- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

President Bush yesterday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to three former administration officials who were pivotal players in the war against terrorism.

In a ceremony in the White House East Room, the president draped the large, gold medals around the necks of former CIA Director George J. Tenet, former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer and retired Gen. Tommy Franks.

“Today this honor goes to three men who have played pivotal roles in great events, and whose efforts have made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty,” Mr. Bush said.

The president, who has acknowledged few mistakes during the Iraq war in which more than 1,000 American service members have been killed in action, appeared to be sending a message that he stands behind not only the U.S. policy in Iraq, but also the men who implement it.

Mr. Tenet, who resigned from the CIA in July after seven years as the agency’s director, has been criticized for intelligence failures before the September 11 terror attacks. It was also Mr. Tenet who told the president before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that it was a “slam-dunk” case for weapons of mass destruction.

But Mr. Bush never explicitly blamed Mr. Tenet for the intelligence lapses, and yesterday effusively praised him for his work.

“Early in his tenure as DCI, George Tenet was one of the first to recognize and address the growing threat to America from radical terrorist networks. Immediately after the attacks of September the 11th, George was ready with a plan to strike back at al Qaeda and to topple the Taliban,” Mr. Bush said.

He joked that a CIA colleague once said that “George has the intellect of a scholar and the demeanor of a longshoreman.”

Mr. Bush also ribbed Gen. Franks, who is from the same small Texas town as first lady Laura Bush.

“At a recent high school reunion, Tommy’s old principal told the general, ‘You weren’t the brightest bulb in the socket,’ to which the general replied, ‘Ain’t this a great country?’”

But Mr. Bush also applauded his longtime friend’s accomplishments in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling Gen. Franks a “liberator.”

“Tommy Franks led the forces that fought and won two wars in the defense of the world’s security, and helped liberate more than 50 million people from two of the worst tyrannies in the world,” he said.

The president also lauded Mr. Bremer, who served as the top civilian U.S. official in postwar Iraq and oversaw the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government last June.

“Jerry, Iraq is free today, and you helped make it so,” Mr. Bush said, using Mr. Bremer’s nickname. “And a free Iraq will help make generations of Americans more secure.”

Mr. Bremer has taken some blame from administration critics who say the planning for postwar Iraq was inadequate. Adding fuel to that debate, Mr. Bremer suggested this fall that the United States had paid a price in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of major combat operations because it did not have enough troops in place to stop looting.

Some Democrats criticized the awarding of the medals.

“Did George Tenet get the Medal of Freedom for his ‘slam-dunk’ case for war based on weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist? Did Paul Bremer clinch this honor for speaking out against the administration’s bungled war planning only after he’d left the job?” asked David Wade, a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he “would have reached a different conclusion” than Mr. Bush on giving the medal to Mr. Tenet. “I don’t think he served the president or the nation well.”

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