RAY SUAREZ: The debate that won't end. Did the administration mislead the country into war in Iraq? Kwame Holman has this week's installment.
KWAME HOLMAN: As President Bush left for Asia Monday, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry was on the Senate floor charging the administration used faulty intelligence to justify ousting Saddam Hussein.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: The war in Iraq was and remains one of the great acts of misleading and deception in American history.
KWAME HOLMAN: At a stop in Alaska, President Bush rebutted that charge.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Some Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force are now rewriting the past. They are playing politics with this issue. And they are sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy. And that is irresponsible.
KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Washington, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin responded to the president.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Why is this president striking out trying to attack his critics -- because frankly he's vulnerable.
KWAME HOLMAN: The next day Vice President Cheney weighed in.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: A suggestion that has been made by some U.S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of this administration purposefully mislead the American people on prewar intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in the city.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel argued the administration should be more respectful of criticism over its use of intelligence.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: To question your government is not unpatriotic. To not question your government is unpatriotic.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president responded to Hagel's remarks during a press conference in Korea.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Listen, patriotic is apt to disagree with the president, it doesn't bother me. What bothers me is when people are irresponsibly using their positions and playing politics.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, a parallel debate developed over the issue of getting out of Iraq. Senate Democrats call for President Bush to provide dates for troop withdrawal was rejected by Republicans who argued establishing a time line would have negative consequences
SEN. BILL FRIST: Some have referred to this as the cut and run provision; that is, pick an arbitrary time line and get out of Iraq regardless of what is happening on the ground.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, senators from both parties by a vote of 79-19 agreed on a resolution calling for regular progress reports on the war from the administration and for a speedier handoff to Iraqi security forces. Democrats claimed victory.
SEN. HARRY REID: It is an important day because the American people have seen the United States Senate with a vote of no confidence for the "stay the course" policy in Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: But President Bush at a press conference in Japan said his approach would not change.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As I have consistently said, as the -- as the Iraqis stand up we will stand down.
KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, a twice wounded Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and a longtime supporter of the military, said the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Iraq immediately.
REP. JOHN MURTHA: I have concluded the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress. Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency; they are united against U.S. forces. And we have become a catalyst for violence.
KWAME HOLMAN: White House Spokesman Scott McClellan responded to Murtha's remarks saying, "It is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore. Nowhere does he explain how retreating from Iraq makes America safer."
Late this afternoon House Republicans brought a troop withdrawal resolution to the floor in an attempt to force their Democratic colleagues to go on record in support of or opposed to John Murtha's call.
RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant: New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off tonight.
Well, did the shape of the Iraq war debate change this week?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, it moved. There is no question that home front is George Bush's biggest problem right now. Things in Iraq are pretty much steady state. But things at home are moving -- moving away from the president.
And I would say the Murtha thing will move it significantly because he is a very pro-defense Democrat. And I would say his speech would have some merit if the main problem in Iraq, the main incitement to violence was the U.S. presence.
It is true the U.S. presence is an incitement to violence. A lot of people hate us so much they are committing violence but the main incitement to violence is the Sunni-Shia split. It's the incipient civil war.
Every single expert I have spoken to, Democrat or Republican says that if we get out of there, we will have a full bore civil war. We are a hated authority figure keeping that complete civil war from breaking out.
So as a policy statement, I think what Murtha did was shallow, incomprehensible. I understand his anguish. That is shared by everybody. And that's why the home front is moving so much away from the president. But as a policy, it just doesn't hold up.
RAY SUAREZ: Shallow and incomprehensible, Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: Not Jack Murtha, no. One of the things that makes him such a significant member of Congress, apart from his long record of military service, is his deep connections, not only inside the Pentagon and way below the level of the big shot suits, but his connections into the military structure itself: Staff officers, reserves, military, families, particularly where some politicians have noticed, some shifting sentiment, a kind of fed-upism, if you will.
The judgment that Americans are magnets for insurgency and for violence in Iraq is something one hears in the political debate more and more from military people themselves. Even Rumsfeld from time to time will say he's concerned about the size, because he's worried about this.
So I agree with David, at least, that Murtha has really changed the equation in terms of the home front. But his recommendation is actually front and center as a policy question over the next six months or so, because I don't think this involvement is sustainable beyond that unless the situation changes.
RAY SUAREZ: Does Murtha's statement provide cover for other wavering members of the House and Senate to come out?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think it already has. And you know, it's not -- what's not at issue is whether Congress votes to end the war. That wasn't going to happen in Vietnam. It won't happen here.
The question is: What direction has the debate moving and what impact does the home front have on the war front and President Bush's policies? And the impact is going to be significant, especially if the situation in Iraq does not change for the better soon.
RAY SUAREZ: David, given what Tom just said about Jack Murtha, does it make any sense for Republicans to say that he has waved the white flag of surrender to the terrorists, opened a policy of retreat and defeatism, or as Scott McClellan did, associate him with Michael Moore?
DAVID BROOKS: No, that is ridiculous. And everyone I spoke to today was infuriated by the White House response and can't understand, by the way, why the White House can't explain their policy.
You know, I had somebody who was on the ground there risking his life saying: Why are they AWOL on the home front; why can't they have a realistic explanation of what is going on here? Why instead are they attacking bitterly the people that are raising legitimate criticisms?
Nobody should be questioning Jack Murtha as a person, as a figure of integrity. The problem with Murtha's speech is that nowhere in the speech does he actually consider what the consequences of withdrawal would be. There is no discussion of what Iraq would look like. There is no discussion of what the Middle East would look like, or what Zarqawi would look like.
So as a policy matter, you can have disagreements. But the way the administration is trying to justify this policy is infuriating people who agree with it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Tom, our time is brief. On a separate but parallel track is the debate over prewar intelligence; is this a totally separate matter or did they move in each other's slip stream this week?
TOM OLIPHANT: It's linked as are the White House comments about Murtha. And what's going on is that the White House in the last couple of weeks has noticed a significant erosion in its support among Republicans in general and conservatives in particular. And by pressing hot buttons, the hope is that the numbers among the base will come up. The problem is that also means that the erosion in the center is likely to continue.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk about the debate over prewar intelligence. It flared up in a big way again this week.
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's a way for the Democrats to try to undermine the president. Again, my problem with it is that you can fault the administration on many things in Iraq. But there is no evidence they consciously lied about intelligence. Maybe they didn't tell the whole story. But they have been cleared by commission after commission. The Democrats have produced no evidence of willful misrepresentation.
And so to charge this, which is a heinous charge, is to me just an absurdity, an insult. And on this, I think the administration is completely correct. The Democrats are often, you know, conspiracy.
RAY SUAREZ: So in the months before the invasion, when the president said it was still possible to stop the war and that war was a last resort, do you think that was true?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think what he said about the war was very consistent with what the Clinton administration said. They believe that Saddam was five years away from a nuclear weapon. The German intelligence thought three years.
That is more or less consistent with what the Bush administration said, what the national intelligence estimate said, which the Bush administration released. You looked at that. You thought Saddam was a real problem with WMD.
And so the idea that they made this up, the idea that they exaggerated, they were lying, no one has ever actually shown evidence that they were misrepresenting in any way.
RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly.
TOM OLIPHANT: All the more reason to have phase two of the investigation of what happened, so that specific statements can be examined in terms of whether there is any support for them.