Bush official defends claim made before war on Iraq

Rice says she was aware of `dispute' over key data

October 04, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - National security adviser Condoleezza Rice defended the emphatic statements she made in the run-up to the Iraq war that Saddam Husssein was rebuilding his nuclear weapons program, as a news report said that prominent officials had voiced doubts much earlier about the evidence behind her claims.

Rice acknowledged that she knew in 2002 of a "dispute" among intelligence officials about a central piece of evidence she and other senior Bush administration officials were using to justify the war - that Hussein was trying to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

But she said the administration did not want to underestimate the threat Hussein posed, so it took the evidence seriously.

"A policy-maker cannot afford to be wrong on the short side, underestimating the ability of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein" to build a nuclear program, Rice said on ABC's This Week.

Rice was responding to a report yesterday in The New York Times, based on anonymous sources, that the government's pre-eminent nuclear experts at the Energy Department had said as early as 2001 that they did not believe the aluminum tubes were part of a nuclear program, but were for small artillery rockets.

Vice President Dick Cheney said in a September 2002 speech that the United States had "irrefutable evidence" that the tubes were for Iraqi uranium centrifuges.

That same week, Rice told CNN in an interview that the tubes "are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," adding a now-famous phrase: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Yesterday, Rice said she knew at the time "that there was a dispute" within the intelligence community about the tubes, but that she "actually didn't really know the nature of the dispute." She based her statements on the overall assessment by the intelligence community, backed by then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, that "these were likely, and certainly suitable for, and likely for [Hussein's] nuclear weapons program," Rice said.

"I stand by the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein and remove this threat to the Middle East, this thorn in the side of any effort to build a different kind of Middle East," Rice said.

Senior advisers to Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry seized on the Times report yesterday as proof that Bush misled the nation and Congress to pursue the war in Iraq.

"The administration did a full-court press to convince the world that the intelligence said what it didn't turn out to say," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador and a top Kerry foreign policy adviser.

"So we went to war at a timing and in a method dictated by false intelligence," Holbrooke told ABC.

"It is an outrage of tremendous proportions," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, speaking on a conference call with reporters organized by the Kerry campaign. Graham called the report "not only a statement about the intelligence of this administration, but the fundamental character of this administration, that they would so mislead the citizens of the United States and the world."

Still, Rand Beers, Kerry's senior foreign policy adviser, said the revelations did not change the senator's view that Saddam Hussein was a threat, and that Bush should have the authority to go to war in Iraq.

The Kerry campaign is hoping the Times report will help blunt the effect of new accusations by Bush that the Democrat wants to give foreign countries a veto over preemptive military action to defend the United States.

Bush has coined the phrase "the Kerry doctrine" to describe what he says is Kerry's approach to foreign policy, based on a comment the senator made during the first presidential debate that presidents face a "global test" when they decide to use pre-emptive force to protect America.

But Kerry expressly denied during the 90-minute debate that he would cede U.S. national security to other countries, a point the campaign points out in a new ad that cites the news reports on nuclear weapons.

"The president always has the right, and always has had the right, for pre-emptive strike," Kerry said during Thursday's debate. "No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America."

Polls continued to emerge this weekend showing that Kerry's performance during the debate may have given him a boost. A Los Angeles Times/CBS poll conducted Thursday and Friday found that more than three times as many debate viewers thought Kerry won the debate than thought Bush did. Still, the debate hardly altered the overall contest between Bush and Kerry, who remained essentially tied in the poll of registered voters.

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