- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

The White House yesterday stood by prewar intelligence reports that Iraq had massive amounts of banned weapons, despite growing Democratic demands for conclusive proof.

President Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, deflected numerous media inquiries yesterday by citing a CIA report that concluded truck trailers found in Iraq were used to produce biological weapons. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had warned the United Nations about the mobile labs before the war.

“The president is indeed satisfied with the intelligence that he received,” Mr. Fleischer said. “Just as Secretary Powell described to the United Nations, we have found the bio trucks that can be used only for the purpose of producing biological weapons.

“That’s proof perfect that the intelligence in that regard was right on target,” he added.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Bush made his case for war by overplaying the notion that Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, not to mention links to the al Qaeda terrorism network.

“I do think that we hyped nuclear, we hyped al Qaeda, we hyped the ability to disperse and use these weapons,” Mr. Biden said this week on NBC News. “I think that tends to be done by all presidents when they are trying to accomplish a goal that they want to get broad national support for.”

He added: “I think a lot of the hype here is a serious, serious, serious mistake and it hurts our credibility.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz downplayed the importance of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a rationale for starting the war.

“For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on,” Mr. Wolfowitz said in the interview with Vanity Fair.

Mr. Wolfowitz said another reason for the war, which he described as “almost unnoticed, but huge,” was that it would pave the way for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden’s rage against America was fueled largely by the presence of U.S. troops on the sacred soil of Mecca and Medina.

“Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door” to a more peaceful Middle East, Mr. Wolfowitz told the magazine.

Mr. Wolfowitz’s boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has steadfastly cited weapons of mass destruction as a primary rationale for the war, both before and after. On Tuesday, he said ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces might have eradicated any evidence of such weapons.

“It is also possible that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict,” he said.

But Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “beginning to believe” that the administration’s prewar intelligence reports on banned weapons were overstated.

Mr. Rockefeller, also appearing on NBC, called on Congress to probe whether the White House “intentionally overestimated” Iraq’s weapons program, or “just misread it.” He added: “In either case, it’s a very bad outcome.”

Even Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Intelligence Committee chairman, said that if the weapons are not found, “you have a real credibility problem.” However, Mr. Roberts emphasized to NBC’s Tim Russert that he believes such weapons will be found.

“There’s not any doubt that he had weapons of mass destruction,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, on CNN. “The question is, where are they?”

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, last week accused Mr. Bush of rationalizing the war with a “house of cards, built on deceit.”

Despite such complaints, the American public appears untroubled by the rationale for the war. A poll this month by CBS News and the New York Times found that 56 percent of Americans believe the war was worth the loss of American lives, even if weapons of mass destruction are never found. Only 38 percent said the war will not have been worth it.

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