WASHINGTON - President Bush defended the war in Iraq on the most personal level yesterday, telling grieving parents of U.S. soldiers who died there that their loss is the cost of keeping America safe.
"It's essential that I explain this properly to the parents of those who lost their lives," Bush said in a rare television interview. "Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I'm not just going to leave him in power and trust a madman."
In excerpts from an hourlong interview taped for NBC's Meet the Press for broadcast this morning, Bush voiced support for CIA director George J. Tenet, whose agency is under fire for prewar intelligence reports that seemed to overstate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. NBC will air the full interview today.
Bush took issue with suggestions that the commission he appointed Friday to investigate intelligence failures was structured to limit any political damage to him. The nine-member panel, which Bush created by executive order, will not issue its report until next March - well after the November election.
"The reason why we gave it time is because we didn't want it to be hurried. This is a strategic look, kind of a big-picture look about the intelligence-gathering capacities of the United States of America," he said. "There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made good calls, whether I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power."
Bush's decision to sit down for an hourlong question-and-answer session underscored the unease at the White House over the potential political fallout from the war, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and record federal budget deficits. For the first time since he took office, the president's approval rating slipped below 50 percent last week, and several polls show that if the election were held today, Bush would lose to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Polls indicate that Americans have become increasingly skeptical about the administration's case for war. David Kay recently resigned as the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq after concluding that Hussein did not have any stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, and was not actively seeking nuclear weapons. "It turns out that we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment," Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Although Kay remains convinced that the war was justified, his finding on weapons of mass destruction undermined a key element of Bush's rationale for the invasion.
"For the parents of the soldiers who have fallen who are listening, David Kay, the weapons inspector, came back and said, in many ways Iraq was more dangerous than we thought," Bush said in the interview. "We are in a war against these terrorists who could bring great harm to America, and I've asked these young ones to sacrifice for that."
Bush's reference to Kay appeared to be referring to the former weapons inspector's comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month: "I think the world is far safer with the disappearance and the removal of Saddam Hussein," Kay said. "I have said - I actually think this may be one of those cases where it was even more dangerous than we thought."
Bush and other administration officials acknowledge that they have not found any evidence linking Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nor is there any evidence of an operational link between Iraq and the al-Qaida network.
Bush, who said Tenet's job at the CIA is "not at all" in jeopardy, pledged full cooperation with the commission that is looking into intelligence failures. The panel is not expected to examine allegations that the administration pressured intelligence analysts or distorted intelligence findings to make the case for war.