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President Bush Defends Iraq War Despite New Senate Report

September 12, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: After spending the day marking the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Bush used a prime-time speech last night again to tie together those attacks and the war in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I am often asked why we’re in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat.

My administration, the Congress and the United Nations saw the threat.

The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.

Osama bin Laden calls this fight the Third World War, and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America’s defeat and disgrace forever.

KWAME HOLMAN: His comments came after a newly declassified Senate Intelligence Committee report was released Friday.

It found that, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, U.S. intelligence disputed alleged links between Iraq and al-Qaida. But, despite that, senior Bush administration officials publicly pushed those alleged ties as part of the justification for the war.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of al-Qaida, going back for actually quite a long time. We know, too, that several of the detainees, in particular, some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al-Qaida in chemical weapons developments.

KWAME HOLMAN: The report also upheld postwar findings that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction before the March 2003 invasion.

An additional committee report said, intelligence analysts warned the administration that exile groups, such as Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, were providing suspect information.

On several recent occasions, Bush administration officials have backed away from broader claims linking Iraq and al-Qaida.

During a “Meet the Press” appearance on Sunday, Vice President Cheney was pushed to square the Senate committee’s report with his prior prewar assertions Iraq had strong ties to al-Qaida prior to the 9/11 attack.

RICHARD B. CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: We have never been able to confirm any connection between Iraq and 9/11.

TIM RUSSERT, Host, “Meet the Press”: Then, why, in the lead-up to the war, was there the constant linkage between Iraq and al-Qaida?

RICHARD B. CHENEY: That’s a different issue. Now, there’s a question of whether or not al-Qaida — or whether or not Iraq was involved in 9/11. There’s a separate — apart from that, is, the issue of whether or not there was a historic relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.

The basis for that is probably best captured in George Tenet’s testimony before the Senate Intel Committee, in open session, where he said specifically that there was a pattern, a relationship that went back at least a decade between Iraq and al-Qaida.

KWAME HOLMAN: Most Republican committee members supported the report’s finding of no Iraq/al-Qaida links, but four voted against the report on the Iraqi National Congress.

Dispelling an al-Qaida link

Sen. Carl Levin
D-Mich.
It should put to rest these allegations which were made by the administration repeatedly before the war, during the war, and even as of last weekend, about a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner talked to two senators about this earlier today.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on these two new Senate Intelligence Committee reports, we turn to two members of the committee, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan -- he voted for both reports -- and Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri. He voted for the report debunking the terror links, but against the report on the Iraqi National Congress.

Welcome to you both.

Senator Levin, in your view, does this report, for once and for all, put to rest the allegation that Saddam Hussein had a relationship with and was cooperating with al-Qaida?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: Well, it should put it to rest. It's a very strong, thorough, bipartisan report.

It analyzes the allegations which were made both before the war, during the war, by the administration, based on an alleged meeting that -- a report of a meeting that was supposed to have taken place in Prague between the secret service of Iraq and Atta, who is the lead hijacker. The report said that the meeting did not occur.

And, yet, you have the vice president of the United States, just last weekend, saying that we don't know. Well, this report says we do know, and it did not occur.

And then we have, three weeks ago, the president of the United States saying that the al-Qaida man in Iraq, whose name is Zarqawi, as a matter of fact, had a relationship, as he put it in his press conference, with Saddam Hussein. This bipartisan Intelligence Committee report declassifies a CIA assessment of a year ago, which says there is absolutely no connection, no support of, no turning a blind eye toward the al-Qaida guy, Zarqawi, by Saddam Hussein.

It should put to rest these allegations which were made by the administration repeatedly before the war, during the war, and even as of last weekend, about a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. But, frankly, I don't think the administration is just going to finally acknowledge what the intelligence community has said or what the Intelligence Committee has said.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bond, do you concur on what this report says about the allegations of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida before the war?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND (R), MISSOURI: The first thing that is important to point out is that the two reports that we actually issued, not the additional Democratic views, which went off into other areas in a report we haven't considered, haven't formally adopted, add nothing to what we learned when we examined all the prewar intelligence in 2003 and 2004.

At that point, we learned that, number one, contrary to my Democrat colleague's contention, there was no misuse of intelligence. The intelligence that was produced was sloppy. It was bad intelligence craft, and it omitted key caveats and key questions that some of the agencies in the intelligence community had.

Secondly, there was no pressure to change or shift the analysts' positions. So, we shouldn't have wasted two years, looking in the rearview mirror for two more years, when we should have been trying to figure out what it was that we needed to do to make our intelligence better.

We spent two years. And my Democratic friends tried to use it to defeat President Bush. Now they're going back and bringing up the same old charges. The fact is that, before the war, Director Tenet said in three different statements about al-Qaida's link with Iraq in his testimony before Congress, and, afterwards, prewar intelligence said that there were at least three instances of corroboration between Saddam's government and al-Qaida, primarily through the head of the intelligence agency of Saddam Hussein.

So, we know that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was operating in Iraq, and that Iraq had supported the Palestinians and offered rewards for terrorists who killed innocent Israelis.

Exaggeration of intelligence

Sen. Carl Levin
D-Mich.
The intelligence community, when you read the entire intelligence before the war, said that Saddam Hussein viewed al-Qaida as a threat. That was in January of '03, two months before the war, that Saddam Hussein viewed al-Qaida as a threat.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me get back to Senator Levin on that.

Senator Levin, some of the findings in the report do seem to be based on postwar interviews with senior Iraqi officials. Was the intelligence on this terror links question murky enough before the war that policy-makers could have come to the conclusion that it was in fact real?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Yes, it was murky, but it was made out to be much different from murky by the president.

The president said that there is a close relationship, that they would like to work together, Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. As a matter of fact, on the aircraft carrier, when he claimed mission accomplished, on that very aircraft carrier, he said that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were allies.

They were not allies. They were not allies. The intelligence community never said that they were allies. As a matter of fact, the intelligence community, when you read the entire intelligence before the war, said that Saddam Hussein viewed al-Qaida as a threat. That was in January of '03, two months before the war, that Saddam Hussein viewed al-Qaida as a threat.

And, on Zarqawi, what is very new in this report, very new in this report, is that we declassified for the first time an intelligence, CIA intelligence, assessment of last year, saying there was no relationship of any type, no sheltering of any type by Saddam Hussein of Zarqawi.

And, yet, what do we hear from the president just a few weeks ago? Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein were linked.

And, so, it's still going on today, Margaret. The same kind of exaggerations, the same kind of misstatements are going on. As a matter of fact, Tony Snow today, at the White House, made the same kind of suggestion. Zarqawi was present in Iraq, he says. That is true. He was present in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was trying to arrest him. More importantly, the CIA, flat out, a year ago, said there was no relationship of any kind between Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein.

Accuracy of the danger

Sen. Christopher Bond
R-Mo.
The fact remains that we need to be working forward, trying to get intelligence that's adequate to protect ourselves and our troops on the field in Iraq. That's what we ought to be doing.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain that, Senator Bond, the discrepancy between what your report found, at least now, about what's known about Zarqawi's presence in Iraq, and what the president and vice president, or the president's spokesman, is still saying?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: Yes.

First, we go back to what was known prior to the war. And we had the testimony of George Tenet, saying there was a relationship, and they are now confirmed instances where people from Saddam Hussein's organizations, the head of intelligence, was working with and had meetings with Osama bin Laden. Now...

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me, Senator. I believe only one such meeting has been confirmed.

Is that right?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: There -- there were -- there were...

MARGARET WARNER: Back in '95?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: Well, there are three instances. There are three reported instances of working together.

The simple fact is, Iraq it has been a hotbed of terrorism. David Kay's Iraqi Survey Group said Iraq was a far more dangerous place than we even knew it. And rather than to go back and try to challenge the assessments made by administration officials -- and some of them made by members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle were even more conclusive we should have been there -- we know that we have to fight that war.

And, rather than arguing over how bad the intelligence was -- we know there was no misuse. There was no pressure. And the fact remains that we need to be working forward, trying to get intelligence that's adequate to protect ourselves and our troops on the field in Iraq. That's what we ought to be doing.

My Democratic colleagues want to go back and argue over that, instead of how we organize to defeat the active radicals and terrorists who are still threatening in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and threaten the United States.

Looking foward or backward?

Sen. Christopher Bond
R-Mo.
We need to be fighting the war on terror, not fighting the battle of the 2004 presidential election. And I hope we can get back to work, looking out the front windshield, rather than look in the rearview mirror.

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

And, Senator Levin, finally, what is new in this report about the INC, the Iraqi National Congress?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: That they fed false information to...

MARGARET WARNER: Knowingly?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Knowingly. I think the word knowingly is that they fed false information to the United States government.

And we also now know that the National Security Council, according to the bipartisan Intelligence Committee report, should not have continued to fund the INC. They were feeding false information to us. And it is our conclusion, a bipartisan report, that the National Security Council should not have continued funding a very unreliable source of information that was hyping a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida that did not exist.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it your contention, briefly, that the administration was relying heavily on that information?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: It was.

We tried, in this investigation, to look at what information went from the INC to the administration, but we were denied that opportunity. We were told that we only could look at what the INC was feeding to the intelligence community. But we know from other sources that there was a shop in the Defense Department run by Doug Feith that, as a matter of fact, was getting information from the INC, and was sending that information directly to the vice president's office.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bond, the INC?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: Well, first, the INC presented a lot of human intelligence. As all human intelligence, it has to be evaluated. And some of it was good. Some of it was bad. Some of it is still ambiguous.

Anything the INC or other sources, human sources, provided us had to be evaluated. And they put it in the process. And there is absolutely no evidence, based on what we found, that the INC had any significant part of the evidence.

One case where they had -- where they did present evidence, it was corroborated with other sources. But the INC information, like all human intelligence information, has to be assessed and weighed its credibility. Much of the INC information was not adequate. But, since we had slashed so deeply our intelligence assets and gotten rid of human intelligence assets in the mid-'90s, we had to rely on anybody who might give us good human intelligence in Iraq.

Some was good from the INC, and some was bad. But to say that they intentionally misled the U.S. government, there's no evidence of that.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: A lot of evidence, conclusion two, bipartisan: Iraqi National Congress attempted to influence United States policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors, directed at convincing the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to terrorists.

That's the bipartisan Intelligence Committee conclusion.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: I voted against that, because there was no evidence that they intentionally provided false and misleading information. That is an assumption to which some of my colleagues jumped. I think they're wrong.

Frankly, it's irrelevant, because we know the intelligence was bad. The question should be, what are we going to do now? We need to be fighting the war on terror, not fighting the battle of the 2004 presidential election. And I hope we can get back to work, looking out the front windshield, rather than look in the rearview mirror.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: We need to do that, to look through that windshield clearly. And I agree with that totally.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: We need to learn from our...

SEN. CARL LEVIN: It's not mutually exclusive. We can learn from our mistakes.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there.

Thank you, both, Senator Levin and Senator Bond.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Thank you, Margaret.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: Thanks very much.