President Bush defended his decision to go to war with Iraq and answered questions about his Vietnam-era military service during an interview broadcast Sunday.
Appearing in the Oval Office with interviewer Tim Russert for NBC's "Meet the Press," the president responded to charges that he hyped the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to generate support for the war.
"We remembered the fact that he had used weapons, which meant he had weapons," Bush said. "We knew the fact that he was paying for suicide bombers. We knew the fact he was funding terrorist groups. In other words, he was a dangerous man. And that was the intelligence I was using prior to the run up to this war."
David Kay, the Bush administration's own former chief weapons inspector, has stated repeatedly that the CIA's pre-war intelligence reports overestimated Iraq's weapons capabilities. The Bush administration announced the creation of a special panel last week to look into the matter and examine America's intelligence-gathering capabilities in general.
On Friday CIA Director George Tenet defended his agency, saying it never said with complete certainty that Hussein had such weapons immediately available for use (see "Bush Defends Iraq War, Calling It 'The Right Thing To Do' ").
Tenet and Kay maintain that the war in Iraq was justified, but critics complain the administration presented the Iraqi threat in black and white terms to the public while behind the scenes the CIA portrayed the situation in shades of gray.
In the interview's most telling exchange on the subject, Russert pressed the president to explain his justification for the war.
Russert: "The night you took the country to war, March 17th, you said this: 'Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.' "
Russert: "That apparently is not the case."
Russert: "How do you respond to critics who say that you brought the nation to war under false pretenses?"
Bush: "First of all, I expected to find the weapons. Sitting behind this desk making a very difficult decision of war and peace, I based my decision on the best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries thought were valid. And I made a decision based upon that intelligence in the context of the war against terror. In other words, we were attacked, and therefore every threat had to be reanalyzed. Every threat had to be looked at. Every potential harm to America had to be judged in the context of this war on terror."
The president also suggested that Hussein might have hidden or destroyed his unconventional weapons just as the U.S.-led invasion began.
Turning to domestic policy, the president defended his handling of the U.S. economy and of the federal budget deficit, which is expected to balloon to more than $500 billion this year.
Bush touted the current economic recovery and the fact that the nation's unemployment rate dropped last month. He said the budget he recently presented to Congress would cut the deficit in five years. And he repeated a long-held belief that cutting taxes spurs economic activity.
"I believe that the best way to stimulate economic growth is to let people keep more of their own money," he said. "And I believe that if you raise taxes as the economy is beginning to recover from really tough times, you will slow down economic growth."
Toward the end of the interview, Russert brought up the president's record of military service during the Vietnam War. Critics have charged that thanks to political connections, Bush was able to land a plum assignment in the Texas Air National Guard. A report that first appeared in the Boston Globe in 2000 suggested that Bush failed to show up for Guard duty for stretches as long as two years. The issue has dogged the president since he first entered politics in the mid-'90s and was raised again by the Democratic National Committee chairman in recent weeks.
"I did my duty, and it's politics, you know, to kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me," he said. "But I have been through it before. I'm used to it. What I don't like is when people say serving in the Guard may not be a true service."
Bush also agreed to make all records pertaining to his service with the Guard available.
The interview was broadcast a day after Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts took two more important steps toward winning the Democratic Party nomination. On Saturday he won caucuses in Washington and Michigan — the largest state to vote so far — by wide margins.
The losses dealt another blow to the campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean chose to bypass seven contests held in states across the country on February 3 to focus on Michigan, Washington and Maine, which votes Sunday. He later revised that plan and now says he'll withdraw from the race if he fails to win the Wisconsin primary on February 17.
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