WASHINGTON - Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned grimly that "time is not on our side," President Bush's top national security officials said nearly in unison yesterday that Saddam Hussein's efforts to build an arsenal of immensely destructive weapons left the United States little choice but to act against Iraq.
"There shouldn't be any doubt in anybody's mind that this president is absolutely bound and determined to deal with this threat, and to do whatever is necessary to make certain that we do so," Cheney said. He said Iraq was sparing no effort to revive its nuclear weapons program and that in light of Sept. 11, that nation's history with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs threatened the United States.
In almost identical language that signaled a coordinated campaign to move Congress and the United Nations in their direction, Bush's other top national security officials said on television news shows yesterday that the president would seek support from Congress and the United Nations for action, including a possible military strike. But they insisted, as Cheney put it on the NBC program Meet the Press, that "This problem has to be dealt with one way or another."
The president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said "there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly" Hussein can acquire nuclear weapons. Speaking on CNN's Late Edition, she added: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Like his colleagues, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld mentioned the attacks of Sept. 11 in making his case that the world cannot wait to see what Iraq might do. "Imagine a Sept. 11 with weapons of mass destruction," he said on CBS's Face the Nation. "It's not 3,000; it's tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children."
Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has been one of the most cautious of Bush's senior advisers on the question of Iraq, said the administration would act alone if necessary.
"I think there is a sound legal argument that the president, if he felt it was necessary to do something now, can find the authority within existing U.N. resolutions" dating from the Persian Gulf war, Powell said on Fox News Sunday, though he added, "I'm not saying that that's the way he would go."
Still, Powell said, "The president will retain all of his authority and options to act in a way that may be appropriate for us to act unilaterally to defend ourselves."
Powell said Cheney and others were right to be skeptical about how much could be accomplished even if Iraq were to give U.N. weapons inspectors unfettered access. But he also seemed to express satisfaction that Bush would make the case to the United Nations this week that Iraq is in violation of its international resolutions.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers said Bush had not decided on a military attack. But he said on ABC's This Week that Iraq's military capacity was considerably weaker, and the United States' stronger, than during the gulf war a decade ago. He said there were many ways, besides door-to-door urban fighting with high casualties, that the United States might proceed militarily.
"I mean, there are other ways to get the effects we want, and this is probably as much as I ought to say," he said.
The officials also expressed alarm at Iraq's attempts to build its capabilities.
Administration officials said Iraq had been making efforts to build nuclear weapons, including its attempt over the past 14 months to buy thousands of aluminum tubes, which U.S. officials believe were intended for use to enrich uranium. U.S. officials told The New York Times last week that several efforts to arrange such shipments were blocked, but declined to say how.