Invading Iraq made America safer, US President George W. Bush said, defending his war decision in the face of a Senate report debunking White House justifications for attacking former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's government.
Bush presented his case in a speech at Oak Ridge National Laboratory Monday in his first public reaction to criticism by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which said last week that the administration's belief that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and was working to make nuclear weapons was wrong, based on false or overstated CIA analyses.
"Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq," Bush told lab employees. "We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after Sept. 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
Bush noted problems cited in the Senate report, including a shortage of human-gathered intelligence and poor coordination among intelligence services. But he did not comment on ideas proposed for reforming America's intelligence network, nor did he say when he planned to name a new CIA director to replace George Tenet, who stepped down Sunday for personal reasons.
Instead, Bush sought to compare situations in nations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to how they were three years ago when the Taliban ruled in Kabul, Saddam was in power in Baghdad and Libya was backing terrorism and spending money to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Under an agreement with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to dismantle his country's nuclear weapons program, Libya's weapons hardware was shipped to Oak Ridge earlier this year.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry quickly dismissed Bush's claim that Americans are safer and said that if elected, his No. 1 security goal would be to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
"Have we taken every step we should to stop North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs?" Kerry asked. "Have we restructured our intelligence agencies and given them the resources they need to keep our country safe? The honest answer, in each of these areas, is that we have done too little, often too late, and even cut back our efforts. It's not enough to give speeches."
"The facts speak for themselves. There was [sic] less nuclear weapons materials secured in the two years after Sept. 11 than in the two years before," he said. "North Korea has reportedly quadrupled its nuclear weapons capability in the past year. Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability. Afghanistan has become a forgotten front in the war on terror."
The White House has long portrayed Libya's pledge to abandon weapons of mass destruction programs as affirmation of Bush's hard-line strategy on arms proliferation and suggested the US-led war in Iraq helped convince Gadhafi that he should act.
"This progress came about through quiet diplomacy between America, Britain and the Libyan government," Bush said. "This progress was set in motion, however, by policies declared in public to all the world ... Every potential adversary now knows that terrorism and proliferation carry serious consequences, and that the wise course is to abandon those pursuits."
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Vice President Dick Cheney accused his Democratic opponents of "trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes" when they criticize the Bush administration for going to war based on flawed prewar intelligence.
Kerry and his running mate John Edwards both reviewed the same reports on Iraq that were given to Bush and supported the decision to go to war, Cheney said.
"Now it seems they've both developed a convenient case of campaign amnesia," Cheney said. "If the president was right, and he was, then they are simply trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes."
Following the Senate panel's report, Kerry and Edwards called the CIA's work slipshod but declined to answer a hypothetical question of whether they would have voted against the congressional resolution authorizing force based on what they know now. They made the comment in an interview with The New York Times.
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