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In interview, Bush defends Iraq war and waterboarding

After two years of near silence, the 43rd president is starting to reemerge.

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 12:44 AM

In his first major interview since leaving office, former president George W. Bush defended the most controversial aspects of his tenure - including the use of waterboarding against terrorism suspects and the invasion of Iraq.

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Bush seemed eager to explain himself on the use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, as a method of interrogation. He said he personally approved use of the tactic on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, adding that when he was told that it and other harsh interrogation techniques were legal, he ordered: "Use 'em."

Interviewer Matt Lauer of NBC News asked Bush why he believed that waterboarding was legal, a topic of significant dispute.

"Because the lawyer said it was legal," Bush replied. "He said it did not fall within the anti-torture act. I'm not a lawyer. But you gotta trust the judgment of people around you, and I do."

He has been widely criticized for directing the lawyers to reach that conclusion, on which there is no legal consensus.

"Using those techniques saved lives," Bush said. "My job was to protect America. And I did."

Pressed on whether U.S. soldiers could be exposed to waterboarding because Americans have deployed it, Bush grew irritated and defensive. "All I ask is that people read the book," he said, adding that he would make the same decision again today.

President Obama banned the use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics upon taking office, and he later called them "torture."

Bush granted the interview, taped for broadcast Monday night, to promote his memoir, "Decision Points," which focuses on the major decisions of his life - from his decision to quit drinking alcohol to his choice of Richard B. Cheney as his running mate in 2000.

Though the 477-page book is an attempt at self-examination, Bush struggled in it - much as he did during his presidency - with expressing regrets. He acknowledged some mistakes, including praising his Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Michael Brown, during Hurricane Katrina and declaring "mission accomplished" shortly after the Iraq invasion. But on crucial national security matters, he stood firm.

Asked whether he ever questions whether he could have done more to prevent 9/11, the worst attack on U.S. soil, Bush said no.

"We just didn't have any solid intelligence that gave us a warning on this. We didn't have any clear intelligence that said that, you know, 'Get ready. They're gonna fly airplanes into New York buildings,' " he said.


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