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.
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.
In fact, on Aug. 6, 2001, Bush received a confidential intelligence briefing titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US," detailing al-Qaeda's intent to hijack planes. Bush did not mention that.
He said he had no doubts that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time he ordered the invasion, even though skeptics had warned there were none. Still, he described himself as a "dissenting voice," saying he did not want to go to war but had to.
When weapons were never found, he was "sickened," he writes. Yet he told Lauer he never considered apologizing for a war based on faulty assumptions. "I mean, apologizing would basically say the decision was a wrong decision. And I don't believe it was the wrong decision," he said.
In his book, due out Tuesday, Bush has nothing but praise for Obama. In keeping with his promise not to carp at his successor after leaving office, Bush has refrained from criticizing his policies. But until this book, Bush has gone even further, saying virtually nothing about Obama's actions, even ones with he agrees with.
Bush makes it clear that he approves of Obama's 2009 decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, saying he thinks the "mission is worth the cost."
Bush does, however, question the judgment of another politician: Senator John McCain. In one of the most riveting sections of his memoir, Bush recalls the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008, which came at the height of the general election. McCain called him, he said, to request a White House meeting for the presidential candidates, and "nobody was keen on the idea." But Bush held the meeting anyway - and was stunned by McCain's lack of engagement.
Obama came across to the sitting president as a thoughtful spokesman for the Democrats - with what Bush describes as a "calm demeanor." By contrast, Bush was "puzzled" that McCain sat there, barely commenting, even though he had requested the meeting.
Asked whether he would rescue the banks under similar circumstances again, Bush replied: "Absolutely."
"People forget . . . that we structured it so that the government, or the people, would be repaid with a really good rate of return. And as it turns out, that aspect of TARP, that's what happened," he said.
Always an emotional person - he and his father avoided each other's gaze at his first inauguration to avoid bursting into tears -- Bush appeared moved when Lauer asked him about some of the letters he had gotten from his father, a famously prolific correspondent. "If you want me to weep, let me read some of the letters that he has written to me as a son," Bush said.
The interview played up his sensitive side, with clips of his father holding Bush's hand after his 9/11 speech at Washington National Cathedral. The hour-long special opened with a story, recounted in the book, about his mother's miscarriage when Bush was a teenager. She brought the fetus to the hospital in a jar, which he said taught him that his mother is a "straightforward person."
Bush dismissed the notion, popular in some quarters, that his presidency was motivated by his competitiveness with his father, calling it "psychobabble." "It's not as complex as some would like it to be," he said. "I admired him and he never disappointed me."