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Kerry assails 'incompetent' White House

Senator blasts 'Swift Boat' tactics, won't rule out presidential run



John F. Kerry
National Security Agency (NSA)
Karl Rove

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry took up top GOP political strategist Karl Rove's call to make national security a central issue in the 2006 midterm elections, vowing Sunday, "I want to have that debate every single day."

The Massachusetts Democrat, who lost to Bush in the 2004 presidential election, argued Republicans are vulnerable to a Democratic resurgence in Congress, partly because Hurricane Katrina "stripped away the veneer of competence" of the Bush administration.

Kerry's comments to ABC's "This Week" came two days after Rove -- whom President Bush called the "architect" of his 2004 victory -- told a group of fellow Republicans that Democrats are "wrong" on national security.

That argument, Rove said, should be repeated throughout the 2006 election cycle. (Full story)

Asked whether Republicans may successfully use the issue for political gain, Kerry responded, "I'm not worried in the least, and I welcome the debate. I want to have that debate, and I want to have that debate every single day."

He added, "Perhaps we didn't have that debate enough" in 2004.

"A lot has happened in the last year and a half. Katrina stripped away the veneer of competence of this administration," he said. "The curtain got pulled aside, and there's not even a wizard behind it. And they found out that these people are incompetent."

The Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina's devastation drew criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats and triggered a congressional investigation.

Kerry also pointed to the controversy over the National Security Agency's no-warrant wiretapping program.

The administration has been on the defensive since reports revealed last month that Bush authorized the NSA after the September 11, 2001, attacks to eavesdrop without a court warrant on people in the United States suspected of communicating with al Qaeda members overseas.

Rove, in his speech last week, said the move is important for national security and complained that "some important Democrats disagree."

Some Republicans have also expressed skepticism about the program's legal justification, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, plans to hold hearings about it next month.

Kerry insisted, "We're prepared to eavesdrop wherever and whenever necessary in order to make America safer. But we put a procedure in place to protect the constitutional rights of Americans."

If the current system -- in which a special court can approve such wiretaps, even retroactively -- is inadequate, the administration can come to Congress to approve a new law, Kerry said.

"There is a way to protect the Constitution and not go off on your own and violate it," he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan hit back in a written statement Sunday evening, accusing Democrats of using "misleading and outlandish charges" to attack the eavesdropping program.

"Such irresponsible accusations will not keep us from acting to stay a step ahead of a deadly enemy that is determined to strike America again," McClellan said.

Kerry called for a special counsel to investigate, calling the issue "really typical of the way they've been managing this city -- the culture of sort of arrogance and corruption that has been allowed to take over Washington, D.C., evidenced also by the Abramoff scandal."

Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff recently pleaded guilty to a long pattern of corruption. He agreed to testify in future cases, but it's unclear how far the scandal will stretch.

Some Republicans have argued Democrats are implicated as well because some -- including Kerry -- received campaign contributions from groups that were somehow affiliated with Abramoff, though not directly from the lobbyist himself.

"That's another one of their 'Swift Boat'-style tactics where they try to throw up the mud and stick it," Kerry said, in a reference to the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" who damaged Kerry's presidential bid by questioning his military record.

"I'm going to stick it right back at them. I've never met Jack Abramoff. I've never had a dime come to me from Jack Abramoff. And I'm not going to stand for them suggesting that just because someone somewhere in the country gave my campaign some money ... that we somehow are implicated.

"This is a Republican scandal," he added, pointing out that the GOP controls Congress and the White House.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, disagreed with that assessment.

"I think it's a bipartisan scandal, because the lobbying is out of control," McCain told "Fox News Sunday," blaming "the system that prevails here on Capitol Hill" and the use of "earmarking or pork-barrel projects" in legislation.

Kerry also used the new audiotape of Osama bin Laden, which surfaced last week, to repeat his argument that the Bush administration should have captured the al Qaeda leader long ago.

"Osama bin Laden is going to die of kidney failure before he's killed by Karl Rove and his crowd," Kerry said.

Bush, Rove and other top Republicans point to the fact that there has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001, as a sign of the administration's success in battling terrorism.

But Kerry rejected that argument, saying, "Many people surmise that one of the reasons we haven't been attacked here is because [terrorists] are being so successful at doing what they need to do to attack us in Iraq and elsewhere."

While he repeated his 2004 theme that there has been an "absence of leadership" during Bush's time in office, Kerry did not say whether he plans to run again in 2008.

He said his previous losing bid should not prevent a run, however, noting that Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan lost before eventually reaching the Oval Office.

He also noted that McCain, who lost the race for the GOP nomination in 2000, is seen as a likely contender in 2008.

"I'm going to listen to my heart and my gut," he said.

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