By Olivier Knox
US President George W. Bush seized on a foiled London airline bomb plot to hammer unnamed critics he accused of having all but forgotten the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Weighed down by the unpopular war in Iraq, Bush and his aides have tried to shift the national political debate from that conflict to the broader and more popular global war on terrorism ahead of November 7 congressional elections.
"It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America," he said. "We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously we still aren’t completely safe."
His remarks came a day after the White House orchestrated an exceptionally aggressive campaign to tar opposition Democrats as weak on terrorism, knowing what Democrats didn’t: News of the plot could soon break.
Vice President Dick Cheney and White House spokesman Tony Snow had argued that Democrats wanted to raise what Snow called "a white flag in the war on terror," citing as evidence the defeat of a three-term Democratic senator who backed the Iraq war in his effort to win renomination.
But Bush aides on Thursday fought the notion that they had exploited their knowledge of the coming British raid to hit Democrats, saying the trigger had been the defeat of Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut by an anti-war political novice.
"The comments were purely and simply a reaction" to Democratic voters who "removed a pro-defense Senator and sent the message that the party would not tolerate candidates with such views," said Snow.
The public relations offensive "was not done in anticipation. It was not said with the knowledge that this was coming," the spokesman said.
Snow said Bush first learned in detail about the plot on Friday, and received two detailed briefings on it on Saturday and Sunday, as well as had two conversations about it with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But a senior White House official said that the British government had not launched its raid until well after Cheney held a highly unusual conference call with reporters to attack the Democrats as weak against terrorism.
An aide to Lieberman, who would have been one of the first Democrats to hear of the plot because he is the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the lawmaker first heard of it late Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Cheney had suggested that Democrats believe "that somehow we can retreat behind our oceans and not be actively engaged in this conflict and be safe here at home, which clearly we know we won’t, we can’t, be," he said.
While some Democrats have opposed some steps in the war on terrorism, and more and more are calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, no major figures in the party have called for a wholesale retreat in the broader conflict.
But Bush’s Republicans hoped the raid would yield political gains.
"I’d rather be talking about this than all of the other things that Congress hasn’t done well," one Republican congressional aide told AFP on condition of anonymity because of possible reprisals.
"Weeks before September 11th, this is going to play big," said another White House official, who also spoke on condition of not being named, adding that some Democratic candidates won’t "look as appealing" under the circumstances.