In announcing 19 months ago that the United States was poised to invade Iraq, President Bush told the nation: "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. . . . The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder."
Bush's decision to attack Iraq came after urgent warnings by the president and his top aides about the challenge posed by Iraq -- what Bush called "a serious and mounting threat to our country" in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address before Congress. Few lawmakers questioned these warnings -- Sen. John F. Kerry, now the Democratic presidential nominee, did not -- and many frequently echoed them.
But the argument that the United States faced a moment of maximum peril in early 2003 from Iraq has been greatly weakened by the release last week of the comprehensive report of chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer. The report found that the 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent U.N. inspections destroyed Iraq's illicit weapons capability, leaving it without any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein hoped to someday resume his weapons efforts, the report said, but for the most part there had been no serious effort to rebuild the programs.
In the wake of the report, President Bush has reframed the way he characterizes his rationale for the launching the war. A review of his public statements before the war and this week shows how broadly his public argument has shifted, away from warnings that Hussein actually possessed horrible weapons in favor of talking almost exclusively about the dictator's intent.
This week, Bush said Iraq had been a "unique threat" and the United States was justified in attacking, largely because Hussein "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction."
"And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies," the president told reporters.
In the months leading up to the war, however, Bush and other administration officials made serious and specific allegations about Iraqi capabilities in biological, chemical and nuclear warfare:
"Saddam Hussein [has] biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax -- enough doses to kill several million people," Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address. He also cited reports that Iraq had "materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin -- enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure."
"Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; in such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands," Bush continued. He also said Hussein had "upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents," and "several mobile biological weapons labs."
Bush asserted that if Hussein obtained key nuclear material, he could produce a bomb within a year.
A CIA report released by the administration in October 2002 said: "Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; most analysts assess Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."
The CIA also said Iraq "has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents, probably including mustard, sarin, cyclosarin, and VX." It said "all key aspects" of Iraq's biological weapons program "are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War." The report said Iraq was developing drones likely "intended to deliver biological warfare agents."
Kerry, while raising questions about the administration's approach, said in an Oct. 9, 2002, Senate floor speech -- when he voted to give Bush authorization to conduct a war -- that it was clear that Hussein had "continued his quest for weapons of mass destruction" in the past four years.
"We will not be blackmailed or extorted by these weapons, and we will not permit the United Nations -- an institution we have worked hard to nurture and create -- to simply be ignored by this dictator," Kerry said.