WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - After a Senate report torpedoed much of the intelligence he used to justify the invasion of Iraq, President Bush stood firmly yesterday by his decision to go to war, insisting that Saddam Hussein's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction posed a risk to the United States that he was obligated to confront.
"Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq," Bush said during a visit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
"We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them," the president said. "In the world after Sept. 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
A bipartisan report released last week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that the president used faulty information from the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies, which exaggerated the weapons threat from Iraq, to build his case for war.
The panel did not suggest that Bush knowingly used flawed information, instead placing responsibility on the intelligence agencies. That issue is to be explored by the committee in a subsequent report. Yet the president, while using language yesterday that he has included in previous speeches, seemed determined to limit political fallout from the Senate findings and to emphasize that he was not alone in trusting the intelligence on Iraq.
Bush stressed it was not just his administration that "saw a threat" from Hussein. He noted that President Bill Clinton, reviewing some of the same intelligence, had made regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy. Bush said the United Nations Security Council and lawmakers from both parties had also looked at the intelligence and believed that Hussein posed a danger.
Vice President Dick Cheney echoed the Bush message during a fund-raising speech in Pennsylvania. He scolded presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, saying that they have been critical of Bush's Iraq policy even though they had seen the intelligence data and voted to give the president the authority to wage war.
The senators "are criticizing the president for looking at the same information they did and coming to the same conclusion they did," Cheney said. "The president made the right decision, and John Kerry is simply trying to rewrite history for his own political purposes."
Kerry criticizes policy
In a statement released after Bush's address in Tennessee, Kerry said the president had failed to adequately restructure the nation's intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks and that under his watch, nations such as North Korea and Iran have expanded their capability to produce nuclear weapons.
"Have we taken every step we should to stop North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs?" Kerry asked. "Have we restructured our intelligence agencies and given them resources they need to keep our country safe? The honest answer, in each of these areas, is that we have done too little, often too late, and even cut back our efforts. It's not enough to give speeches."
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday suggests that Kerry received a boost from his selection of Edwards as his running mate last week and the release of the Senate report. The survey showed Kerry ahead of Bush, 50 percent to 46 percent, a gain of 3 percentage points for Kerry since last week. CNN said the poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Andrew Kohut, executive director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, said he did not expect the Senate report to cause Bush's poll numbers to change significantly, because "there was not any clear finger-pointing at the administration."
But if the situation in Iraq remains unstable, "this will be yet another thing voters will look at," Kohut said. "And more people will say, 'The costs have been very high, there wasn't a justification for this, the president and the CIA blew it,' but the CIA is not up for re-election."
A dangerous world
Since the release of the Senate report on Friday, Bush has come under pressure from lawmakers of both parties to appoint a new CIA director to replace George J. Tenet, who announced his resignation last month and officially left the agency Sunday. White House aides refused to say when Bush might appoint a permanent replacement. For now, Deputy Director John McLaughlin is serving as acting director.
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush yesterday, said the president will "name a permanent director in due course," and called McLaughlin "a very strong and capable leader."
On Sunday, Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the intelligence committee, called McLaughlin "very skilled," but said he is limited in what he can accomplish as acting director. "I hope the administration will send somebody up," Roberts said.
In Tennessee, Bush reviewed what he considers his foreign policy successes, saying he has put Iraq and Afghanistan on the road to democracy and made strides in taking dangerous weapons out of the hands of renegade regimes.
At the Oak Ridge lab, Bush toured a display of nuclear materials brought from Libya to the United States after Muammar el Kadafi decided in December to end his country's nuclear weapons program. Bush hailed the decision yesterday, saying it came after "quiet diplomacy" by the United States and Great Britain.
"America's determination to actively oppose the threats of our time was formed and fixed on September the 11th, 2001," Bush said. "The world changed on September the 11th. And since that day, we have changed the world."