she said. "Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations."
That assessment came on the same day that a Pentagon report to Congress made public revealed that Iraqi security forces are at least a year away from being able to take over responsibility from U.S. troops in fighting the increasingly deadly insurgency in the country. Several weeks ago, U.S. commanders in Iraq gave a sobering account to Congress about the readiness of Iraqi troops, in which they said the number of 800-men battalions that were ready to operate independently had actually dropped, from three to one.
In another nod to one of the president's recurring themes, Lombardo then told the president that she was in New York on November 11, 2001, when Bush attended an event honoring soldiers for their rescue efforts at Ground Zero. She said that the troops began fighting terrorism following the September 11 attacks and that they were "proud" to continue that fight in Iraq.
"I thought you looked familiar," Bush said, joking, "I probably look familiar to you, too."
An anonymous senior member of the military told the Los Angeles Times that, "Officers are upset that military people would be coached as to how to talk to the president. ... It's against everything that people in uniform stand for." The AP reported that half the troops involved were officers, and the leader of an advocacy group for Iraq war veterans said, "If he wants the real opinions of the troops, he can't do it in a nationally televised teleconference. ... He needs to be talking to the boots on the ground, and that's not a bunch of captains."