WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush and top aides are further shifting their rationale for going to war against Iraq, now that Bush's prime justification has been undercut by a failure to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
The change comes as pressure mounts for an independent inquiry into what critics say was a major intelligence failure and amid repeated charges by Democratic presidential contenders that Bush misled the nation about the Iraqi threat.
While starting to publicly express doubts about pre-war U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons, top administration officials now defend the war by describing Hussein broadly as a "danger" who defied the United Nations for 12 years, as a sponsor of terrorism and brutal dictator, and an impediment to needed change in the Middle East.
"One thing is for certain, one thing we do know from Mr. Kay's testimony, as well as from the years of intelligence that we had gathered, is that Saddam Hussein was a danger. He was a growing danger," Bush told reporters yesterday, referring to the work of former chief weapons inspector David Kay.
"And given the circumstances of September the 11th, this country went to the United Nations and said, Saddam Hussein is a danger, let us work together to get him to disarm. He was defiant," Bush said.
"We dealt with the danger, and, as a result, the world is a better place and a more peaceful place, and the Iraqi people are free. And a free Iraq is in this nation's national interest. A free Iraq will bring a much-needed change in a part of the world that has fostered terror."
Before the war, the administration justified military action mainly by claiming Iraq had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program that it could use against neighbors or, by passing the arms to terrorists, to endanger the United States.
Making the administration's first comprehensive case for confronting Hussein, Vice President Dick Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
'The danger is clear'
Addressing the nation shortly before the war, Bush said: "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
Saying Iraq had "aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al-Qaida," Bush added, "The danger is clear: Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other."
Since Kay's declaration that no such weapons are likely to be found, Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, have barely touched on the purported weapons in describing the threat from Iraq.
The new, revised justifications play into what analysts say is a widespread public perception that Saddam Hussein posed a danger, regardless of what the inspectors found.
"People think the country's safer as a consequence of the war," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for Politics and the Press. He cited a recent ABC News poll that found 62 percent of the public felt the war had contributed to the long-term security of the United States.
Eliminating Iraq's presumed arsenal of banned weapons was just one of several benefits that U.S. officials saw coming from the forced removal of Hussein.
In an interview last summer with Vanity Fair, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said, "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."
The administration used the arsenal to depict Iraq as a looming threat, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan referred last February to an "imminent threat."
Joseph Cirincione, a weapons-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the reasons being highlighted now would have been unlikely to be considered enough justification for military action before the war.
"There's no question that the American public supported the war because the president told us we faced a growing, immediate danger that Saddam Hussein would attack the United States with the most lethal weapons ever invented, including nuclear," he said. "The administration realizes it's no longer true. They have to shift to other, lesser rationales for the war."
Since the war, the administration has also focused attention on mounting evidence of atrocities committed by Hussein's regime.
The independent group Human Rights Watch, however, has said these abuses should not be cited as a reason for the war.
"The Iraq war and the effort to justify it even in part in humanitarian terms risks giving humanitarian intervention a bad name," the organization's director, Kenneth Roth, wrote recently, saying, "[T]he Iraq war was not mainly about saving the Iraqi people from mass slaughter," and "no such slaughter was then ongoing or imminent."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has also justified the war on legal grounds, saying Iraq violated the U.N. Security Council Resolution requiring Hussein to provide a complete account of all his weapons programs. The resolution threatened "serious consequences" if he didn't.
McCain breaks ranks
In addition to shifting justifications for war, administration officials have also changed the terms they apply to the Iraqi threat.
Whereas before the war they reported the existence of the weapons as a fact, President Bush, in his State of the Union speech Jan. 20, said Kay had identified "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Bush continued yesterday to resist demands for an independent inquiry into pre-war intelligence assessments about Iraqi weapons, even after John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, broke party ranks and joined Democrats in demanding an investigation.
Declining to answer directly when asked about such an inquiry, Bush said, "I want the American people to know that I, too, want to know the facts."
He also said he wanted to compare the results of continuing weapons inspections "with what we thought prior to going into Iraq."