President Bush insisted Monday that his decision to wage war against Iraq was justified because it had removed a threat to the nation’s security, and said the United States would continue to confront terrorism even when the dangers had not fully developed.
Speaking at a U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory, Bush made his most elaborate comments on Iraq since the release Friday of a scathing bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which said the United States had gone to war on the basis of flawed intelligence.
The report, which quickly became fodder for new criticisms of the administration by Bush’s election opponents, said warnings about Iraq’s illicit weapons were largely unfounded. It said the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had made a series of sweeping errors that, among other things, led to incorrect conclusions that Iraq had stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program.
But Bush continued to raise the prospect that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, had he not been forced from power, would have posed a grave threat.
“Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq,” the president said in an address at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them.”
Eight times during the 32-minute speech, Bush said America was safer because of his efforts to attack terrorists and control nuclear bomb-making technology.
The president also suggested that the United States remained committed to its policy of preemptive attacks -- though he did not use those words -- against terrorists and the nations that harbored them. “America is also taking a new approach in the world,” he said. “We’re determined to challenge new threats, not ignore them or simply wait for future tragedy.”
Later he added: “America must remember the lessons of Sept. 11. We must confront serious dangers before they fully materialize.”
The Senate committee report has prompted broad criticisms of U.S. intelligence services, particularly the CIA. Many considered it a key reason for the departure of longtime CIA Director George J. Tenet, who announced his resignation before the findings became public and who left office Sunday.
But in visiting Oak Ridge, a top-secret nuclear weapons manufacturing and storage facility, Bush sought to underscore what he said were successes by the intelligence community.
Calling them “sobering evidence of a great danger,” the president viewed centrifuges and other equipment released by Libya after it agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program late last year. He said Libya abandoned its nuclear ambitions only after the CIA helped break up a network of nuclear plans and equipment suppliers operated by a Pakistani scientist, A.Q. Khan.
“Breaking this proliferation network was possible because of the outstanding work done by the CIA,” Bush said. “Dedicated intelligence officers were tireless in obtaining vital information, sometimes at great personal risk. Our intelligence services do an essential job for America.”
Bush also spoke directly about the Senate report, using language more muted than have CIA critics. “The Senate Intelligence Committee has identified some shortcomings in our intelligence capabilities,” he said. “The committee’s report will help us in the work of reform.”
Bush said the nation needed more intelligence agents around the world and better coordination among agencies. He did not discuss whom he might choose to replace Tenant.
Bush spoke in front of a backdrop reading “Protecting America,” in line with his central campaign theme that America is “safer, stronger, better” than before he took office.
Polls show that support for the president’s decision to go to war against Iraq has waned significantly since last year. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry hopes to capitalize on the increased lack of support.
The Massachusetts senator and other Democrats say that countries with more advanced weapons capabilities, such as North Korea and Iran, posed a greater threat to the U.S. than did Iraq, and that the danger of terrorism has increased, not decreased, since the war began.
On a campaign stop in Boston, Kerry responded to the speech by arguing that during Bush’s presidency, a U.S. program to secure nuclear materials from other nations has stored fewer materials, especially those originating in the former Soviet Union, than it did before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The facts speak for themselves,” Kerry added. “North Korea is more dangerous today than it was when this administration came into power. I have proposed a major new initiative to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism -- to reduce nuclear materials falling into the hands of our terrorists.”
Kerry also promised to appoint a national director of intelligence “who will change our ability to be able to gather intelligence that is real, to be accountable, and to make America safe.”
“That’s what Americans want,” Kerry said. “Real results, not speeches.”
Kerry has argued that Bush’s policies have eroded the goodwill of U.S. allies. In an apparent answer to that critique, Bush on Monday highlighted the cooperation of other countries in his anti-terrorism and anti-proliferation policies.
He said 60 nations were taking part in counter-proliferation programs he had promoted, and that 40 nations were aiding in Afghanistan and 30 in Iraq.
Democrats argue that Libya’s decision to relinquish its nuclear weapons capability was set in motion by diplomacy begun in the 1990s by European allies, especially Great Britain.
Bush acknowledged that diplomacy played a central role in Libya’s decision, but also said his own policies were critical. In the past, Bush has argued that the decision to wage war on Iraq last spring sent an unmistakable message to Libya about the consequences of seeking weapons of mass destruction.
“Every potential adversary now knows that terrorism and proliferation carry serious consequences, and that the wise course is to abandon those pursuits,” Bush said Monday.
The president’s departure from McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Knoxville was complicated slightly by a mechanical problem with the plane he used to fly to Tennessee. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said a routine check of the aircraft -- a 747 version of Air Force One -- discovered that a flap on the left wing had come off its track.
As a precaution, the president returned to Washington on a 757 version of Air Force One.
McClellan said the flap problem was not considered serious and that the 747 was expected to return to Andrews Air Force Base later in the day.
It was the second time this month that a mechanical problem grounded one of the aircraft that carry the “Air Force One” designation when the president is aboard. On July 4, a problem with an engine on the left wing led to a last-minute substitution of an aircraft.
Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga in Boston contributed to this report.