- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

President Bush yesterday acknowledged that prewar intelligence claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was “wrong,” although he emphasized the war itself was just.

“Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there,” he said on the South Lawn of the White House. “The accumulated body of 12 years of our intelligence and that of our allies was wrong.”

The blunt acknowledgment came one day after U.S. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer issued a comprehensive report on the absence of weapons of mass destruction, which Mr. Bush had used as a major justification for war.

Despite the concession, Mr. Bush said that “based on all the information we have today, I believe we were right to take action, and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison.”

After the president’s remarks, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry held a press conference to accuse Mr. Bush of going into “absolute full spin mode.”

“You don’t make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact,” Mr. Kerry said. “That’s not how it works in the United States of America, and that’s not how it should work.”

He also said Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “may well be the last two people on the planet who won’t face the truth about Iraq.”

The war of words foreshadowed today’s presidential debate in St. Louis, where the Duelfer report is certain to come up. Mr. Bush hoped to pre-empt Mr. Kerry yesterday by reminding voters that the Massachusetts Democrat had cited the same intelligence in voting to authorize war.

“Just a short time ago my opponent had a little press conference and continued his pattern of overheated rhetoric — accused me of deception,” Mr. Bush told a rally in Wausau, Wis.

“He’s claiming that I misled America about weapons, when he himself cited the very same intelligence about Saddam’s weapons programs as the reason he voted to go to war,” he added.

The president then took the unusual step of quoting an extended passage from a speech Mr. Kerry delivered on the Senate floor two years ago — “back when he was for the war.”

In the speech, Mr. Kerry spoke ominously of “Saddam Hussein, sitting in Baghdad with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.”

“In the wake of September the 11th, who among us can say with any certainty to anybody that those weapons might not be used against our troops or against allies in the region?” Mr. Kerry said in the speech.

“Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater — a nuclear weapon — then reinvade Kuwait or push the Kurds out, attack Israel, any number of scenarios to try to further his ambitions?”

He added: “Can we afford to ignore that possibility that Saddam Hussein might accidentally, as well as purposely, allow those weapons to slide off to one group or another in a region where weapons are the currency of trade?”

After reciting the quote, Mr. Bush ridiculed Mr. Kerry’s complaints about the absence of weapons.

“Now, today my opponent tries to say I made up reasons go to war,” he said. “Just who’s the one trying to mislead the American people?”

Speaking in Englewood, Colo., Mr. Kerry said the Duelfer report and recent comments by former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer that the United States committed too few troops “provided definitive evidence as to why George Bush should not be re-elected.”

Mr. Kerry said he has laid out a solid plan for proceeding in Iraq, but added that he cannot predict what the situation will be in January, when he would take office if elected.

“If the president just does more of the same every day and it continues to deteriorate, I may be handed Lebanon,” he said, referring figuratively to a country that in the 1970s and ‘80s was so riven by civil war as to be ungovernable.

After acknowledging the absence of weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Bush emphasized new disclosures about the burgeoning oil-for-food scandal, in which Saddam curried international influence and gained money to buy banned weapons by passing out lucrative oil vouchers.

“The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the U.N. oil-for-food program to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions,” he said. “He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program, once the world looked away.”

Moreover, the president insisted that Saddam, while not possessing weapons, would have manufactured them eventually.

“He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction,” he added. “And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies.”

Instead of referring to the weapons flap as an honest mistake, Mr. Kerry accused the president of having “fictionalized” the threat from Iraq. But when pressed on the matter, he said Iraq’s dictator did pose a threat.

“I said all the time, consistently, I’ve said Saddam Hussein presented a threat. I voted for the authorization [to go to war] because he presented a threat,” he said, though he added that this didn’t mean war was the right action.

“There are all kinds of options available to a president to deal with threats, and I consistently laid out to the president how to deal with Saddam Hussein, who was a threat. If I had been president, I would have wanted the same threat of force; but as I’ve said a hundred times, if not a thousand, in this campaign, there was a right way to use that authority and a wrong way.”

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