President Bush said yesterday that the United States is investigating possible connections between Iran and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, renewing his periodic warnings to one of the two remaining members of his "axis of evil."
The president's remarks staked out a hard line against the theocracy three days before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is scheduled to issue a report that is said to accuse Iran of abetting travel by at least eight of the hijackers.
"We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved," Bush said during a brief question-and-answer session in the Oval Office. "I have long expressed my concerns about Iran. After all, it's a totalitarian society where free people are not allowed to exercise their rights as human beings."
Bush's remarks were his toughest about Iran since April 21, when he told newspaper editors meeting in Washington that the development of a nuclear weapon by Iran "is intolerable" and that if the Iranians do not give up that quest "they will be dealt with, starting through the United Nations."
Bush's comments came as Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign escalated its attack on Bush's handling of terrorism. Former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) said on a Democratic National Committee conference call that lawmakers were "flat out lied to" about Iraq "by the president, by the vice president and by the secretary of defense."
The Bush-Cheney campaign, signaling the line the GOP plans to take next week during the Democratic National Convention, issued a policy memo accusing Kerry of attempting "an extreme makeover" to "reverse a record on intelligence and national security that would weaken our ability to fight and win the war on terror."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is "willing to sit down" and talk with the Iranians "if the president determines it's in our interest to do so and if we think there's the opportunity for progress."
White House officials said Bush was not hinting at any new intelligence or at any change in administration policy. Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin said on "Fox News Sunday" that the government "has no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11."
Bush repeated that yesterday but also said: "Of course, we want to know all the facts. . . . As to direct connections with September the 11th, we're digging into the facts to determine if there was one."
In an interim report last month, the Sept. 11 commission's investigators said intelligence "showed far greater potential for collaboration between Hezbollah and al Qaeda than many had previously thought." Iran is a primary sponsor of Hezbollah.
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former New Jersey governor, said in a television interview last month that "there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."
Bush reiterated his demands for steps Iran could take to have "better relations with the United States." He said that Iran continues to harbor al Qaeda leaders, and that the United States wants them turned over to their native countries.
The Sept. 11 commission finished final editing on the report yesterday and announced it would be released at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. The report, more than 500 pages long, will immediately be available on the commission's Web site, www.9-11commission.gov.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan stepped back from McLaughlin's statement on Fox that he opposed the commission's recommendation for a Cabinet-level intelligence official who would outrank the CIA director. McClellan said that Bush welcomes all ideas and that McLaughlin was expressing his own view.
Democratic commissioner Jamie S. Gorelick, a former U.S. deputy attorney general, said the panel was debating language in the report's executive summary as recently as yesterday morning. She and other commissioners said the bipartisan panel, made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, has spent much of the past three weeks in intense but respectful debate over the findings and recommendations.
The presidential campaigns held dueling teleconferences yesterday on homeland security counterterrorism. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said that "America is no safer today than on September 11." Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) replied hours later that "this administration has not waited for any commission to reform our intelligence capabilities."
Staff writers John Mintz and Robin Wright contributed to this report.