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Hughes blasts Kerry's Vietnam comments

Challenges Democrat to explain what he meant by 'atrocities'

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John F. Kerry
Karen P. Hughes
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America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One of President Bush's closest confidants challenged Sen. John Kerry on Sunday to further explain comments he made in 1971 that he participated in "atrocities" in Vietnam.

The presumptive Democratic nominee has since said that he regrets using such language.

"I wish we knew a little bit more about that," Karen Hughes, the former White House communications director, said on CNN's "Late Edition."

"Did he think he did commit them or not? And who else did? And what was he really saying? Was he totally exaggerating? Was he making it up? I think the press ought to follow some line of inquiry about that."

Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer called Hughes' comments "misleading," adding that "we will stand toe-to-toe with [Bush] on our military service any day of the week."

In an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press" last Sunday, Kerry was asked about statements he made about Vietnam War atrocities during an interview with the same program in 1971, when he was a leader in the antiwar movement:

"There are all kinds of atrocities, and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed, in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones, I conducted harassment and interdiction fire, I used .50-caliber machine guns which were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages," Kerry said in 1971.

Kerry told NBC last week that his use of the word "atrocity" was "inappropriate" and that the language he had used "reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger. It was a little bit excessive."

He also said he never intended to cast a negative light on the soldiers with whom he served.

In 1971, Kerry also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and recited a litany of atrocities and war crimes he said had been reported to him by other soldiers.

He said those included rapes, mutilations, torture and random shootings of civilians. He did not claim to have personally witnessed or been involved in such acts.

During the presidential campaign, Kerry's comments from three decades ago have been fodder for conservative talk radio and have drawn fire from some of his fellow veterans, who say they can't forgive the stigma attached to his words.

Bush campaign officials -- who have had to handle persistent questions about the president's National Guard service during the war -- have largely steered clear of the topic, preferring to focus on Kerry's Senate votes on national security issues.

But Hughes, who remains a close political adviser to Bush even though she is no longer on the White House staff, waded into the dispute.

"I remember watching Senator Kerry, back when he was against the war, when he came home, and I was very troubled by the kind of allegations that he hurled against his fellow veterans, saying that they were guilty of all kinds of atrocities," said Hughes, the daughter of a retired Army officer who served in three wars, including Vietnam.

"As someone whose father was over there fighting, I don't appreciate that. I resent that. I know my father was not guilty of any atrocities, and I really find that that's an irresponsible kind of charge to make."

She also took exception to Kerry's actions during a protest in the early 1970s in which veterans opposed to the war threw away their medals.

Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, says he threw away only his ribbons, not the actual medals.

"He only pretended to throw his. Now, I can understand if, out of conscience, you take a principled stand, and you would decide that you were so opposed to this that you would actually throw your medals. But to pretend to do so -- I think that's very revealing," she said.

Responding to Hughes' comments, Singer said she "confirmed her membership in the right-wing smear machine today with her misleading attacks."

"John Kerry's courage on the battlefield clearly has Karen Hughes and the Bush team nervous about the fact that neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney ever served in Vietnam," Singer said in a statement.

"It is unforgivable to take cheap shots at heroes like John Kerry, a man who put himself in the line of fire without thinking twice about it."

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