ENGLEWOOD, Colo., Oct. 7 -- The latest report on Iraq's prewar weapons capacity produced a fiery exchange between President Bush and John F. Kerry on Thursday, with Bush asserting the report showed that Saddam Hussein was a danger even in the absence of weapons of mass destruction and Kerry charging that Bush had inflated the threat and was blind to evidence proving the war was a mistake.
In a preview of what Americans are likely to see in Friday's second presidential debate, Bush said the report by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer, while concluding that Hussein possessed no such weapons at the time of the war, revealed that the former Iraqi leader hoped to manipulate the international community into ending sanctions with the intent of restarting his weapons programs.
"He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. "And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies. . . . In a world after September the 11th, he was a threat we had to confront. And America and the world are safer for our actions."
Kerry responded two hours later with some of the most contemptuous language he has used against the president and Vice President Cheney during their bitter campaign. He said the administration had "aggrandized and fictionalized" the threat posed by Hussein in the run-up to the war, was unprepared for the war's aftermath and remained intransigent now that prewar intelligence has been undermined by a series of inspection reports.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said here, "the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."
The Duelfer report transformed what might otherwise have been a relatively quiet day on the campaign trail in which Bush and Kerry were preparing to fly to St. Louis for their debate, which will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time. The report's reverberations were felt well beyond the campaign trail, triggering a renewed debate about whether Hussein was being adequately contained by means other than war or whether removing him and his regime by force was necessary to defuse a potentially serious threat.
David Kay, who preceded Duelfer as the chief U.S. weapons inspector, said the latest report clearly shows that Hussein was not a threat to the United States. "Look, Saddam was delusional," Kay said on NBC's "Today" show Thursday. "He had a lot of intent. He didn't have capabilities. Intent without capabilities is not an imminent threat."
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) agreed with Bush's assessment of the report, telling CNN that it "says that there's no question that Saddam Hussein was going to try to get rid of the sanctions so he could resuscitate his program of weapons of mass destruction. I think the president has done exactly what he should have done."
With newspaper headlines and television news programs highlighting the report's conclusion that the 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent inspections by the United Nations had eliminated Hussein's illicit weapons programs, a finding that undercut Bush's principal rationale for going to war, the president and Cheney went on the offensive early Thursday.
Cheney was first to speak, saying at a campaign event in Miami that the Duelfer report, far from undermining the administration's rationale for going to war, actually bolstered its case. He said it showed that Hussein had tried to corrupt the United Nations oil-for-food program in an effort to buy off foreign governments to win an end to the sanctions that were imposed after the Gulf War ended. Hussein's goal, Cheney said, was to start producing weapons of mass destruction.
"Delay, defer, wait wasn't an option," he said.
Bush then went before the cameras outside the White House before leaving Washington for a campaign event in Wisconsin. He acknowledged the breakdown in U.S. and other intelligence, which had overstated Hussein's weapons capacity, but held firm to his argument that the former Iraqi leader remained a menace who would have aided and abetted terrorists, if given the chance.
"The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the U.N. oil-for-food program to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions," Bush said. "He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program, once the world looked away."
Kerry, speaking outside the suburban Denver hotel where he has been preparing for Friday's debate, then unloaded on the administration, throwing the Duelfer report and the words of L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator in Iraq after the invasion, back at the president to argue that he has systematically misled the country and should be replaced.