President Bush and Vice President Cheney lashed out again against Democratic senators who have questioned the handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq, with the vice president accusing critics of engaging in "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."
Speaking before a Washington dinner of the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a conservative research organization, Cheney said last night that Democrats who say they were misled by the administration are "making a play for political advantage in the middle of a war." The criticism, Cheney said, threatens to undermine the morale of U.S. troops while "a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie."
Bush added his voice hours later during a news conference Thursday afternoon in South Korea, where he is meeting with Asian leaders. Asked if he agreed with the vice president or with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) who said this week that it was patriotic to question the government during a war, Bush's face tightened and he answered sharply, "The vice president."
Pressed to elaborate, Bush said: "I expect there to be criticism. But when Democrats say that I deliberately misled the Congress and the people, that's irresponsible." Bush seemed personally irritated. He said it is "patriotic as heck to disagree with the president. It doesn't bother me. What bothers me is when people are irresponsibly using their positions and playing politics. That's exactly what is taking place in America."
The Cheney speech and Bush's remarks were part of a concerted White House effort to rebut critics who are becoming increasingly vocal as U.S. public opinion has turned against the war. The growing public skepticism over the conflict has contributed to the decline in Bush's approval ratings, which have fallen to record lows. Bush has given two speeches in recent days accusing Democratic critics of rewriting the history of the run-up to the war and "sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy."
Senior Bush adviser Dan Bartlett said Thursday that the White House had made a strategic decision to launch a "sustained" campaign to vigorously combat the notion that the administration misled the nation rather than let the assertion go uncontested.
"The political axiom in Washington is the charge, whether true or false, can have currency," said Bartlett, who is traveling with Bush. "There's a point where it reaches critical mass." He said the White House would keep up the criticism of Democrats as long as they keep up their assertions that Bush manipulated intelligence. And, he said, "we will win."
The back and forth comes amid growing unease about the war in both parties. Senate Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday in voting to require the White House to provide more information on the progress of the war, while pressing that discernable steps be taken toward troop withdrawals.
Democrats led by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) have seized on the perjury indictment of Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby last month to reexamine the administration's truthfulness in justifying the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Some Democrats have alleged that the administration skewed intelligence to make the case for war, including some lawmakers who voted to authorize Bush to use force.
"The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone," Cheney said last night. "But we're not going to sit back and let them rewrite history."
"There was broad-based bipartisan agreement that Saddam Hussein was a threat . . . that he violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that, in a post-9/11 world, we couldn't afford to take the word of a dictator who had a history of WMD programs, who had excluded weapons inspectors . . . who had committed mass murder," Cheney added. "Those are the facts."
Baker reported from Gyeongju, South Korea.