Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, the Democratic congressman who went to Baghdad last year to say that President Bush would lie to the American people in order to justify war, has now accused the president of timing Saddam Hussein’s capture for political ends.

He told a Seattle radio interviewer Monday that American forces could have captured Saddam “a long time ago if they wanted.”

Asked by interviewer Dave Ross on KIRO-FM whether the capture was timed to help the president, he replied: “Yeah. Oh, yeah. There’s too much by happenstance for it to be just a coincidental thing.”

Pressed by Mr. Ross about whether he meant that the timing of the capture was driven by politics, Mr. McDermott said: “I don’t know that it was definitely planned on this weekend, but I know they’ve been in contact with people all along who knew basically where he was. It was just a matter of time till they’d find him.

“It’s funny, when they’re having all this trouble, suddenly they have to roll out something.”

The congressman made the remarks on the day the president fired back at Howard Dean, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primaries, for suggesting that he had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks.

“It’s an absurd insinuation,” the president said at a press conference in response to a question from The Washington Times.

It was Mr. Bush’s first response to increasingly sharp criticism from Mr. Dean. He had previously delegated counterattacks to the Republican National Committee, which characterized Democratic rhetoric as bordering on political “hate speech.”

Yesterday, the Dean campaign tried to distance itself from the controversy.

“Governor Dean has been very clear that he doesn’t believe in or subscribe to that theory,” said Dean spokesman Jay Carson. “He simply pointed out the need for the Bush administration to be more cooperative with the 9/11 commission so that theories like that could be put to rest.

“The irony here is that the Republicans are trafficking this supposed claim all over the place, thereby pushing it in a way that it never would have been possible,” he said. “Governor Dean was clear that he didn’t actually believe it.”

Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat, scolded Mr. McDermott for his comments about Saddam’s capture.

“With all due respect to my colleague, that is a fantasy,” Mr. Dicks told the Associated Press. “That just is not right. It’s one thing to criticize this administration for having done this war. I mean, that’s a fair question. But to criticize them on the capture of Saddam, when it’s such a big thing to our troops, is just ridiculous.”

Asked to respond to Mr. McDermott’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said: “I don’t think I have to dignify every ridiculous comment that’s made out there. I think that members of his own party adequately addressed his comments.”

Jim Vance, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, said: “Once again McDermott has embarrassed this state with his irresponsible ranting. Calling on him to apologize is useless, but I call on other Democrats to let the public know if they agree with McDermott — and Howard Dean, who recently said he thought it was possible that President Bush had advance knowledge about 9/11.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay agreed.

“The Democrats’ hateful, moronic comments are beyond the pale, and the Democrats know it, but they don’t care because they have nothing to offer the public debate but rage, resentment and quackery. Until other Democrats stand up against this hysteria, they’re admitting to the country their party has no claim to national leadership.”

• James G. Lakely contributed to this report.

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