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White House Defends Prewar Iraq Intelligence

November 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: I spoke with Dan Bartlett from the Old Executive Office Building in Washington late this afternoon, just a few hours after the president delivered these remarks during a war on terror speech in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support.

I also recognized that some of our fellow citizens and elected officials didn’t support the liberation of Iraq. And that is their right and I respect it.

As president and commander in chief I accept the responsibilities and the criticisms and the consequences that come with such a solemn decision.

While it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.

Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments related to Iraq’s weapons programs.

They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions, citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The stakes in the global war on terror are too high and the national interest is too important for politicians to throw out false charges.

These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America’s will.

As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them.

RAY SUAREZ: Dan Bartlett, welcome.

DAN BARTLETT: Thanks for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, during a tribute to America’s veterans today in Pennsylvania, the president paused for a moment and delivered one of the sharpest responses to date to his critics concerning the war in Iraq. Why did he do that?

DAN BARTLETT: Well, Ray, we really felt that it was important, as there are very critical issues in the war on terror — the battles that are underway in the country of Iraq; the broader war on terror, as we saw the bombings in Jordan — that here in Washington that we have a debate that is civil, that is the type of debate that can make the American people proud.

As the president said in his speech today, we are a country that welcomes dissent. It’s part of what makes us strong. But to have an honest debate is what the American people expect, and what we have seen day in/day out from some of President Bush’s harshest critics is to continue to level this accusation that President Bush lied or manipulated the intelligence and basically misled the American people to go to war.

That is absolutely wrong. And President Bush thought it was very important that he set the record straight because, as you know, Ray, here in Washington the old political axiom is: If you leave a charge go unanswered long enough, then people begin to believe it. And we felt that it was very important that President Bush set the record straight.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, an honest debate is what some of the Democrats in Washington say they haven’t been able to have on the Iraq war.

Today Senator Kennedy said, “Instead of providing open and honest answers about how we will achieve success in Iraq and allow our troops to begin to come home, the president reverted to the same manipulation of facts to justify a war we never should have fought.” How do you respond to that?

DAN BARTLETT: Well, Ted Kennedy has every right to disagree with the president’s decision. In fact, he voted against the war. He voted against the $87 billion to help fund our troops who are fighting in that war. He even voted against the ’91 Gulf War that had overwhelming bipartisan support as well.

So under a foreign policy of Sen. Ted Kennedy Saddam Hussein would still be in power; he would, in fact, be in charge of Kuwait right now. And that’s an honest policy debate, and we’re willing to have that discussion.

But for Senator Kennedy to continue to say that President Bush is misleading the American people is deeply irresponsible and unbecoming of the type of debate and conduct we should have in our nation’s capital.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I think what many senators have been saying is not that they were lied to as much as that the intelligence was cherry picked or rounded up, that things that didn’t fit the administration’s case were suppressed or ignored; things that supported it were presented for everybody to see.

DAN BARTLETT: Well, in fact, Ray, if you look back over all of the intelligence investigations that have taken place — and there have been several — they have found that it was the intelligence community’s judgment and not only the judgment of our intelligence community but that of many intelligence communities around the world that Saddam Hussein was a threat.

And also if you go back and look at key quotes, you can date it back to President Clinton’s administration: Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, and Defense Secretary Cohen, and then fast forward it to 2002 and Ted Kennedy himself conceding that he had weapons of mass destruction; John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, key Democrats who had access to the same intelligence that President Bush had came to the same conclusion as President Bush.

So I think that’s the problem here, is that we’re not having an honest debate. I think it would be perfectly acceptable for us to have a debate today about whether we should prematurely pull our troops out. And that’s what Ted Kennedy is asking for. His condition of success in Iraq is to bring troops home, not victory. That’s an honest debate, and we ought to have that.

But we shouldn’t have these types of political discussions that are completely reckless and baseless and false. And that’s what President Bush is trying to redirect this debate about the big issues of the day that matter, not over baseless charges based on things that don’t even stand up to scrutiny.

RAY SUAREZ: Elsewhere in his address the president said that the conflict in Washington over the conduct of the war hurts the troops and gives comfort to the enemy. Did he mean to imply that his conduct of the war is beyond criticism, or that you take the risk of hurting the troops if you criticize the way he’s prosecuted the war so far?

DAN BARTLETT: Well, I think it’s very important, Ray, that at the beginning of this statement that he made, he made it very clear that in our country one of the strengths of our democracy is dissent. Even during times of war we should have disagreement; we should debate and argue. But one thing we shouldn’t do is have a debate based on false charges.

The type of political rhetoric we’re hearing today does send the wrong signal to our troops; it does send the wrong signal to our enemies.

You have to only look at the enemy’s own thinking, the Zawahiri letter, the No. 2 man in al-Qaida, and his communication with Zarqawi, the top lieutenant for al-Qaida in Iraq; they talk about Vietnam. They talk about the withdrawal based on lack of American will as part of their key elements of their strategy.

And when we have the type of debate here that is not honest and straightforward, that doesn’t help us in our cause. That is not saying that people shouldn’t disagree. Like I said, Ted Kennedy and others voted against the war; they have every right to do so, and they have every right to explain why they don’t support what President Bush is doing. But let’s have a debate that is based upon facts. And I think that’s what the American people expect, too.

RAY SUAREZ: In the tone of the address, in the kind of language that was used, is this also a signal that the White House understands that Americans — not just 100 senators or 435 representatives — but the rank and file Americans have serious doubts about the war?

DAN BARTLETT: There’s no question that there’s anxious times for the American people about the war; there’s no way you can’t watch day in and day out to see the type of horrific violence that the enemy is willing to inflict on innocent men, women and children and not be concerned.

But I do believe that we have the right strategy in place, that the Iraqi people are demonstrating slowly but surely that not only are they engaged in this fight but they are anxious to have a free and democratic Iraq.

Oftentimes we do focus on the negative but the picture in Iraq is much different; it’s much more complete when you talk about the political progress that has been made; about the gulags that have been shut down; about the persecution of Kurds and Shia that is no longer; the fact that it is able to pass and ratify a constitution in only a short period of time of two to three years; that is enormous progress, Ray, despite the fact there’s a determined enemy in that country. That’s the type of discussion we need in this country. We need to talk about why it’s difficult because it is difficult.

Every time we have fought for and sacrificed for our country, there have been very difficult moments, and we’re in one now. But as President Bush argued in his speech today, it is critically important that we win this battle because the consequences — if you think about turning over Iraq to the likes of Zarqawi and bin Laden, you can envision a world that is much more dangerous, that is much more destabilizing not only to the Middle East but to western countries and the United States.

So that’s the debate we need to have, Ray and that’s why President Bush felt it was so important for us to clear the air about these silly charges that are being made by Democrats and other wartime critics.

RAY SUAREZ: Any American president has a lot on his plate. Do you have to get control of Iraq before you can turn your full attention to other things that the president has said are priorities like an energy plan, like deficit reduction?

DAN BARTLETT: Well, Ray, you bring up a good point. Iraq, a nation at war, is very much dominating the minds of the American people, and it’s important that President Bush — he understands his responsibility as commander in chief is to continue to educate the public about the conduct of the war, and he’ll continue to do that. His administration will continue to do that.

Secretary Rice is in Baghdad right now, as we speak, meeting with political leaders there on the ground, talking about the way forward. Other members of the administration will continue to talk about it, but they do also expect President Bush to be focusing on other priorities, whether it be focusing on the fact that we need to increase our refining capacity in this country to better handle situations like Katrina — that we help focus on helping the good people of the Gulf Coast recover from that horrific hurricane; that we focus on passing a budget that demonstrates to the American people that we can prioritize and be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.

We have to show here, Ray, that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. And President Bush, I believe in the coming weeks and months, will show that we can do just that.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you turn this around? The latest poll numbers that came out today fault the president not only for his prosecution of the war but for his personal honesty, for the ethical standards of the Bush administration, along with, as you mentioned, Hurricane Katrina.

DAN BARTLETT: Well, in politics there never is a quick fix. There’s not a Hail Mary pass that can be thrown. What the American people though expect of their government and this administration to focus on the fundamental responsibilities of our country; that means passing a budget that shows that we can be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars; that means filling a Supreme Court vacancy as President Bush is doing with Sam Alito. It means focusing on our energy needs and making sure that we increase our refining capacity and rebuild our infrastructure to make sure we are less dependent on foreign sources of oil.

It’s those types of basic fundamental responsibilities that the American people expect this administration and the Congress to focus on. And I think in the weeks and months ahead you’ll see that President Bush will do just that.

RAY SUAREZ: Are Republicans on Capitol Hill feeling freer to go their own way on issues that might be tough for them in their own states and districts?

DAN BARTLETT: I think one of the great things about the Republican Party is it is a big tent. We have a lot of different views, a common understanding and principled way of governing, but we do allow for different people to have their views expressed.

And that’s type of — I think the result of a mature party that has been governing our country for quite some time and I think in a very responsible way. But we’ll work out any differences within the party. We’ll continue to advance an agenda that is beneficial to the American people. And the president does have confidence we can meet these goals.

RAY SUAREZ: Can he prevail in the debate over treatment of detainees and the McCain amendment, which he’d like to see written out of the law?

DAN BARTLETT: Well, Ray, the treatment of detainees and overall issues of how we conduct the war on terror are critically important to this president. We are actively engaged in conversations with Sen. McCain and other members of the Senate and House to make sure that we’re able to put in provisions that we need to protect the American people but do it in a way that will make our country proud, and I think we can find common ground in that regard. So we remain optimistic we can work through these differences in the coming weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: Dan Bartlett, thanks for joining us.

DAN BARTLETT: You’re welcome.