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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bush Contends Partisan Critics Hurt War Effort - New York Times

Bush Contends Partisan Critics Hurt War Effort - New York TimesNovember 12, 2005
Bush Contends Partisan Critics Hurt War Effort
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON

TOBYHANNA, Pa., Nov. 11 - President Bush on Friday sharply criticized Democrats who have accused him of misleading the nation about the threat from Iraq's weapons programs, calling their criticism "deeply irresponsible" and suggesting that they are undermining the war effort.

In a Veterans Day speech at an Army depot here, Mr. Bush made his most aggressive effort to date to counter the charge that he had justified taking the United States to war by twisting or exaggerating prewar intelligence. That line of attack has deepened his political woes by helping to sow doubts about his credibility and integrity at a time when public support for the war is ebbing.

"The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges," Mr. Bush said. "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them."

Mr. Bush's comments, using language far more direct and provocative than in his previous efforts to parry the criticism, brought an angry response from Democratic leaders in Congress, who said questions about his use of prewar intelligence were entirely legitimate and proper.

"Attacking those patriotic Americans who have raised serious questions about the case the Bush administration made to take our country to war does not provide us a plan for success that will bring our troops home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, said in a statement. "Americans seek the truth about how the nation committed our troops to war because the decision to go to war is too serious to be entered into under faulty pretenses."

In his speech, Mr. Bush asserted that Democrats as well as Republicans believed before the invasion in 2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons, a conclusion, he said, that was shared by the United Nations. He resisted any implication that his administration had deliberately distorted the available intelligence, and said that the resolution authorizing the use of force had been supported by more than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate based on the same information available to the White House.

Before the war, the administration portrayed Iraq as armed with weapons that made it a threat to the Middle East and the United States. No biological or chemical weapons were found in Iraq after the American attack, and Mr. Hussein's nuclear program appears to have been rudimentary and all but dormant.

Mr. Bush has acknowledged failures in prewar intelligence but has maintained that toppling Mr. Hussein was still justified on other grounds, including liberating Iraqis from his rule.

Two official inquiries - by the Senate Intelligence Committee and by a presidential commission - blamed intelligence agencies for inflating the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs, but stopped short of ascribing the problems to political pressures.

But the Senate review described repeated, unsuccessful efforts by the White House and its allies in the Pentagon to persuade the Central Intelligence Agency to embrace the view that Iraq had provided support to Al Qaeda. According to former administration officials, in early 2003, George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, and Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, rejected elements of a speech drafted by aides to Vice President Dick Cheney that was intended to present the administration's case for war, calling them exaggerated and unsubstantiated by intelligence.

And some assertions by administration officials, like Mr. Cheney's statement in 2002 that Mr. Hussein could acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon" and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's statement the same year that Iraq "has chemical and biological weapons," have been proven overstated or wrong.

In defending his administration against the new round of Democratic criticism, Mr. Bush said Friday, "While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began."

"Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war," he said. "These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.

"They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction."

After simmering for much of this year, the issue of how the administration used prewar intelligence has boiled over again in the last few months, leaving Mr. Bush on the defensive. The C.I.A. leak investigation focused new attention on the role of the White House, and especially Mr. Cheney, in assembling the intelligence used to justify the invasion.

The rising death toll and the difficulty American and Iraqi forces have had in containing the insurgency have depressed public support for the war. With Mr. Bush weakened politically on many counts, Democrats have been emboldened to take him on more aggressively than they have in the past, and have pushed in particular to keep a focus on the White House's justifications for the war.

Under pressure from Democrats, the Senate Intelligence Committee has begun closed-door meetings about how to proceed with a long-promised second phase of its inquiry into prewar intelligence. That effort is to focus in part on the use of intelligence by the Bush administration, Congress and others.

But that inquiry is unlikely to be completed any time soon, given the complexities of assessing how the White House, the Pentagon, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Iraqi exile groups and others employed intelligence in setting policy and making public statements. Republicans have rebuffed an effort by Democrats to begin a similar review in the House Intelligence Committee.

Mr. Bush's comments on Friday only intensified the partisan battle. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Bush's Democratic rival in the presidential campaign last year, accused him of "playing the politics of fear and smear on Veterans Day."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, called Mr. Bush's speech "a campaignlike attempt to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek truth about the clear manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war."

The White House, which has sought to define its opponents on the issue as liberals who are out of the mainstream on national security, struck back quickly at Mr. Kennedy as part of a new rapid-response plan through which administration officials hope to blunt the Democratic message about Mr. Bush.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said it was "regrettable that Senator Kennedy has found more time to say negative things about President Bush than he ever did about Saddam Hussein."

"If America were to follow Senator Kennedy's foreign policy," Mr. McClellan said, "Saddam Hussein would not only still be in power, he would be oppressing and occupying Kuwait."

In responding so strongly to the criticism, the White House seems to be throwing fuel on a political fire that it may not be able to control.

But the administration appears to be calculating that it has always benefited so far from focusing the debate on national security, where the Democrats in recent years have been divided and tentative in advocating alternatives to Mr. Bush's stay-the-course policy in Iraq. And with Mr. Bush's poll numbers crumbling, the White House may have little choice but to take the risk; an Associated Press-Ipsos Poll released Friday found that 42 percent of Americans viewed Mr. Bush as honest, down from 53 percent at the beginning of the year.

Beyond taking on the Democrats over prewar intelligence, Mr. Bush used Friday's speech to make a case that despite the violent insurgency, Iraq is making steady progress that is creating the foundations of a stable democracy.

"By any standard or precedent of history, Iraq had made incredible political progress - from tyranny to liberation to national elections to the ratification of a constitution - in the space of two and a half years," he said, speaking to a friendly audience of veterans, military personnel and their families under a banner reading "Strategy for Victory."

At the same time, he said, Iraqi troops are showing increased ability to battle the insurgency.

"Our strategy is to clear, hold and build," Mr. Bush said, referring to the military tactic of sweeping suspected insurgents from towns and cities, leaving Iraqi forces behind to keep the insurgents from re-establishing a foothold, and then creating political institutions that can sustain a stable peace.

He also continued his effort to cast Iraq as part of a broader struggle against a virulent strain of radical Islam.

With Mr. Bush in Pennsylvania, Mr. Cheney took up traditional Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.

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