Thursday, July 24, 2003

Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday said critics of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, now at a safe distance from the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, are trying to cast doubt on the effort by ignoring years of intelligence that proved the dictator was a present danger to America.

In a rare public appearance, the vice president cited a now-declassified intelligence document in which six U.S. security agencies concurred that “Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program” and “could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.”

“This warning could hardly be more blunt or disturbing,” Mr. Cheney said in a speech to about 200 people at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“To shrug off such a warning would have been irresponsible in the extreme. And so President Bush faced that information and acted to remove the danger.”

Mr. Cheney also ticked off a litany of facts about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, countering charges leveled by congressional Democrats — including several running for president against Mr. Bush in 2004 — that the administration hyped intelligence to present Saddam as a greater threat than he actually was.

Highlighting the list was the assertion, agreed to by a majority of the nation’s intelligence agencies, that “all key aspects — the [research and development], production and weaponization — of Iraq’s offensive biological weapons program are active, and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War” in 1991.

“Knowing these things, how could we, I ask, have allowed that threat to stand? These judgments were not lightly arrived at, and all who were aware of them bore a heavy responsibility for the security of America. When the decision fell to him, President Bush was not willing to place the future of our security and the lives of our citizens at the mercy of Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Cheney said.

“Those charged with the security of this nation could not read such an assessment and pretend that it did not exist. Ignoring such information or trying to wish it away would be irresponsible in the extreme. And our president did not ignore that information.”

Mr. Cheney said his boss exhausted all courses of action before leading the nation to war and said critics are trying to “rewrite history.”

“Every measure was taken to avoid a war, but it was Saddam Hussein himself who made war unavoidable,” he said. “Twelve years of diplomacy, more than a dozen Security Council resolutions, hundreds of U.N. weapons inspectors and even strikes against military targets in Iraq — all of these measures were tried to compel Saddam Hussein’s compliance with the terms of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire. All of these measures failed.”

Pointing out that Congress “overwhelmingly” voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and that the U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution vowing serious consequences if Saddam did not fully and immediately comply with its mandates, the vice president said Mr. Bush gave the dictator and his sons 48 hours to leave the country.

“Saddam’s decision to defy the world was among the last he made as the dictator of that country,” Mr. Cheney said.

The vice president also detailed exactly why the United States led a coalition to remove Saddam.

“If we had not acted, Saddam Hussein and his sons would still be in power. If we had not acted, the torture chambers would still be in operation, the prison cells for children would still be filled, the mass graves would still be undiscovered, the terror network would still enjoy the support and the protection of the regime, Iraq would still be making payments to the families of suicide bombers attacking Israel, and Saddam Hussein would still control vast wealth to spend on his chemical, biological and nuclear ambitions.”

The United States, Mr. Cheney said, must challenge regimes like Saddam’s as a result of September 11, which ushered in “an entirely different era.”

“For decades, terrorists have waged war against this country,” he said. “They target the innocent as a means of spreading chaos and fear, and to shake our national resolve. This enemy holds no territory, defends no population, is unconstrained by rules of warfare and respects no law of morality.

“Such an enemy cannot be deterred, contained, appeased or negotiated with. It can only be destroyed, and that’s the business at hand,” Mr. Cheney said.

As for critics, who say Mr. Bush hyped intelligence when he cited a uranium connection between Iraq and Niger in his State of the Union address Jan. 28, Mr. Cheney said the president has been forthcoming with Americans.

“I’ve watched for more than a year now as President Bush kept the American people constantly informed of the dangers we face and of his determination to confront those dangers,” he said. “There was no need for anyone to speculate what the president was thinking. His words were clear and straightforward and understood by friend and enemy alike.”

The vice president also pointed out that only after the U.S. victory — and the guerrilla warfare that has broken out as coalition forces restore Iraq’s infrastructure — did congressional critics begin questioning the war’s premise, which many had supported.

“When the moment arrived to make the tough call, when matters came to the point of choosing, and the safety of the American people was at stake, President Bush acted decisively, with resolve, and with courage,” he said. “Now the regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever.”

While noting “the ability to criticize is one of the great strengths of our democracy,” he said critics “have an obligation to answer this question: How can any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?”

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