On the eve of the midterm elections, an editorial by the Army Times and its sister publications calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign continues to spark political debate, but the newspapers' editor denies any political motivations behind the timing of the editorial.
Tobias Naegele, executive editor of the newspapers, discounts reports that the editorial's release was politically timed to run just before the elections.
"We were really aiming past the elections," said Naegele, adding that the newspapers' editorial boards had been "accumulating" an opinion over time that Rumsfeld should step down but that Bush's comments last week were a tipping point.
"There was no reason at this stage to be committing to someone who had not been effective in the job," said Naegele. "That was the last straw. That really pushed us to want to speak out."
Titled "Time for Rumfeld to Go," the editorial was published in this week's editions of the Army Times, Air Force Times, Marine Times and the Navy Times. The newspapers belong to the Military Times Media Group, which is owned by Gannett, and focus exclusively on military issues. They have wide credibility among their military readership.
"All along, Rumsfeld has assured us that things are well in hand," said the editorial. "Now, the president says he'll stick with Rumsfeld for the balance of his term in the White house. This is a mistake. ... When the nation's current military leaders start to break publicly with their defense secretary, then it is clear that he is losing control of the institution he ostensibly leads.
"Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large," the editorial concludes. "His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. This is not about the midterm elections. Regardless of which party wins Nov. 7, the time has come, Mr. President, to face the hard bruising truth: Donald Rumsfeld must go."
Looking for political advantage, Democrats have seized on the editorial as supporting their claims that voters want a new direction for the policy in Iraq.
Republicans countered that the editorial's release was politically timed and was not representative of the military's view of Rumsfeld, but more reflective of what they called the liberal leanings of the newspapers corporate parent,Gannett.
Not mincing words this weekend, White House spokesman Tony Snow called the editorial "grandstanding" and "a shabby piece of work" that left "the false impression ... somehow that there is a reaction against the president by military personnel. This is by editorial writers who work in Arlington, Va.
"A lot of people are thinking, aha, what you have are a lot of military people in open revolt against the president, when, in fact, you've got a lot of Gannett editorial writers, which would be thoroughly consistent with USA Today and the rest of the Gannett chain, which I think, if memory serves, does not have a single strong conservative editorial page in the entire chain," he said.
Naegele responded to Snow's accusations by saying Gannett gives the newspapers complete autonomy.
"We've served the military for more than 60 years. We are their newspaper. We're the newspapers and the Web sites of their communities," he said. "Our history with people is 'Yes, we're going to bother them with some things we write' and 'Yes, we're going to excite them with other things that we write,' but we're independent. We are not part of the military establishment, and that's the unique advantage we bring to this community."
The international media attention garnered by the editorial has astounded Naegele.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would be the main story on Saturday, this weekend and continuing into today," he said.
The attention has already prompted a flood of replies.
"We've gotten thousands of comments, forum postings, e-mails, telephone messages, running the gamut from 'cancel our subscription' to 'where do I get one?'" he said.
This is not the first time the Military Times' publications have criticized Rumsfeld during his tenure. At the height of the Abu Ghraib scandal in May 2004, the newspapers published an editorial that placed most of the blame on Rumsfeld but stopped short of calling for him to step down.
Asked how the newspaper would cover Rumsfeld as he continues to serve in his Cabinet position, Naegele replied, " As appropriate, we will point out new things when they arise and say, 'There's still hope.' 'Theres still time.' 'Let's move someone else in there.'"
Snow told reporters this weekend that President Bush is aware of the editorial.
"His reaction was just to sort of shrug it off," Snow said. "I mean, he understands what editorial writers sometimes do, and in this case, they're grandstanding."
The papers' front pages make no mention of the editorial. It is buried in the back pages under the simple headline: " Time for Rumfeld to Go."