Obama camp cites Pentagon in scrapping troop visit

July 25, 2008 4:13:49 PM PDT
An aide to Sen. Barack Obama said Friday the Democratic presidential contender believed he could visit wounded troops at a military hospital in Germany without involving them in a campaign controversy and scrapped his plans after the Pentagon raised concerns. The spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the Air Force several days ago cleared Obama's chartered campaign jet to land at Ramstein Air Base. It was only Wednesday night, two days before the planned visit, that Pentagon officials conveyed their views, he said, and Obama decided not to go.

Gibbs said Obama had decided several weeks ago he wanted to visit wounded troops in Germany. Asked whether either the senator or aides had considered that the trip might be viewed as political, he replied, "We had taken some of that into consideration but we believed that it could be done in a way that would not create, it would not be created or seen as a campaign stop."

But after hearing from the Pentagon, he said, "We decided, Senator Obama decided having made that decision he was far more willing to take the criticism from some political people or political opponents in a political atmosphere than to put our troops in the middle of our campaign back and forth."

Sen. John McCain's campaign spokesman Brian Rogers criticized the decision, saying, "Barack Obama is wrong. It is never 'inappropriate' to visit our men and women in the military."

Gibbs brushed that aside, and said Obama would have faced criticism if the trip had taken place.

The tempest occurred as Obama neared the end of an unprecedented election-season trip to the Middle East and Europe financed by his campaign.

Talking to reporters en route from Berlin to Paris, Gibbs disclosed the campaign had been planning for weeks to fly from the German capital to Ramstein so the senator could meet with wounded members of the armed forces at a military hospital in Landstuhl.

He said that the senator was to have left most staff and likely all traveling reporters behind at the airport while he went to the hospital to avoid appearances of a campaign event.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said Obama was told he could go to Landstuhl, but the visit would have to conform to Defense Department guidelines that restrict political activity on military installation. That meant campaign staff would have been barred from accompanying him, he said.

At the same time, he said, "The Pentagon certainly did not tell the senator he could not visit Landstuhl."

The campaign faced questions during the day about the episode, following dissemination of two written statements on Thursday as word spread of the canceled trip.

In the first, Gibbs made no mention of the Pentagon, saying only that Obama "decided out of respect for these servicemen and women that it would be inappropriate to make a stop to visit troops at a U.S. military facility as part of a trip funded by the campaign."

A few hours later, the campaign issued a statement in the name of retired Gen. Scott Gration, an adviser to the senator, that mentioned the Pentagon's involvement.