On NBC's Nightly News, David Gregory reported that "Senator John McCain [R-AZ], like the White House, insists Iraq is getting safer," but did not offer any differing views. By contrast, CNN and Time have asked reporters in Baghdad to evaluate similar assessments by McCain.
On the March 28 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory reported on President Bush's "showdown with Democrats in Congress over the [Iraq] war" and stated that "Senator John McCain [R-AZ], like the White House, insists Iraq is getting safer," but did not offer any differing views. By contrast, CNN and Time have both asked their Baghdad-based reporters for their response to similar assessments from McCain. Referring to McCain's recent assertions that he "could walk through" neighborhoods in Baghdad today and that the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, travels through Baghdad "in a non-armed Humvee," the CNN and Time Baghdad correspondents said, respectively, that the claim that "an American can walk freely [in Baghdad] is beyond ludicrous" and that he "needs a reality check."
On the March 27 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer asked McCain about comments he had made to conservative radio host William Bennett that "[t]here are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today. The U.S. is beginning to succeed in Iraq." While McCain did not directly address the quote Blitzer mentioned, he responded: "You know, that's where you ought to catch up on things, Wolf," adding that "General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in a non-armed Humvee. I think you ought to catch up."
Later in the program, Blitzer asked CNN Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware to reconcile McCain's comments. Ware told Blitzer that "[t]o suggest that there's any neighborhood in this city where an American can walk freely is beyond ludicrous," adding: "I'd love Senator McCain to tell me where that neighborhood is, and he and I can go for a stroll." Regarding McCain's claim that Gen. Petraeus travels "almost ever day in a non-armed Humvee," Ware said that McCain "is way off base on this one":
WARE: And to think that David -- General David Petraeus travels this city in an unarmed Humvee? I mean, in the hour since Senator McCain has said this, I've spoken to some military sources and there was laughter down the line. I mean, certainly, the general travels in a Humvee. There are multiple Humvees around it, heavily armed. There's attack helicopters, Predator drones, sniper teams, all sorts of layers of protection.
Ware also said that McCain's credibility on Iraq "is now being left out hanging to dry" and that he doesn't "know what part of Neverland Senator McCain is talking about when he says we can go strolling in Baghdad."
Similarly, on March 28, Time national political correspondent Karen Tumulty asked Time correspondent Brian Bennett, who she said "is in Baghdad at the moment," to verify McCain's comments. Tumulty posted Bennett's response on Time's political weblog, Swampland, in which he described the grim security atmosphere in Baghdad. Bennett said of McCain's comments: "Please, Senator, take me to these neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and Bill Bennett can walk around." Bennett also reported that there is one neighborhood that he could walk around with "a couple of our Iraqi bodyguards," but only "for about three blocks -- then we'd have to get back in the car before the cell phone calls to kidnappers caught up with us." Bennett further reported that kidnappings are a danger for Westerners and that strict security precautions are necessary for everyone walking in the highly fortified and defended "Green Zone" in central Baghdad, adding: "McCain needs a reality check":
I would love to be able to walk the streets here, even in one neighborhood. I would love to chat with old men in coffee shops like reporters did three and four years ago: talk with barbers, rug sellers, fish mongers. Take the temperature of the real people who live in Baghdad. But I can't do it this way. I have to meet with ordinary Iraqis in secret, in living rooms with the shades drawn, in courtyards with high walls, out of sight from suspicious eyes. When I am walking on the streets of a neighborhood, it is for a few minutes before ducking into a house or behind a security cordon.
You see, as a foreign face, I am immediately a target. Not only by insurgents and militias looking to make a high publicity hit, but by kidnapping gangs that run a lucrative ransom business in Baghdad. This is why when I do go into a neighborhood, I don't stay there long enough for a chain of cell phone calls to bring in the local thugs.
Even in the Green Zone that is guarded by high cement walls and layers upon layers of security check points, I doubt Senator McCain's security detail would allow him to walk very far on his own. Many U.S. soldiers in the Green Zone aren't allowed to move around by themselves for fear of kidnapping. And rocket and mortars land daily inside the four-square mile secured area. Last night a rocket killed a government contractor near the U.S. embassy compound.
I have been in neighborhoods where U.S. soldiers, armed with M-16s and backed up by Bradley Fighting Vehicles, have walked on the streets and greeted smiling children and families. But they are backed up by massive firepower that creates a mirage of peace, and all it takes is a crack of a sniper rifle or the boom of a road-side bomb for reality to come crashing back.
Unfortunately that reality is never far away here. McCain needs a reality check.
The weblog Think Progress noted that McCain later denied saying that Petraeus or anyone else "could go without protection" in Baghdad.
From the March 28 edition of the NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:
GREGORY: As the Senate debates its more than $120 billion spending measure that includes a Spring 2008 deadline for troops to return home, Democrats held their ground, insisting the country and the Congress want an end to the war.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I would extend a hand of friendship to the president just to say to him, "Calm down with the threats. There's a new Congress in town."
GREGORY: Republican war critic Chuck Hagel has changed his position and now supports a timeline.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE): Is the cost worth the high price that we are asking others to pay?
GREGORY: But Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, like the White House, insists Iraq is getting safer and challenged Democrats to take a stronger stand.
McCAIN: Why doesn't Senator [Harry] Reid [D-NV] and the Democrats propose cutting off funding and bring them home tomorrow? Why wait 18 months?
GREGORY: This rhetorical showdown is high risk for both sides. Democrats face the fallout of being the architects of withdrawal. The president is gambling he can keep his party in line.
VIN WEBER (Republican strategist): He can hold the Republicans together because there's a new strategy in place in Iraq that has not yet had time to either fail or succeed.
GREGORY: The question, however, is for how long? The president today argued that the new strategy, the so-called surge, is working, and he took the unusual step of quoting two Iraqi bloggers who recently reported progress there -- Brian.
From the March 27 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BLITZER: Here's what you told Bill Bennett on his radio show on Monday: "There are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today. The U.S. is beginning to succeed in Iraq."
You know, everything we hear, that if you leave the so-called Green Zone, the international zone, and you go outside of that secure area, relatively speaking, you're in trouble if you're an American.
McCAIN: You know, that's where you ought to catch up on things, Wolf. General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in a non-armed Humvee. I think you ought to catch up. You see, you are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. You certainly don't get it through the filter of some of the media.
But I know for a fact that much of the success we're experiencing, including the ability of Americans in many parts -- not all -- we've got a long, long way to go. We only got two of the five brigades there to go into some neighborhoods in Baghdad in a secure fashion.
BLITZER: Michael, you've been there -- what? -- for four years. You're walking around Baghdad on a daily basis. Has there been this improvement that Senator McCain is speaking about?
WARE: Well, I'd certainly like to bring Senator McCain up to speed, if he ever gives me the opportunity. And if I have any difficulty hearing you right now, Wolf, that's because of the helicopter circling overhead and the gun battle that is blazing away just a few blocks down the road.
Is Baghdad any safer? Sectarian violence, one particular type of violence, is down. But none of the American generals here on the ground have anything like Senator McCain's confidence.
I mean, Senator McCain's credibility now on Iraq, which has been so solid to this point, is now being left out hanging to dry. To suggest that there's any neighborhood in this city where an American can walk freely is beyond ludicrous. I'd love Senator McCain to tell me where that neighborhood is, and he and I can go for a stroll.
And to think that David -- General David Petraeus travels this city in an unarmed Humvee? I mean, in the hour since Senator McCain has said this, I've spoken to some military sources and there was laughter down the line. I mean, certainly, the general travels in a Humvee. There's multiple Humvees around it, heavily armed. There's attack helicopters, Predator drones, sniper teams -- all sorts of layers of protection.
So, no, Senator McCain is way off base on this one, Wolf.
BLITZER: Michael, when Senator McCain says that there are at least some areas of Baghdad where people can walk around and whether it's General Petraeus, the U.S. military commander or others, are there at least some areas where you could emerge outside of the Green Zone, the international zone, where people can go out, go to a coffee shop, go to a restaurant, and simply take a stroll?
WARE: I can answer this very quickly, Wolf. No. No way on Earth can a Westerner, particularly an American, stroll any street of this capital of more than 5 million people.
I mean, if Al Qaeda doesn't get wind of you, or if one of the Sunni insurgent groups don't descend upon you, or if someone doesn't tip off a Shia militia, then the nearest criminal gang is just going to see dollar signs and scoop you up. Honestly, Wolf, you'd barely last 20 minutes out there.
I don't know what part of Neverland Senator McCain is talking about when he says we can go strolling in Baghdad.