PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons.
TERENCE SMITH: During the year-long prelude to war, the Bush administration repeatedly declared the Iraqi regime and its reported weapons a menace to national and international security.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt...
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce...
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD: VX Nerve agent, upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering...
SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: ...Between 100 and 500 tons of chemical-weapons agent...
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.
TERENCE SMITH: That perceived threat translated into widespread public support in the U.S. for action.
On the eve of war, according to various polls, roughly two-thirds of Americans stood with the president, but a sizeable, and vocal, 30 percent dissented.
ANTI-WAR DEMONSTRATORS: Ho, ho!
TERENCE SMITH: Now, three months since Saddam Hussein fell from power -- and pedestal -- none of the Iraqi leader's weapons of mass destruction has been found -- and the certainty about Iraq's weapons before and during the war...
DONALD RUMSFELD: We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad.
TERENCE SMITH: ...Has been modified post-war.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No one ever said that we knew precisely where all of these agents were; where they were stored.
TERENCE SMITH: Recently, the president has gone on the offense in his defense.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, there are some who would like to rewrite history. "Revisionist historians" is what I like to call them.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong. We found them.
TERENCE SMITH: That claim, made in a May interview with Polish TV about trailers allegedly used to manufacture banned weapons, was an overstatement. The trailers were ultimately found to contain no traces of weapons material.
Questions are now being asked about whether the Bush administration systematically overstated the case on Iraq, exaggerated the threat, and in the process, misled the country.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN (D-Mich.): There is troubling evidence that intelligence was shaded and exaggerated, and that evidence ought to be reviewed on a bipartisan basis in a thorough way.
TERENCE SMITH: Both chambers of Congress have initiated closed- door hearings exploring those questions, although the dual, Republican-led inquiries have taken care to avoid labeling them "investigations."
The issue has had little resonance with an American public seemingly satisfied with the successful overthrow of the Iraqi regime. In one poll conducted by the University of Maryland, a third of poll respondents believed that banned weapons have been located; 22 percent believed - wrongly -- that chemical or biological weapons were used against American troops. But the questions keep coming.
Today, the president was pressed to defend his contention that Hussein was an imminent threat.
ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT TERRY MORAN: Is it fair to say now, after a few months of looking for them, that there is a discrepancy between what the intelligence community and you and your top officials described as the threat from Saddam Hussein and what was actually there on the ground?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, Saddam Hussein had a weapons program. Remember, he used them. He used chemical weapons on his own people. Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to the United States, because we removed him.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite the questioning, the president's standing has not been damaged significantly in the polls. His approval ratings remain above 60 percent.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, for a sampling of editorial opinion from around the nation, I'm joined by four editorial page editors and writers: Rachelle Cohen of The Boston Herald; and Dante Ramos of The New Orleans Times-Picayune -- both of their editorial pages supported U.S. military action in Iraq. And by John Diaz of The San Francisco Chronicle and John Nichols of The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin. Both of the pages they edit opposed intervention. Welcome to you all.
John Nichols, is it important that these weapons of mass destruction that the president spoke of be found?
JOHN NICHOLS: I think it's important for the historical record. It's not particularly important at this point. The debate over weapons of mass destruction was pretty much settled when the U.S. troops hit the ground in Iraq, and there were no weapons of destruction used against them.
That pretty much proved what most of us who seriously looked at the so-called evidence during the fall and winter and early spring of 2003 said, which was the Bush administration never provided any credible evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam Hussein intended to use them.
TERENCE SMITH: Rachelle Cohen, what's your view, since this was a principal rationale for this war, how support is it that they be discovered?
RACHELLE COHEN: It's obviously not terribly important to the American people, which I think is a significant issue here. The University of Maryland poll that was alluded to in the lead-in to this, there was a new one out today and the number of people who actually think we've discovered weapons of mass destruction had dropped to about 23 percent from 34 percent.
But the important figure was that eight out of 10 Americans still thought we belonged in Iraq. And I think the point is that indeed nothing succeeds like success. The image that will live in the minds of the American public is that image of statues being toppled, of a people being however briefly jubilant, being jubilant. And you can't argue with the success of that kind of operation and the military operation.
TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz, you can't argue with success?
JOHN DIAZ: Well, first of all, I think it is very important as to whether there were indeed these weapons of mass destruction and what happened to them, because it really cuts to the credibility of the administration.
If you talk to a number of members of Congress, particularly moderates from both the Republican and Democratic Party, a lot of them said that the evidence that the Bush administration came forth with about these weapons was really decisive in them voting to support the war.
There's a real open question as to whether the president would have gotten this congressional authorization had he not come forth with what at the time was presented as very convincing evidence.
TERENCE SMITH: Dante Ramos, what's your view if these weapons are or are not discovered?
DANTE RAMOS: Well, I think it is important for the purposes of validating the rationale for the war that the weapons be found.
I don't think that there's anybody who is losing sleep over the fact that Saddam Hussein has been deposed, and I think that, you know, the standard ultimately by which this military operation is judged is how, is how, is what sort of entity comes out of Iraq afterwards.
But I do think it speaks to the credibility of the United States in future operations or in future diplomatic efforts like with Iran and North Korea that the evidence that they bring forward to people is validated in some manner. So sure I think it's of grave concern that these things are found.
TERENCE SMITH: John Nichols, what was the problem here, was it the intelligence itself that was faulty only or the way that intelligence was interpreted and presented by the administration to the public?
JOHN NICHOLS : Well, I don't think there was credible evidence or intelligence that suggested there were weapons of mass destruction. Every time that the Bush administration tried to try out this tired old saw, our newspaper investigated.
We didn't just rely on the Bush administration, we didn't just do stenography to power, we looked at what analysts around the world were saying, we looked at what was on paper, we took a day or so and invariably everything they came forward with was lacking in credibility, shot down usually. And the interesting thing is that one of my colleagues suggested nothing succeeds like success. I disagree.
I don't think that we've succeeded. I think that the American people authorized through their Congress entering into Iraq with the purpose of making America more secure. There is no evidence what so ever that America has been made more secure. And so the failure of Saddam Hussein to use weapons of mass destruction, the failure of the Bush administration to find weapons of mass destruction, just confirms what anyone who is reasonably skeptical said before the war began, that there was no reason to do it.
TERENCE SMITH: Rachelle Cohen, John Nichols is suggesting that there never was any evidence or not credible evidence and that the administration in essence manufactured it and certainly inflated it. Wouldn't that be a serious matter if that was so?
RACHELLE COHEN: That would indeed be a serious matter. I don't think anyone likes to think their government is lying to them. But you don't have to believe our government, you don't have to believe Colin Powell's remarks to the United Nations.
All you have to do is look at the earlier report, the first report from Hans Blix and his people. They were the ones who initially said we can't find x, y and z, we can't find this gas, we know this existed, we can't find evidence that it's been destroyed.
There was ample evidence from outside sources, especially the inspectors who did indeed want to go back and look for the same things that our military people are still looking for. You don't need to believe our intelligence. It's... was there a misstep? Quite possibly, and that's a serious issue. But it's a serious issue inside the government as well.
TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz, you mentioned credibility before. What does it do to the credibility of the United States if these weapons are not found if there is a circumstance in which the administration or any administration wants to consider another preemptive military action?
JOHN DIAZ: Well, I think it's devastating both domestically, politically and internationally as well.
Rachelle talked about right now that there's not a great deal of resonance with this issue because of the postwar glow of victory. Well, that may be here now, but that's not necessarily going to last forever.
We're looking right now at most likely a sustained occupation that is going to involve a great expenditure of American dollars and American lives.
More than 60 people have died, 60 Americans have died in Iraq since President Bush made his top-gun appearance on the aircraft carrier in May declaring this over. I think the longer this goes on, the more the American people are going to ask, why were we there in the first place? And in the absence of evidence and there's true skepticism of the evidence that's been presented so far, is really going to be unsatisfying to most Americans.
TERENCE SMITH: Dante Ramos, is this the subject of discussion in New Orleans and the area? Are people concerned about this, or do they, as Rachelle Cohen suggests, accept that this was a victory and take it as a victory as such?
DANTE RAMOS: I think a little bit of both. Obviously we have some people who feel one way and some people who feel another way.
I think probably there are more people in our area who tend to look upon American military power and American power in general as a good force in the world, and are inclined to let things play out a little bit. But, you know, certainly we do hear concerns from people who were against the war in the first place, and feel validated by the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found yet.
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder, John Nichols, if it is as serious an issue as you were portraying before, why you think it hasn't resonated more widely at least in the polls with the American public.
JOHN NICHOLS: You didn't ask me until now whether I thought it resonated. I didn't agree with my colleague's interpretation of the polls. There was a poll that came out yesterday that said that among Americans, 42 percent now have a very high degree of discomfort with how the war in Iraq is going on. So I think we are seeing a dramatic shift in public sentiment.
And it certainly reflects what I hear from around Wisconsin. Now, Madison is a liberal on the town, this was an antiwar town throughout the process. But we get letters and talk to folks from all around the state and the interesting thing is that there's been a real shift in the tone, especially from small town Wisconsin.
This is a state that is pretty patriotic and willing to accept what a president says. But we're seeing an awfully lot of letters, hearing a lot of calls from folks who are saying that instead of weapons of mass destruction, it looks like we might have had weapons of mass deception.
TERENCE SMITH: Rachelle Cohen, what's your observation on the way this is affecting the public, and is it likely to change or be affected by continued difficulties in Iraq on the ground for U.S. troops there?
RACHELLE COHEN: Well, I'll see John's liberal community of Madison with Boston and raise him one. We've got Cambridge, too. And I don't yet see people marching in the streets here.
The only thing that will resonate, as you alluded to, Terence, is that the, if there is a huge loss of life, and if there is a huge loss of life that doesn't at the end of the day seem justifiable, no one wants young American men and women to be coming back in body bags. We sort of looked at that issue at the beginning of the war. And it's a source of constant concern.
But I would also argue with one of my colleague's figures, and the wire stories have differed, there is another wire story that says we have lost 26 people since May 1st. And that's, while they're important to each and every human being who loves them, that's nothing compared to the loss of life we've suffered in previous conflicts.
This is not Vietnam, this is not the proverbial quagmire that some people have raised, and to try to a lewd to that is just beyond the pale.
TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz, what's your thought on the impact of continued difficulties in Iraq, especially if it goes on for some time?
JOHN DIAZ: Well, I think the continued difficulties will definitely force these questions to the fore. We're already beginning to see more and more with some of the presidential candidates because this issue really goes to the top.
In the state of the union address, President Bush made a very specific reference to Iraq trying to obtain enriched uranium from Niger, which turned out to be fabricated intelligence. It raises the question of was the president given bad information before a state of the union that was not properly vetted, or was he intentionally misleading the American public? I think most people would want to believe the former.
But nevertheless, when you think about the scrutiny that must go into a state of the union address, and for the president to present fabricated evidence is a very serious situation.
TERENCE SMITH: Dante Ramos, what do you think is the potential political fallout from this, if some of these things prove to be the case?
DANTE RAMOS: Well, I think, as I said before, I think the ultimate success of this operation is going to be judged not for better or for worse not according to whether the weapons of mass destruction are actually found, but rather on what sort of government, what sort of entity emerges in Iraq.
And, you know, certainly if a year from now things look relatively peaceful and it's encouraging reform movements in Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic world, then I think certainly it's going to look a lot better than if there is an Iraqi Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power. And I think people tend to take the long view of these things.
We are three months after the end of the conflict, and certainly, certainly I'm sure the people in the Bush administration wish that the weapons of mass destruction had been found, and at some point we will come to a point of reckoning about whether or not we were in fact chasing a real threat or sold a bill of goods. But I'm not sure that most people yet are ready to say we're at that point.
TERENCE SMITH: John Nichols, do you see it as at least a potential political issue or not?
JOHN NICHOLS: I think it's already a huge political issue.
There's no question it has pushed Howard Dean, an asterisk candidate, into the front lines for the race of the Democratic nomination; another candidate, Dennis Kucinich who has been more aggressive on the issue has had a surprising amount of traction in the last few weeks.
On the Democratic side it is becoming impossible for candidates like Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman to go before some crowds and continue to make the case that they believe President Bush. They are not accepted.
And I would remind my fellow journalists here that any serious look at history will tell you that presidents who embark on wars of this kind often find that they experience electoral retribution at the next election. You can ask Lyndon Johnson, and you can ask George W. Bush's father, how supposedly a successful war can sometimes turn out at the polls.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. John Nichols, Rachelle Cohen, John Diaz, and Dante Ramos, thank you all very much.