NBC News and news services
updated 7/12/2004 9:02:05 PM ET 2004-07-13T01:02:05

Invading Iraq made America safer, President Bush said again Monday, defending his decision to go to war in the face of a Senate report debunking White House justifications for attacking Saddam Hussein’s government.

Even as he conceded that investigators had not found the weapons of mass destruction that he had warned that Iraq possessed, Bush underscored his message by saying eight times in a speech at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that America was more secure.

It was Bush’s ninth trip to Tennessee, a state he won from Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and wants to win again in November. If listeners missed Bush’s political message, they needed only to look at the red-white-and-blue sign posted behind the podium that read: “Protecting America.”

“Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq,” Bush said after inspecting a display of nuclear weapons parts and equipment from Libya, including assembled gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

“We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them,” Bush said. “In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.”

The president offered a broad new defense of the invasion March 2003 of Iraq three days after the release of a Senate report that harshly criticized unsubstantiated intelligence cited in the run-up to the war, a crucial battle in the fight on terrorism.

The key U.S. assertions leading to the invasion — that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and was working to make nuclear weapons — were wrong and based on false or overstated CIA analyses, a scathing Intelligence Committee report asserted Friday.

Intelligence analysts fell victim to “group think” assumptions that Iraq had weapons when it did not, the bipartisan report concluded. Many factors contributing to those failures are ongoing problems within the U.S. intelligence community, which cannot be fixed with more money alone, it said.

Many ‘saw a threat,’ Bush insists
Without directly acknowledging that the intelligence was flawed, Bush said a wide array of government leaders, from members of the Clinton administration to members of Congress to the U.N. Security Council, studied the same intelligence and “saw a threat.”

During the Clinton administration, official U.S. policy toward Iraq became “regime change,” a stance that sought the ouster of Saddam, he noted.

But Saddam refused to open his country to inspections, Bush said.

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“So I had a choice to make: either take the word of a madman or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America.”

Bush has used similar rhetoric in speeches for months, but the words took on added significance in light of the Senate report condemning the Iraq intelligence.

Kerry: Too little, too late
Faced with polls that show that many Americans believe the terrorist threat against them has increased, Bush also repeated that his administration was doing everything possible to avert attacks that he said terrorists were now plotting. He argued that the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and al-Qaida had made them safer.

But Bush’s Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, responded Monday by saying Bush’s policies had made the country less safe by failing to secure nuclear material that could fall into the hands of terrorists and by allowing North Korea to become more of a threat.

“We have done too little, often too late, and even cut back our efforts,” Kerry told reporters in Boston. “It's not enough to give speeches — America will only be safer when we achieve results.”

The Kerry campaign said in a statement, meanwhile, that Bush’s “last-minute” visit to Oak Ridge was an effort to deflect attention from the Senate report on Iraqi intelligence.

Vice President Dick Cheney countered Monday by accusing the Democrats of “trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes” by criticizing the Bush administration, reminding supporters in Bethlehem, Pa., that both Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, voted to authorize military action in Iraq.

“Now, it seems, they’ve both developed a convenient case of campaign amnesia,” Cheney said.

The war on terrorism was supposed to be an easy sell on the campaign trail, and it is an important plank of Bush’s re-election effort. But a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 51 percent of Americans felt that the threat of terror was increased, not reduced.

Bush highlights Libyan deal
Bush’s trip to Tennessee was designed to showcase a victory in his administration’s campaign against weapons of mass destruction. A protester outside the complex held up a sign that read “Welcome to Oak Ridge. The WMDs are here.”

Bush was shown nuclear weapons parts and equipment from Libya, which he called “sobering evidence of a great danger.” The hardware was shipped here in March as part of an agreement with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to end his country’s nuclear weapons program.

It was the White House’s second effort to shine a spotlight on the Libyan victory; several months ago, the White House arranged a tour for journalists of the equipment.

Bush said Libya’s decision to scrap its nuclear ambitions and do away with its long-range missiles was the result of “quiet diplomacy” by the United States, Great Britain and the Libyan government. But it also was the result of outspoken public denunciations of nations that sought to threaten the world with nuclear and other weapons, he said.

He said the world knew that confrontation carried serious consequences and that the “wise course is to abandon those pursuits.”

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Norah O’Donnell in Washington, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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