JIM LEHRER: Now the views of two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who were present at yesterday's meeting with arms inspector Charles Duelfer: The committee's ranking Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan; and Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Sen. Levin, do you agree with Sen. Kerry's comment that President Bush essentially, to quote Sen. Kerry, fictionalized an enemy in Iraq?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think they clearly exaggerated the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction. They stated with great certainty that he had weapons of mass destruction. They said with certainty that he had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program. They said that he had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. They stated things with certainty which even the intelligence community were not certain of.
They thought that he probably did, but the administration exaggerated them to make the case for going to war, and they also, of course, stated that there was... that basically al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein were allies.
There was no evidence that they were allies, that the administration said basically that the people who attacked us on 9/11, al-Qaida, were allied with Saddam Hussein. And that was what was given to the American people prior to the decision to go to war, and that was not supported by evidence.
Mr. Duelfer yesterday said that none of the millions of documents that he had looked at had provided any support for the administration's statement that there was that kind of a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.
JIM LEHRER: But the president conceded, as we just heard, that there was an intelligence failure. You're saying that the administration's actions went beyond an intelligence failure?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: It did. There is a serious exaggeration of the intelligence that failed, in other words, the intelligence failure was providing intelligence which already had been shaped and distorted to support the administration policy, but the administration went a step beyond that and took the already-exaggerated intelligence and exaggerated it further, particularly as it relates to the relationship between ... sort of the alleged relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
And by the way, you notice very carefully that all the president said was that there was a report, not that he finally himself accepted that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
He will not mouth the words, "yes, there were no weapons." He'll only say, well, there's a report which now says there were no weapons.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sessions, how do you respond to what Sen. Levin and Sen. Kerry have said, using words like "fictionalized" and Sen. Levin using words like "exaggeration"? How do you read this?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I reject that characterization of what happened. Everybody in the Senate knows how this matter developed. We had regular briefings from the CIA. George Tenet briefed us personally, his top aides briefed us, Department of Defense people briefed us.
They all concluded that there was weapons of mass destruction there. The national intelligence estimated there were one hundred to five hundred metric tons of chemical weapons in Iraq.
The British intelligence and ours, too, at one point concluded that the yellow cake was involved in developing a nuclear weapon. George Tenet, according to Bob Woodward in his book on the development of the war, raised his hands and stated to President Bush, it's a slam dunk that there is going to be found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
That's what we acted on, and that's what John Kerry had, the same evidence President Bush had, and he voted for the war and sent our soldiers in harm's way, and they're out there now carrying out our foreign policy, and we need to be supporting them and not undermining them by suggesting to the world that our president misled the American people about this war.
Now frankly, I listed in my speech, in support of the war, as did many other senators, other reasons than weapons of mass destruction. I suggested and pointed out more than weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was in consistent violation of the U.N. resolutions, that we were flying missions over Iraq daily. He was shooting at us, our airplanes. We dropped bombs on him on a regular basis. He was cheating on the embargo.
He was now, we know, defrauding the oil-for-food program, and in every way possible, he was attempting to get out from the sanctions, and as this report says quite clearly, his intention was to develop a nuclear capability and to reconstitute his chemical weapons.
JIM LEHRER: That's what I was going to ask you. Let's get back to the Duelfer report. What would you... how would you describe its real message, from your point of view, the Duelfer report that came out yesterday?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Who are you asking?
JIM LEHRER: I'm asking Sen. Sessions.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I would say it confirmed the Kay report that we found no weapons of mass destruction. It does indicate in his report that he did not reconstitute as rapidly as we expected after the first Gulf War his weapons of mass destruction program or his nuclear program, but he does indicate it was his intent.
I would just note this: It wasn't the sanctions that Mr. Duelfer said reduced the -- kept him from developing a mass destruction so much as it was the first Gulf War when we seized his nuclear powers and took over his country, or at least did that -
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: But I want to point out, Sen. Kerry voted against that first Gulf War.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Levin, what about the intent element in the Duelfer report that Sen. Sessions just referred to, and it was also in this exchange that we broadcast just now, that what Mr. Duelfer said, that there was... he did believe that Saddam Hussein did intend at some time to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program once he got rid of the sanctions?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: The reason that the administration gave for going to war, the reason why many of my colleagues voted to go to war unilaterally was because there were stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the possession of Saddam Hussein, the repeated statements of the president, the vice president, that Saddam would hand a weapon of mass destruction to a terrorist, including al-Qaida, at any time.
That was the reason for going to war, and all of the other reasons which are now given are very different from what was presented to the American people. We didn't go to war because of some future intention which people speculate that Saddam had.
That's not what the president of the United States told the American people. It is that he has stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, that he would give to a terrorist any day a nuclear weapon, that he was reconstituting, he had reconstituted, had an active nuclear weapon program. And that simply is not true. And the president is in denial.
You know, many senators, at least now, accept the reality that there were no stockpiles, at least senators, at least some of them, accept the reality that there was not an active nuclear weapon program. The president doesn't accept that. He just simply says, there is a report which says that.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sessions, you, Sen. Sessions, accept the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction stockpiles in Iraq?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I don't totally accept that. Mr. Duelfer only interviewed 30 of 130 scientists. Not one of those scientists admitted that they were involved in weapons of mass destruction, and we know he had them because he used them against the Kurds and he used them against the Iranians where one million people were killed.
We know he had a nuclear program in '91 when we went in there. So I think it would be a bit much to say for certain that there is none there.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this, Sen. Sessions, to pick up on what Sen. Levin just said, your own views aside, as a matter of history, do you agree with Sen. Levin, that what the American people were told by the president of the United States as to why we were going to war in Iraq was exactly what he just said, there were stockpiles that were this, this and that, there was no use of the word intent?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I think the president emphasized weapons of mass destruction as the basis that he talked to most of the American people about as a justification for the war, but as I said, it was a small part of my speech on the eve of the war, and I think all of us in Congress who have a grim responsibility in committing troops to war considered the whole picture.
And this was just part of it. Remember, he was told by the CIA director, Mr. Tenet, that it was a slam dunk that weapons were there.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Levin, let me ask you this: Sen. Sessions has mentioned something that both Vice President Cheney and President Bush have also said in relationship to Sen. Kerry, that he had the same intelligence information that the president had.
As the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did you have that same kind of information? Do you think that everybody had the same information?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Not exactly. We had approximately the same information, but not precisely. The president gets these daily briefings which we do not get, which are much more specific.
There was available to the president the underlying information that went into the so-called estimates which are broadly available, but the one thing which the president did which Kerry did not do was to exaggerate beyond the intelligence which was given to him.
What the president said is we know with certainty that he has stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. We know with certainty that he has reconstituted a nuclear weapons program, that he has sought uranium in Africa.
John Kerry never said those things because those things were not accurately reflective of the underlying intelligence.
JIM LEHRER: Did you -
SEN. CARL LEVIN: And one other thing that Kerry expected is that there would be a much fuller effort to involve the international community before we would unilaterally go to war in voting for that resolution and expected, as well, that the inspections would be allowed to be completed and would not be terminated by our action of going to war.
JIM LEHRER: Senator -
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I would disagree with that strongly. Sen. Kerry and every member of the Senate knew that it was very unlikely that Saddam Hussein was going to come forward and demonstrate to the world he had none of these weapons, which had he done there would have been no war.
We knew we were authorizing the president to give him one last chance, and if he didn't accept it, military action would take place. No one in the Senate expected him to seek another resolution of the U.N. And, in fact, some of the people who voted against it did on that basis.
Three-fourths voted to give the president that authority, fully understanding the meaning of it. And John Kerry was one of them who sent our soldiers into combat. And he ought to stand by his principles and his soldiers and not undermine them.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Sen. Kerry, both of you are gentlemen of politics, and whether you like it or not, Sen. Sessions, does this Duelfer report become an issue in this presidential campaign?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I think it will be an issue in the campaign, but, you know, as the Washington Post said today, it basically just confirmed the Kay report and what everybody has assumed and what President Bush has assumed.
In fact, he's appointed an independent commission to help find out why this occurred. We've had a major reformation of the intelligence community. We just voted on that yesterday.
And we still have some other things to do to strengthen intelligence because we know it did not go as well as we would like.
JIM LEHRER: Briefly, Sen. Levin, how do you read the politics of this?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, I think that both candidates obviously are going to make their points, and one of the important points that this Duelfer report made is that the two vans which we actually captured after the war, which the vice president said were vans to produce biological weapons, he said that after we had had them in our possession, Mr. Duelfer said, there is no way that those vans could have been used to produce biological weapons.
Now, this is not a prediction in advance of the war as to what would be found in Iraq or what Saddam Hussein had.
This is the characterization after those vans were captured by us by the vice president of the United States as recently as a few months ago still saying that those vans were evidence of a biological weapons program and Duelfer said no way.
JIM LEHRER: So the answer to my question is, yes, you think it's going to be a big deal in the campaign; both of you believe that, right?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: They'll both make their points; I think they're important ones. No one supports troops, as far as I know, better than John Kerry. He's been there.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: He voted against $87 billion to support them. He's waffled on the war since he voted to commit them, and that is a very dangerous thing in a man who would want to be commander-in-chief.
JIM LEHRER: You just proved my point. Thank you both very much. Thank you.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Thank you.