President Bush said today that he was right to order the invasion of Iraq last year despite a new report by his chief U.S. weapons inspector that shows the country did not possess the weapons of mass destruction that were the original rationale for the war.
In a statement read to reporters before leaving the White House on a campaign trip today, Bush echoed earlier remarks by Vice President Cheney that sought to put the administration's best face on the report.
He said the report by Charles A. Duelfer, which was presented to Congress yesterday, confirms "that Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there." But he said it also showed that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was defying the world and intended to resume building banned weapons in the future.
"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 before boarding a helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House. "He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away."
Bush continued: "Based on all the information we have to date, I believe we were right to take action, and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison. He 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."
Bush did not take questions from reporters after reading his statement.
The notion that Hussein was a threat because he could have given terrorists information on banned weapons was raised by the president yesterday in a speech that he used largely to denounce his challenger in the Nov. 2 election, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry.
In a press conference in Englewood, Colo., after Bush's remarks today, Kerry said, "This week has provided definitive evidence as to why George Bush should not be reelected president of the United States." On Iraq and on domestic matters, he said, Bush "is not being straight with Americans."
Kerry said Bush "was in absolute full spin mode" today about the Duelfer report. He also blasted Bush for citing "several new reasons for taking America to war" and saying he would take the same action again, even in light of what is now known. Kerry described Hussein as an enemy that the administration "aggrandized and fictionalized."
"My fellow Americans, you don't make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact," Kerry said. Bush and Cheney "may very well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq," Kerry said, adding, "Mr. President, the American people deserve more than spin about this war."
In a speech today in Bayonne, N.J., Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said the administration has failed to "level" with the American public, Washington Post staff writer Chris Jenkins reported.
"They are willing to say that left is right, up is down," Edwards said. "They need to recognize that the earth is actually round and that the sun rises in the east. . . . They need to level with the American people."
Edwards was addressing a town-hall meeting focused on homeland security. The Kerry campaign said Edwards, who debated Cheney in Cleveland Tuesday night, was using the occasion to outline the Democratic ticket's "comprehensive plan to protect America's ports, harbors, rails, subways and chemical plants."
A new poll released today suggested that the Democrats' criticism of Bush may be having an effect.
An AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll conducted Oct. 4-6 showed the Kerry-Edwards ticket leading Bush-Cheney by 50 percent to 46 percent among likely voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, the Associated Press reported. The poll showed declining support for Bush on the war in Iraq and national security. Among all registered voters surveyed in the poll, the race was tied at 47 percent.
In his brief remarks about the Duelfer report, Bush said Hussein constituted "a unique threat" to the United States, since he was a "sworn enemy" of America and "a state sponsor of terror." After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hussein "was a threat we had to confront, and America and the world are safer for our actions," Bush said.
But he also noted U.S. intelligence shortcomings highlighted by the report.
"The Duelfer report makes clear that much of the accumulated body of 12 years of our intelligence and that of our allies was wrong, and we must find out why and correct the flaws," he said. "At a time of many threats in the world, the intelligence on which the president and members of Congress base their decisions must be better, and it will be."
Cheney insisted today that the Duelfer report's findings justify Bush's decision to invade Iraq last year, even though the report said the country's ability to make banned weapons "was essentially destroyed" during the Persian Gulf War more than a decade earlier.
Speaking at a town-hall meeting while campaigning in Florida, Cheney seized on portions of the report by Duelfer, who was appointed by the Bush administration to complete an assessment of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs after the Iraqi ruler was deposed by the invasion.
The report said Iraq's ability to make nuclear weapons had "progressively decayed" since 1991 and there was no evidence of "concerted efforts to restart the program." Hussein also had no stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons, and research on them had halted years before the March 2003 U.S. invasion, inspectors found.
The report concluded that Hussein "aspired to develop a nuclear capability" and wanted to resume building chemical and biological weapons after achieving his main goal of lifting U.N. sanctions. But it noted that his regime "had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] after sanctions."
Cheney told the town-hall gathering in Miami today that the report makes it clear that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option," since Hussein still intended to acquire banned weapons. "As soon as the sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going back" to his weapons programs, he said.
Cheney also pointed to Duelfer's conclusion that Hussein had corrupted the U.N. "Oil for Food" program, using it to undermine the sanctions and "provide the means to enhance dual-use infrastructure and potential WMD-related development."
Said Cheney, "The suggestion is clearly there by Mr. Duelfer that Saddam had used the program in such a way that he had bought off foreign governments and was building support among them to take the sanctions down." Therefore, there was no reason to hold off the invasion and give U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq more time to complete their work, Cheney said.
Cheney also continued to attack Kerry, saying the senator from Massachusetts has built a record that proves he is incapable of leading the country, especially in a time of war, Washington Post staff writer Ovetta Wiggins reported.
"His record in the United States Senate does not inspire confidence," Cheney said. "He has come down on the wrong side of virtually every major defense issue during his term in the United State Senate."
He told the crowd that Kerry has started to question the Patriot Act, even though he voted for it. "We can't have a commander-in-chief in these circumstances that blows with the political winds," Cheney said.
Cheney was interrupted during the meeting when a supporter of independent candidate Ralph Nader jumped on her chair during the question-and-answer session.
"I came 1,000 miles to ask you one quick question," the woman said. "I'm here with Ralph Nader. . . ." The crowd packed with Cheney supporters began chanting, "Four more years," and the woman was escorted out of the hotel banquet room.
As she was led away, Cheney said, "Treat them with kindness, maybe we can convert them," drawing laughs from the crowd.
The day's recriminations came as Bush and Kerry prepared for their second presidential debate, a 90-minute town-hall-style event in St. Louis Friday.
Bush planned to address a rally in Wausau, Wis., this afternoon before flying to St. Louis. Kerry, who has spent the last couple of days preparing for the debate in Colorado, planned to leave Denver for St. Louis this evening.
With less than four weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election, both the Bush and Kerry campaigns appealed to their supporters for more money while blasting their opponents.
Bush, expounding on the main theme of a tough speech against Kerry yesterday, charged in a fundraising e-mail sent by his campaign that "my opponent's weak, vacillating views would make for a more dangerous world."
Kerry said in his own fundraising e-mail that Bush has "turned a blind eye to the devastating impact of his policies on America's families" and "refuses to budge" amid mounting evidence of his failures.
In his comments in New Jersey, Edwards said Cheney's comments about the chief weapon inspectors report underscored the administration's wrong choices in deciding to invade Iraq.
Edwards also looked ahead to Friday's debate with criticism of Bush's performance in last week's debate in Miami, where many news analysts and opinion polls have said the president performed poorly. "Call me old fashioned, but I believe that the president of the United States in order to perform well in a debate needs to do more than just screw up his face. He needs to do more than just string a sentence together. He needs to come clean with the American people. This president has a very high bar this Friday night."
Cheney, while meeting with a group of community leaders in a small country restaurant in Fort Myers, Fla., continued to defend the United State's attack on Iraq.
"The thing to remember about Iraq is its history of supporting terrorists . . . as well as its history of producing and using chemical and biological weapons," Cheney said. He said it is that combination that "is so worrisome," adding, "So what we did in Iraq, I was convinced then and I'm convinced now that we did the right thing."
Cheney questioned Kerry's assertion that the United States should have used a global test before attacking Iraq. "What's a global test, who you gonna ask?" Cheney said. "Who makes a decision by the president of the United States to use military force? In my book, nobody." The crowd of supporters applauded.