The White House went on the offensive in the debate over the Iraq war yesterday, insisting that U.S. intelligence had compiled a "very strong case" that Saddam Hussein harbored banned weapons and accusing congressional critics of hypocrisy because many of them voted for force three years ago.
Bristling from fresh assaults on its justification for war, the White House dispatched national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to the briefing room to issue a rebuttal to "the notion that somehow the administration manipulated prewar intelligence about Iraq." The administration's judgment on the threat posed by Iraq, he said, "represented the collective view of the intelligence community" and was "shared by Republicans and Democrats alike."
"Some of the critics today," Hadley added, "believed themselves in 2002 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they stated that belief, and they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq because they believed Saddam Hussein posed a dangerous threat to the American people. For those critics to ignore their own past statements exposes the hollowness of their current attacks."
The unusually combative statement by the normally mild-mannered Hadley underscored how the issue has inflamed political dialogue in Washington in the days since a senior White House official was indicted in the CIA leak case. Democratic leaders have seized on the indictment to refocus attention on the broader question of how President Bush led the nation to war.
For the Bush team, the Iraq war has evolved into the most damaging political liability at a time of multiple setbacks, and the president's advisers do not want Democrats writing the history of how the war began. The White House decided to respond aggressively in hopes of convincing the American people that Bush relied in good faith on intelligence that proved wrong in an effort to protect them -- rather than skewing the data to rationalize a war he was already determined to wage, as many Democrats contend.
Successive investigations have documented the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to correctly judge Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs before the war, including a commission appointed by Bush that concluded that the intelligence was "dead wrong." The government relied on lying sources, fragmentary information and unwarranted analysis, the commission found, resulting in one of the "most damaging intelligence failures in American history."
Democrats immediately took issue with Hadley's account. Within minutes of his briefing, the Senate Democratic caucus issued a statement saying the responsibility did not fall on lawmakers who voted to authorize use of force: "Some critics of how the administration misused intelligence did believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. What these critics object to is the hyping of the intelligence by the Bush administration."
In a separate statement earlier in the day, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) recounted the various urgent warnings about supposed Iraqi weapons delivered by Bush and his advisers in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion -- warnings that all proved overstated if not flatly wrong.
"In his march to war, President Bush exaggerated the threat to the American people," Kennedy said. "It was not subtle. It was not nuanced. It was pure, unadulterated fear-mongering, based on a devious strategy to convince the American people that Saddam's ability to provide nuclear weapons to al Qaeda justified immediate war."
Hadley yesterday offered no direct critique of the prewar intelligence and instead said that at the time it was compelling evidence that also convinced the Clinton administration and other governments.
"The intelligence was clear in terms of the weapons of mass destruction," Hadley said, citing a National Intelligence Estimate provided to Bush. "The case that was brought to him, in terms of the NIE, and parts of which have been made public, was a very strong case."
Hadley noted that the presidential commission, led by retired judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), said it found no evidence that administration officials manipulated intelligence. But the panel was not allowed to examine how policymakers used the information.
By forcing a rare closed-door session last week, Senate Democrats successfully pressured the chamber's Republican leadership to promise to speed up an inquiry into the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence. But a House Republican leader declined any additional inquiry by his body's intelligence committee.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the House intelligence chairman, instead said his panel would expand an inquiry into the leaking of classified information to include three new matters -- the revelation of secret CIA prisons abroad, the disclosure of Valerie Plame's CIA affiliation and the inadvertent release last week of the nation's intelligence budget by the deputy director of national intelligence.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.