Kerry and Bush Each Claim CIA Iraq Report Backs Them

Times Staff Writers

Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry on Thursday said a new CIA report proved the U.S. was duped into war while President Bush argued that it justified sending in troops, starkly dividing the two candidates as they headed into the pair’s second debate tonight.

The report, released Wednesday, said Iraq did not have a program to produce or possess any weapons of mass destruction for more than a decade.

The Bush administration cited the existence of the weapons as the central rationale for going to war in March 2003. Responding to the CIA report Thursday morning, Bush did not mention the lack of their existence. Instead, he spoke as though the CIA report contained evidence justifying the war.


He and Vice President Dick Cheney cited corruption in a United Nations-sponsored food-for-oil program to argue that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein needed to be ousted.

“I believe we were right to take action, and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison,” Bush told reporters in Washington.

“He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction. And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies.... In a world after Sept. the 11th, he was a threat we had to confront.”

Kerry, who was preparing in Englewood, a Denver suburb, for tonight’s debate, accused Bush and Cheney of refusing to deal with reality.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States and vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won’t face the truth about Iraq,” the Massachusetts senator said.

The two takes on the same report, presented by Charles A. Duelfer, head of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group weapons-hunting team, shows just how fractured the discussion about Iraq has become between the two presidential candidates.

The CIA report comes at an inopportune moment for Bush, who was largely seen as having been the loser of the first debate and who faces a pivotal debate with the Democratic challenger tonight in St. Louis.

At a rally with several thousand supporters in Wausau, Wis., the president focused on attacking Kerry, rather than talking about the report.

In an attempt to argue that Kerry has changed his position on the use of military force on Iraq, he accused Kerry of once describing Hussein as a terrorist threat, but now calling Iraq a “diversion.”

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

Kerry, however, homed in on the CIA report to argue that the Republican incumbent was refusing to take responsibility for his handling of Iraq.

“Does he take responsibility for his mistakes? Does he recognize publicly how bad the situation is, and lead the way a leader should lead?” he asked. “Of course not.... For President Bush, it’s always someone’s else fault.”

Kerry, who voted in October 2002 to give Bush authority to use force against Hussein’s regime, said the report proved that U.N. sanctions prevented the Iraqi ruler from resuming a program to build weapons of mass destruction.

The Democratic challenger said the administration’s talk of weapons of mass destruction was “purposely used” to turn Americans’ attention from Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden -- the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks -- to Hussein, “an enemy that they aggrandized and fictionalized.”

Bush and Cheney focused on one portion of the CIA report that cited corruption in the U.N.-sponsored food-for-oil program. The president said Hussein had ulterior motives for trying to persuade countries and companies abroad to help him end the sanctions.

“He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program, once the world looked away,” Bush said.

The Bush campaign hastened to note that Kerry had cited Hussein’s supposed weapons program as the justification for his vote to authorize invading Iraq, and had repeatedly warned over the years that Iraq posed a threat, even with inspections.

Kerry said Thursday that he still believes Hussein was a threat, and would have wanted a congressional authorization to use force against him if he had been president. But he argued that there were other ways to neutralize the Iraqi dictator than invading the country.

“It is completely consistent that you can see him as a threat and deal with him realistically, just as we saw the Soviet Union and China and others as threats, and have dealt with them in other ways,” he said.

Campaigning in Florida and Wisconsin, on the eve of the second presidential debate, Cheney and Bush moved quickly to try and minimize any damage from the CIA report.

The vice president set the tone early in the day -- using the report to justify U.S. military action. Speaking in Fort Myers, Fla., he emphasized its findings about Hussein’s corruption of the U.N. program and said sanctions against Iraq were breaking down before the invasion.

“The notion that we could have waited, for example, not doing anything [and] sooner or later Saddam would no longer be on the scene doesn’t make any sense,” Cheney said.

“As soon as sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going right back to business as usual and ... re-energizing his whole weapons of mass destruction program.... So delay, defer, wait, wasn’t an option.”

As for the report’s finding that no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq existed, Cheney was dismissive: “We already knew that.”

Broadening his comments to national security, he launched into a lengthy defense of the USA Patriot Act and predicted that Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, would sharply attack it -- a claim the Kerry campaign staunchly rebutted as a sign of political desperation.

Edwards, campaigning in Bayonne, N.J., seized on the CIA report to echo Kerry’s contention that Bush and Cheney were glossing over the realities of the Iraq war and growing evidence of their flawed rationale for the U.S. invasion.

“They are willing to say left is right, up is down,” the North Carolina senator told several hundred supporters on a dock across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan.

Bush and Cheney, he said, “need to recognize that the Earth is actually round, that the sun rises in the east, that there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and Sept. the 11th.”

Aides to Bush and Kerry, meanwhile, engaged in the ritual pre-debate tamping down of expectations. But advisors in both camps acknowledged tonight’s event will play an important role in building momentum in the race before the final showdown on Wednesday.

After that third and last debate, there will be less than three weeks left until the Nov. 2 election.

News headlines have worked to Bush’s disadvantage over the last week, with the CIA report contradicting the reasons he gave for invading Iraq, and members of his own team, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, calling other aspects of administration policy on the war into question.

The debate “is a real challenge for Bush, given the way events are going,” said Wayne Fields, a debate expert at Washington University.

Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry campaign strategist, said the town hall format plays to Bush’s strengths ability to personally connect with voters.

“He’s someone who naturally connects with people,” he said. “This is the format where we expect he will do best.”

Bush aides similarly played up Kerry’s debating abilities, reaching back more than 25 years to his work as a county prosecutor in Massachusetts and likening the town hall audience to a trial jury.

“We expect him to be very articulate and very effective,”’ said Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager.


Reynolds reported from Wausau, Wis., Gold from Englewood, Colo. Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Florida, Michael Finnegan in New Jersey and Mark Z. Barabak in St. Louis contributed to this report.