WASHINGTON — Saying U.S. soldiers in Iraq “deserve the best,” President Bush emphasized Thursday that the administration was addressing equipment concerns like the one about armored vehicles raised by a soldier who questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“The concerns expressed are being addressed, and that is we expect our troops to have the best possible equipment,” the president said in response to a reporter’s question at the White House.
“If I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I’d want to ask the secretary of defense the same question, and that is, ‘Are we getting the best we can get us?’”
U.S. soldiers “deserve the best,” Bush said, adding: “I’ve told many family I’ve met with, ‘We’re doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones.’”
Administration on defensive
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year, critics have accused the Bush administration of failing to send adequate forces and armor to stabilize the country, allowing the insurgency to develop.
White House budget director Joshua Bolten said the administration would ask Congress early next year for more funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional sources said the package could top $70 billion.
“We prefer to do it as late as possible so that we know what our needs are going to be,” Bolten said. But he added that he did not expect the Defense Department’s “funding streams to be constrained at all at any time between now and the release of the budget” in early February.
The latest complaints put the administration further on the defensive. Bush had rejected charges from Democratic challenger John Kerry in the campaign for last month’s election that military forces in Iraq did not have enough protection.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California led a chorus of complaints from her party that Rumsfeld should resign.
She said the Iraq war “began 21 months ago, and Secretary Rumsfeld has still not done what is necessary, which is his highest duty, to protect our troops to the greatest degree possible. No CEO in America would retain a manager with so clear a record of failure, and neither should President Bush.”
In a related development, it was revealed Thursday that a reporter claims to have helped the soldier prepare the question directed at Rumsfeld. The Poynter Institute, a news media think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., published on its Web site an e-mail attributed to reporter Edward Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press, which states that Pitts worked with the soldier because he was not allowed to question Rumsfeld himself.
“Before hand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have,” said the e-mail, which was sent to newspaper colleagues.
“I have been trying to get this story out for weeks — as soon as I found out I would be on an unarmored truck,” the e-mail said.
The Defense Department issued a written statement Thursday night saying it was “unfortunate” if a member of the press “pressured” Army Spc. Thomas Wilson to ask the question.
“The Secretary provides ample opportunity for interaction with the press,” the statement said. “It is better that others not infringe on the troops’ opportunity to interact with superiors in the chain of command.”
Rumsfeld: ‘Necessary for Army to hear that’
Rumsfeld, for his part, said Thursday that he was pleased to hear the gripe and expected the Army to do its best to resolve the problem.
“I think it’s good” that ordinary soldiers are given a chance to express their concerns to the defense secretary and senior military commanders, Rumsfeld told reporters during a visit to India.
“It’s necessary for the Army to hear that, do something about it and see that everyone is treated properly,” Rumsfeld said, referring not only to the complaint about insufficient armor but also to another soldier’s statement about not getting reimbursed for certain expenses in a timely way.
Those complaints, and others, were aired Wednesday when Rumsfeld held a “town hall”-style meeting with about 2,300 soldiers at Camp Buehring in northern Kuwait, a transit camp for troops heading into Iraq.
Wilson asked Rumsfeld, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” Shouts of approval and applause arose from other soldiers who had assembled in an aircraft hangar to see Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question.
“We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north,” Wilson, 31, of Nashville, Tenn., concluded after asking again.
“You go to war with the Army you have,” Rumsfeld replied, “not the Army you might want or wish to have.”
Video: Franks on Rumsfeld Asked Thursday about that exchange, Rumsfeld said he believed the session in general was “very fine, warm [and] enjoyable.” As for Wilson’s statement, Rumsfeld said it could be constructive.
“I don’t know what the facts are, but somebody is certainly going to sit down with him and find out what he knows that they may not know,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld gave no indication that the soldier would face any kind of disciplinary action for speaking up. Indeed, he said he found it healthy for soldiers to feel free to express their views.
He also said military vehicles that went into Iraq without full armor were used only inside U.S. compounds, rather than used on street patrols where they are vulnerable to roadside bombs. And he said those vehicles without full armor were moved into Iraq on transport vehicles rather than being driven.
Rumsfeld: Army has adjusted ‘pretty rapidly’
More broadly, Rumsfeld said people should understand that the military had done all that could reasonably be expected to adjust to changing circumstances in Iraq as insurgents refined their tactics.
“That is the way war and insurgencies and combat operate,” he said. “You go in, you have an enemy with a brain that does things, and then you make adjustments.”
He added: “Does everything happen instantaneously as the brain in the enemy sees things and makes changes? No, it doesn’t happen instantaneously.” But the Army has adjusted “pretty rapidly” to the evolving tactics of the insurgents, he said, including the need to have more armor on vehicles like the Humvee.
MSNBC.com reported earlier this year that the Army was aware that Humvees were under-protected as far back as 1993 but was still officially advising soldiers as recently as March to put sandbags on the floorboards to deaden the impact of mine explosions.
Rumsfeld promised that steps were also being taken to deal with explosive devices, a leading cause of death in Iraq, where more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action.
NBC’s Norah O’Donnell and Ted Savaglio, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.