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Bush Acted Too Slowly to Deter Terrorism Attacks, Kerry Says

August 03, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As President Bush endorsed intelligence reforms Monday, Democratic challenger John F. Kerry mounted one of his most aggressive assaults on the White House record on terrorism, saying Bush had acted too slowly to deter attacks.

Campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin a day after the administration raised the alert level for financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, Kerry also accused Bush of pursuing policies that encouraged recruitment of new terrorists. The Massachusetts senator urged Bush to call Congress into special session to take immediate steps against terrorism that Kerry said were long overdue.

"Sept. 11 was 2001," Kerry shouted to an estimated 10,000 or more lunch-hour spectators who filled a downtown office plaza here. "Sept. 11, 2002, came and went! Sept. 11, 2003, came and went! Sept. 11, 2004, is almost here."

Only now is Bush "doing some of the things that some of us have been calling for all that period of time," he told the sea of people surrounding a giant Alexander Calder sculpture. "We need leadership!"

After roars of applause, he continued: "If we're at war, and it's so urgent, we shouldn't be waiting. We ought to get Congress back, and get the job done right now and make America safer."

Kerry's remarks came on the fourth day of his two-week "Believe in America" journey across the nation by bus, boat, train and plane.

On a weekend bus trip across the Rust Belt, he stressed plans to ease hardships of those hurt by job losses and rising living costs during Bush's presidency. But on Monday, with the heightened terrorist warning dominating the news, Kerry went on the offensive against Bush's national security record.

In a morning interview, he told CNN he would "fight a more effective war on terror" than the president.

"I believe this administration, in its policies, is actually encouraging the recruitment of terrorists," said Kerry. "We haven't done the work necessary to reach out to other countries. We haven't done the work necessary with the Muslim world. We haven't done the work necessary to protect our own ports, our chemical facilities, our nuclear facilities."

At the White House, Bush responded to Kerry's charges. In remarks to reporters gathered for his announcement that he would back proposals to create the post of national intelligence director and set up a new counterterrorism center, Bush said his rival's comments reflected a "misunderstanding of the war on terror."

"It is a ridiculous notion to assert that, because the United States is on the offense, more people want to hurt us," he said.

Bush took credit for "significant reforms" of counterterrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. He cited creation of the Homeland Security Department and new protections for airports, harbors and borders. He shunned the invitation to call Congress back from its August recess to weigh proposals on fighting terrorism.

"They can think about them over August, and come back and act on them in September," Bush said.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Kerry would not provide "strong, consistent leadership to a nation at war against global terror." He faulted Kerry for accusations Sunday by former presidential aspirant Howard Dean that politics might be driving the Bush administration's terror alerts.

Kerry, who got a classified briefing on the latest alert by phone Sunday at a Michigan baseball field, told CNN he disagreed with Dean.

The squabbling over national security illustrated anew Kerry's effort to outflank Bush on a subject that has favored Republicans. James P. Rubin, a senior Kerry advisor for foreign policy, said that "for too long, too many in the Democratic Party" had failed to challenge Republicans on national security.

"We're not going to cede this ground," he said.

Kerry also campaigned at a Grand Rapids fire station, where he renewed his call for adoption of every recommendation made last month by the independent commission that investigated the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. The panel called for adoption of both the proposals that Bush endorsed Monday, but the president rejected its suggestion that the intelligence director be a Cabinet member.

Kerry said he regretted "that it's taken us almost three years" to adopt reforms to protect the country better against terrorist attacks.

Speaking to several dozen supporters, he renewed accusations that Bush had "stonewalled" the commission when it was preparing its reports -- and that the president had done too little to see that cargo ships were properly inspected.

Given the nation's tightened airport security, Kerry said "we're safer" from attack, but he added, "The question is: Are we as safe as we ought to be, given the options that were available to us? The answer is no. And we should be. And I will make us as safe as we ought to be."

Later, after crossing by ferry to Milwaukee, Kerry hammered again at Bush's terrorism record at a sunset rally.

Arguing that he had the credibility that Bush lacked when it came to restoring America's reputation abroad, Kerry vowed to enhance counterterrorism efforts by stepping up intelligence and law-enforcement cooperation with foreign countries.

"The one thing they do worst," he said of the Bush administration, "we know how to do better."

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