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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The White House offered a low-key response today to dramatic news from Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidential Spokesman Tony Snow took questions about talks that might include both Iran and Syria, as well as Iraq and the United States, but said only that he hoped they would be constructive. He also downplayed an attack on a U.S. military base at Bagram, Afghanistan, where Vice President Dick Cheney spent the night.

Estimates are that as many as 23 people were killed in that attack. The Taliban called the explosion an attempted assassination.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA: The purpose of Cheney's trip to Afghanistan and an earlier visit to Pakistan was to press those governments to do more about a growing threat from the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The White House has been warning of a springtime offensive by the Taliban. It's not clear that the base attack at Bagram was part of one. But base spokesman, Major William Mitchell, stresses that Cheney was never in danger.

Major WILLIAM MITCHELL (U.S. Army): He was well inside the base, where it was very secure. So there was never any threat to the vice president.

GONYEA: Afterward, Cheney himself spoke for just three minutes with reporters traveling with him. He said he heard a loud boom and that Secret Service agents took him to a bomb shelter for a brief time. His answers to reporters were short, even terse.

Asked about the Taliban claim of responsibility, Cheney said, quote, "I hadn't heard that." Did he consider changing his itinerary, including a subsequent meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Cheney's full answer, quote, "Never an option."

Back in Washington, President Bush was not awakened when word came of the attack in the early morning hours. And throughout the day, the administration reaction has been muted. At a morning off-mic briefing, the deputy press secretary was asked for a reaction. Her first words were to refer reporters to Cheney's comments. She then expressed relief that Cheney was okay and called the loss of life distressing.

In a pair of morning appearances before cameras, President Bush said nothing about the bombing. First came an Oval Office photo-op with the President of El Salvador.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: (Unintelligible) thanks for coming. We spent a lot of time talking...

GONYEA: Same thing an hour later, as cameras roll at the swearing in of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. In the noon hour, the first half of Press Secretary Tony Snow's daily briefing dealt with the bombing. When asked how the suicide bomber got so close to the base where the vice president was, Snow suggested the questioner ask the Defense Department.

He was asked what the attack says about the strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): I'm not sure it says anything. Because you've got an isolated attack as we - we've often said about acts of terror. An individual who wants to commit an act of violence or kill him or herself, very difficult to stop and I'm not sure that you can draw larger conclusions about any organization based on an incident such as this.

GONYEA: Cheney is due back in Washington tomorrow.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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