President Bush acknowledged Thursday that the United States had not found the banned weapons that his administration believed were in Iraq, but he defended the war as “the right thing” to do.
“We have not yet found the stockpiles of weapons that we thought were there,” Bush said in a speech at the Port of Charleston in his clearest acknowledgment of problems with prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons.
However, he said, “Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq.”
The president is scheduled to answer questions Saturday in an interview to air Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Going after his critics
In a speech that laid out a political defense of his Iraq policy in an election year, Bush also blasted critics of the war, saying, “If some politicians in Washington had their way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power.”
Bush spoke shortly after CIA Director George Tenet defended his agency’s work despite intelligence that had inaccurately accused ousted Saddam of maintaining stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Those accusations were at the heart of Bush’s case for going to war. Tenet said in a speech in Washington that the intelligence community was neither “completely right nor completely wrong” about Iraq and said analysts “never said there was an imminent threat.”
Bush and other administration officials did say before the war that Iraq presented an “immediate” or “gathering” threat, and long after the war they maintained confidence in finding banned weapons. The former chief U.S. arms inspector in Iraq, David Kay, said last week that U.S. prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons was almost all wrong.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush still had “great confidence” in Tenet.
‘We had a choice’
Bush insisted Thursday that he acted properly in going to war. “We had a choice — either take the word of a madman or take action to defend the American people. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.”
Saddam “had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction,” including scientists, technology and infrastructure, he said.
“We know Saddam Hussein had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction because he hid all those activities from the world until the last day of his regime. And Saddam Hussein had something else: He had a record of using weapons of mass destruction against his enemies and against innocent Iraqi citizens,” Bush said.
Bush was expected to announce the appointment of a commission Friday to investigate prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Bush’s speech to military personnel and others in South Carolina, a state that had been crawling with Democratic presidential candidates before Tuesday’s primary, was heavily laced with re-election campaign themes of the economy and national security.
After the speech, Bush also made a campaign-style quick stop at the Sticky Fingers restaurant and bar to greet customers.
The South Carolina stop was similar to one in New Hampshire two days after that state’s primary last month.
“These Democrats have had the state playing field to themselves for months,” said Scott Reed, a prominent Republican strategist. “They have spent millions of dollars advertising, and most of it has been negative towards Bush. There is something to be said for going back in there, getting the [poll] numbers back in balance, and charge up the base of your party so they stay in the Bush column.
Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by 57 percent to 41 percent in South Carolina in 2000. The winner of this year’s Democratic primary in South Carolina, John Edwards, was born in the state and represents neighboring North Carolina in the Senate.