Reid sets off firestorm with criticism of Pace

WASHINGTON -- A report that Sen. Harry Reid called Marine Gen. Peter Pace "incompetent" and that he disparaged a U.S. commander in Iraq in a phone call with liberal bloggers this week sparked turbulence Thursday among conservatives and Republicans.

White House spokesman Tony Snow accused Reid of "slander" against Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Jim Bunning of Kentucky issued statements critical of Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada.

"The debate about this war has gone into the gutter," Bunning said.

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said he was "disappointed and saddened" by Reid's criticisms.

"Soldiers live and die based on the faith they have in their general's guidance and judgment," Porter said in a statement. "Take away that trust and you endanger their lives. For the well-being of our soldiers, this is tragic."

Several bloggers who were on the call said they did not hear Reid issue a blast as it was reported in The Politico, a widely read publication that specializes in Capitol Hill and national politics.

Bob Geiger, a writer and activist from New York, posted the comment on his blog,

Geiger said Reid did use the word "incompetent" to describe Pace, and that it was unremarkable in context. He said it was not reported by any of the call participants, liberals who eagerly would have pounced on "rhetorical red meat" from Reid.

Reid on Thursday declined to revisit the call.

"I'm not going to get into what I said or didn't say," he told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

But Reid, a leading critic of President Bush's management of the war in Iraq, went on to criticize Pace anew.

Reid said there was "a long line of people" who believe that Pace was not suited to remain as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Marine general is expected to step down on Sept. 30 after Defense Secretary Robert Gates said June 8 that he would recommend that Bush not renominate the general for a second term as chairman of the military advisers.

Reid said he had met with Pace and told him "that he had not done a very good job in speaking out for some obvious things that weren't going right in Iraq."

"I told him that to his face," Reid said.

John Harris, editor in chief of the Politico, said the newspaper was "comfortable" with the story, which said Reid's comments to the bloggers were an example of him responding to pressure from liberals to do more to stop the war.

The Politico, citing unnamed sources, said Reid also made "disparaging remarks" to the bloggers about Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

It could not be independently determined what Reid said about Petraeus on the call.

Asked about Petraeus on Thursday, Reid said he had "high regard" for the commander, but wished the general could "be a little more candid with us" regarding Iraq.

Petraeus until now has received little criticism from Capitol Hill over his statements or performance.

Reid on Thursday went on to charge that Petraeus, who took command in Iraq four months ago, "isn't in touch with what's going on in Baghdad." He also indicated that he thinks Petraeus has not been sufficiently open in his testimony to Congress. Noting that Petraeus, who is now on his third tour of duty in Iraq, oversaw the training of Iraqi troops during his second stint there, Reid said, "He told us it was going great; as we've looked back, it didn't go so well."

Reid seemed most provoked by an article in Thursday's edition of USA Today, which quoted the general as saying that he sees "astonishing signs of normalcy" in the Iraqi capital. "I'm talking about professional soccer leagues with real grass field stadiums, several amusement parks -- big ones, markets that are very vibrant," Petraeus said.

The general's comments came on the same day that the Pentagon released to Congress a quarterly report on security in Iraq. It said that the U.S. counteroffensive in Baghdad has not curtailed overall violence in the country but has instead shifted it from inside the Iraqi capital to places around it.

"I was a little disappointed, to say the least, today reading the USA Today newspaper, where he's saying things are going fine," Reid said.

Hinting that Petraeus might be greeted skeptically at his much-anticipated testimony in September on the state of the war, Reid said he is "waiting to see if General Petraeus can be a little more candid with this."

That joint appearance by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is expected to set the stage for a new round of congressional debate on the future of the U.S. effort in that country.

Las Vegas blogger Hugh Jackson, proprietor of the Las Vegas Gleaner site, said he was on the call earlier in the week.

Jackson said he recalled that Reid mentioned Petraeus in the context of the commander's planned appearance before Congress in September.

"He felt Petraeus would offer a mixed bag and it would be enough for Republicans to find excuses to ask for another couple of months," Jackson said.

Jackson, who has been critical of Reid, said he was "not particularly interested" in the call, which he saw as an attempt by Reid to get angry "net roots" activists back in his camp.

"Listening to Harry Reid apologize for the Democrats' continued spinelessness didn't seem to be a productive way to spend the morning," he said.

But Jackson said the Republican criticism of Reid's reported comment was disingenuous, an attempt to deflect attention from the war itself by questioning a critic's patriotism.

"It's perfectly legitimate to criticize military leaders based on their performance," he said.

A spokeswoman for Pace, Marine Col. Katie Haddock, said Pace "is focused on his duties as chairman and is not going to respond to press reports on who's saying what. He will let 40 years of service speak for itself."

A spokesman for Petraeus in Baghdad did not immediately respond to an e-mail request, sent late Thursday evening, for comment.

At the White House, spokesman Snow seized on the newspaper report while admitting he didn't know if it was true.

"In a time of war, for a leader of a party that says it supports the military, it seems outrageous to be issuing slanders toward the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and also the man who is responsible for the bulk of military operations in Iraq," Snow said.

When reporters pointed out the White House spokesman normally does not comment on unconfirmed news reports, Snow said, "You got me."

Review-Journal writer Molly Ball, The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed to this report.