The United States went to war in Iraq not because of new intelligence about banned weapons but because Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s previously known programs were viewed differently after the September 11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told senators yesterday.
“The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass murder,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on September 11th.”
In a wide-ranging hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Rumsfeld defended the war and the U.S. intelligence used to justify it.
“The objective in the global war on terror is to prevent another attack like September 11th, or a biological, nuclear or chemical attack that would be worse, before it happens. We can say with confidence that the world is a better place today because the United States led a coalition of forces into action in Iraq,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
The administration, which has been accused by some on Capitol Hill and in the media of overstating U.S. intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, has defended the way it handled prewar intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons programs.
President Bush, speaking at a news conference yesterday with South African President Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria, South Africa, was unapologetic about his erroneous prewar assertion that Saddam had tried to buy uranium, pointing out that “he’s not trying to buy anything right now.”
After a rare White House retraction earlier this week, Mr. Bush did not directly answer a reporter who asked whether he regretted his statement in January: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
It has since been learned that documents about the purported transaction attempt were forged.
Mr. Bush went out of his way to avoid openly discussing the mistake, sidestepping repeated questions during the press conference.
“Look, there is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to theworld peace,” the president said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power.”
Yesterday, a recently retired State Department intelligence official accused the administration of acting on “faith-based intelligence” that “fostered a fundamentally flawed view of reality” and said Iraq had not posed any immediate threat before the war.
“The administration did not provide an accurate picture to the American people,” said Greg Thielmann, a 25-year Foreign Service professional who retired in the fall. “Iraq posed no immediate threat.”
While he said that “some of the fault lies in the intelligence community,” he added that most of the blame should go to the White House, which “misused” the information it was provided.
He also said that while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell never interfered in the intelligence bureau’s work, there was pressure from other political appointees.
Mr. Thielmann spoke at a news conference organized by the Arms Control Association. He noted that his retirement had nothing to do with frustration related to his accusations.
Mr. Thielmann, whose last post was director of strategic, proliferation and military affairs at the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said his office had been kept in the dark about the intelligence being given to Mr. Bush, which the president used in his decision making.
But Mr. Rumsfeld defended the intelligence running up to the war.
“As we’ve gone through this period, I think the intelligence has been quite good, and I don’t think that the fact that there is an instance where something was inaccurate ought to in any way paint a broad brush on the intelligence that we get and suggest that that’s a pattern or something; it’s just not,” he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld and retiring Gen. Tommy Franks, former chief of U.S. Central Command, said the military is committed to staying as long as it takes to restore order in Iraq. They also said they are broadening the military force there to include other nations.
Mr. Rumsfeld said 19 nations are contributing 19,000 troops, and that there are commitments from 19 more nations to contribute an additional 11,000 troops before the end of the summer. He also said discussions are being held with 11 other nations to send more troops.
There are about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and Gen. Franks said that’s the number that he thinks will be needed “for the foreseeable future.” But the troops will be rotated, the officials said.
Gen. Franks said Iran as well as Syria are meddling in Iraq, and Mr. Rumsfeld said Iran was moving its posts on the border to encroach on Iraqi territory.
“There are reports, recent reports, of Iranians moving some of their border posts along about a 25-kilometer [15-mile] stretch several kilometers inside of Iraq, obviously not being respectful of Iraq’s sovereignty,” the secretary said, calling it “behavior that’s not acceptable.”
But when asked by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, what action should be taken, Mr. Rumsfeld said that the United States is engaged in diplomacy “to try to persuade companies to not participate with Iran in developing their nuclear capabilities. And it takes time to understand the success or lack of success of those efforts.”
Many of the senators on the committee returned recently from a trip to Iraq and were concerned about the scope of resistance to U.S. efforts to impose order. Several said the resistance appeared to be getting more organized and posing an ever-greater danger to American forces.
But Gen. Franks said he doesn’t believe that to be the case.
“I recognize the same thing you recognize, which is that we see increased violence,” he said. “But I’m not ready yet to tell you that I see evidence that these violent acts are being coordinated.”
Bill Sammon, reporting from South Africa, and Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report