Senior congressional aides said yesterday that the White House has proposed limiting the much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill next month of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to a private congressional briefing, suggesting instead that the Bush administration's progress report on the Iraq war should be delivered to Congress by the secretaries of state and defense.
White House officials did not deny making the proposal in informal talks with Congress, but they said yesterday that they will not shield the commanding general in Iraq and the senior U.S. diplomat there from public congressional testimony required by the war-funding legislation President Bush signed in May. "The administration plans to follow the requirements of the legislation," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in response to questions yesterday.
The skirmishing is an indication of the rising anxiety on all sides in the remaining few weeks before the presentation of what is widely considered a make-or-break assessment of Bush's war strategy, and one that will come amid rising calls for a drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq.
With the report due by Sept. 15, officials at the White House, in Congress and in Baghdad said that no decisions have been made on where, when or how Petraeus and Crocker will appear before Congress. Lawmakers from both parties are growing worried that the report -- far from clarifying the United States' future in Iraq -- will only harden the political battle lines around the war.
White House officials suggested to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that Petraeus and Crocker would brief lawmakers in a closed session before the release of the report, congressional aides said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would provide the only public testimony.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) told the White House that Bush's presentation plan was unacceptable. An aide to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said that "we are in talks with the administration and . . . Senator Levin wants an open hearing" with Petraeus.
Those positions only hardened yesterday with reports that the document would not be written by the Army general but instead would come from the White House, with input from Petraeus, Crocker and other administration officials.
"Americans deserve an even-handed assessment of conditions in Iraq. Sadly, we will only receive a snapshot from the same people who told us the mission was accomplished and the insurgency was in its last throes," warned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).
"That's all the more reason why they would need to testify," a senior Foreign Relations Committee aide said of Petraeus and Crocker. "We would want them to say whether they stand by all the information in the report." He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak to reporters.
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The legislation says that Petraeus and Crocker "will be made available to testify in open and closed sessions before the relevant committees of the Congress" before the delivery of the report. It also clearly states that the president "will prepare the report and submit the report to Congress" after consultation with the secretaries of state and defense and with the top U.S. military commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador.
But both the White House and Congress have widely described the assessment as coming from Petraeus. Bush has repeatedly referred to the general as the one who will be delivering the report in September and has implored the public and Republicans in Congress to withhold judgment until then. In an interim assessment last month, the White House said that significant progress has been shown in fewer than half of the 18 political and security benchmarks outlined in the legislation.
Several Republicans have hinted that their support will depend on a credible presentation by Petraeus, not only of tangible military progress but of evidence that the Iraqi government is taking real steps toward ethnic and religious reconciliation. One of them, Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), left for Iraq last night with Levin for his own assessment.
Petraeus and Crocker have said repeatedly that they plan to testify after delivering private assessments to Bush. U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Baghdad appeared puzzled yesterday when told that the White House had indicated that the two may not be appearing in public. They said they will continue to prepare for the testimony in the absence of instructions from Washington. "If anything, we just don't know the dates/times/or the committees that the assessment will be presented to," a senior military official in Baghdad said in an e-mail yesterday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said that, ideally, both Crocker and Petraeus would testify before that panel. The Senate committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have also requested that Rice appear at a separate hearing but have received no response. A spokeswoman for Levin said that the senator expects at least Petraeus to testify before the Armed Services Committee but would be happy to have Crocker as well.
Although the reports from Petraeus and Crocker are the most eagerly awaited, several other assessments are also required by the May legislation. The Government Accountability Office is due to report on Iraqi political reconciliation and reconstruction by Sept. 1. An independent committee, headed by retired Marine Gen. James Jones, has been studying the training and capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and will report to Congress early next month. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said that the chiefs are making their own assessment of the situation in Iraq and will present it to Bush in the next few weeks.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Iraq yesterday, Petraeus said he is preparing recommendations on troop levels while getting ready to go to Washington next month. He declined to give specifics.
"We know that the surge has to come to an end," Petraeus said, according to the Associated Press. "I think everyone understands that, by about a year or so from now, we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now. The question is how do you do that . . . so that you can retain the gains we have fought so hard to achieve and so you can keep going."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post