Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry yesterday announced a bill to force the Pentagon to begin planning how to withdraw from Iraq, fighting back after a top Defense Department official said that publicly talking about pulling out "reinforces enemy propaganda."
After calling earlier this year for a briefing on how the Pentagon would withdraw its troops, Mrs. Clinton received a reply by letter this week that she said amounts to "impugning the patriotism of any of us who raise serious questions." She said she will ask the defense secretary to intervene and repudiate the letter, written by Undersecretary Eric S. Edelman.
"I sent a serious letter on a matter of national security to the secretary of defense, and in return received a political response," said Mrs. Clinton, who has been touting her Pentagon request in her presidential campaign.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he would look into the exchange.
"I had not seen Senator Clinton's reply to Ambassador Edelman's letter until today. I am looking into the issues she raised and will respond to them early next week," Mr. Gates said, adding that he supports both congressional oversight and congressional debate on Iraq.
In his letter, Mr. Edelman, a former ambassador to Turkey, defended the new U.S. security strategy and then said talking about withdrawal publicly is a bad idea.
"Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia," wrote Mr. Edelman, who Mr. Bush placed in his current post using a recess appointment after Senate Democrats stalled his nomination in 2005.
Mr. Edelman also said the Defense Department has a policy of not releasing operational plans.
Mrs. Clinton has publicized her request for the withdrawal plan, including making it part of an antiwar video she released on her Web site this week and flagged to Iowa voters.
"You can't just snap your fingers and say 'OK, it's time to leave.' You have to plan it. In fact, I've begun to put pressure on the Defense Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff to let us know what they are planning," Mrs. Clinton tells a group of Iowa voters in the video. "The Pentagon has not been willing to do that planning."
Yesterday, Mrs. Clinton said the administration has failed to plan for many key steps in the war, and her worry is the administration is now failing to plan for a withdrawal.
She said she wants to make sure there's no political pressure from the White House — and she mentioned Vice President Dick Cheney's office in particular — to avoid planning. Mr. Edelman was a national security assistant to Mr. Cheney from February 2001 to June 2003.
A White House spokesman said officials there would not comment on a letter from the Pentagon to the Senate.
The fight marks an interesting partnership between Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Mr. Kerry, who was the party's nominee in 2004.
Mr. Kerry, who made his mark as a Vietnam veteran opposing that war, compared Mrs. Clinton's fight with the Pentagon to his own fight back then, saying in both cases they started asking tough questions and the people in power, "they come after you."
"That's exactly what they did yesterday," Mr. Kerry said, adding that he decided to come to Mrs. Clinton's aid after he saw what the Pentagon wrote to her.
But congressional Republicans saw it differently.
"Senator Clinton's expressed interest in developing a plan for withdrawal from Iraq can only serve to the detriment of our troops and their mission," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and his party's top member on the House Armed Services Committee. "Her statements underscore the desire of congressional Democrats to begin a stampede of retreat from Iraq without giving the president's newly implemented strategy the chance to succeed."