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Administration defends Bush flight to carrier

Officials: Only marginal difference in cost of flying Navy jet

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq during a speech last Thursday from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq during a speech last Thursday from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

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Political controversy surrounds President Bush's jet flight to an aircraft carrier, CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (May 7)
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Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, calls President Bush's speech aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier 'flamboyant showmanship' (May 7)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Several administration officials Wednesday defended President Bush's flight on a Navy jet to an aircraft carrier last week, saying there was a minimal difference between the cost of the president flying to the ship in a jet versus flying in a helicopter.

The senior White House officials' comments came after questions about the cost and nature of the president's visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln were raised by Democrats in recent days. Some Democrats have criticized Bush's national address from the carrier as little more than a campaign event for a president up for re-election in 2004.

"The president wanted to go out somewhere to thank the men and women who made this possible in person," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters Wednesday. "They deserve nothing less. These are the men and women who fought a war to keep us free, to protect us and to save us."

Democrats have focused on the way Bush chose to arrive on the carrier on Thursday. A Navy jet carrying Bush made a tailhook landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln -- the first such landing for a sitting president. They've called on the White House to provide an analysis of how much the landing cost, and they want to compare it with what a helicopter landing would have cost.

Several senior White House officials told CNN there was a minimal difference between the cost of Navy jet landing or one with a Marine or Navy helicopter.

And at the Pentagon, several Navy officials said there was no delay or cost overrun due to Bush's trip to the carrier. The costs were roughly equal -- about $5,000 an hour, Navy officials said.

The White House officials said the Navy recommended the jet as the safest mode of travel to the aircraft carrier because it offered the option to eject if the aircraft missed the deck on its approach for landing.

These officials, however, said the administration will not release documents or offer specific details of the cost analysis now that Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California is seeking a General Accounting Office investigation of the costs.

In an interview with CNN, Waxman said Bush used the troops as a "political prop for his re-election campaign" and called on the Bush campaign to reimburse taxpayers for the costs.

In his address to the nation, Bush thanked the armed services and declared "victory" in what he called the battle of Iraq. (Full story)

Costs and other details of transporting the president are routinely kept private by the White House, the administration officials said.

During the Clinton administration, congressional Republicans frequently complained about the costs of presidential travel, and the GAO, in response to inquiries, provided rough estimates. A Clinton trip to Africa, for example, was one criticized by Republicans and analyzed by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

'Bring it on'

"Bring it on," said one senior official said of the Democratic criticism. "If they think there is something to be gained by investigating and criticizing the president for going out to welcome the troops home, they are even more ridiculous than I thought."

This official and another said they assumed the GAO might at some point give Waxman a cost estimate, but they said the White House would not release its materials on the issue. "We never do," one said.

The second said, "Those who accused us of a political stunt are engaging in a political stunt. Fine by me. Let's talk every day about the president wanting to get aboard that carrier to welcome those sailors and pilots home after 10 months fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan."

Democrats have said, among other things, that Bush kept the carrier at sea an extra day so he could go aboard and deliver a prime-time television address.

But both the White House and the Navy said that while the carrier was closing in on San Diego, California ahead of schedule and could have made it to dock on May 1, it would not have done so even if Bush had not been coming aboard because port security and other logistical arrangements, as well as family travel arrangements, all had been pegged to the announced May 2 arrival.

The Navy said when that arrival date was announced, it had not yet been told Bush was planning to come aboard the ship.

On the day of the speech, the White House said the carrier was too far from shore for Bush to arrive by helicopter. Since then, however, the White House has conceded that was not the case.

But officials said the cost differences were analyzed and were marginal; one official said the hourly cost of using a helicopter was only slightly less expensive than using a jet. This official also said that in the end, the cost of the jet might actually be lower because it made the trip in less time than a helicopter would have.

The Navy also said there would be S-3 training flights regardless of whether the president was coming aboard, suggesting there were no additional costs related to the president's trip.

White House officials said that in planning the trip, the Navy recommended using either an F-14 or an S-3 to carry the president because those are considered safest. The Secret Service objected to using an F-14 because it has only two seats.

One official said there was no question Bush "wanted to see a landing as the pilots do -- no one here is going to dispute that." But the official said safety was the major concern from the White House perspective, and insisted the Navy recommended the jets as the safest "because it gave the president the option of ejecting" if something went wrong.

Tuesday, Sen. Robert Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat, delivered a sharply worded speech on the Senate floor, accusing Bush of "flamboyant showmanship." (Full story)

-- CNN Pentagon Producer Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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