President Revises Rationale For War:

War in Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein COULD have made weapons of mass destruction

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, February 8, 2004; Page A04

President Bush and Vice President Cheney said yesterday that the war in Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein could have made weapons of mass destruction. The new rationale offered by the president and vice president, significantly more modest than earlier statements about the deposed Iraqi president's capabilities, comes after government experts have said it is unlikely banned weapons will be found in Iraq and after Bush's naming Friday of a commission to examine faulty prewar intelligence.

"Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I'm not just going to leave him in power and trust a madman," Bush said yesterday in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" that will be broadcast today. "He's a dangerous man. He had the ability to make weapons at the very minimum."

Cheney delivered a nearly identical message yesterday to a group of Republican donors in suburban Chicago. "We know that Saddam Hussein had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction," he said. "And Saddam Hussein had something else -- he had a record of using weapons of mass destruction against his enemies and against his own people."

In the NBC interview, excerpts of which were released by the network, Bush also said the CIA is "ably led" by its director, George J. Tenet, and that Tenet's job is "not at all" in jeopardy. Tenet, in a speech last week, defended the agency's Iraq intelligence. While he acknowledged flaws, he said the CIA did not argue that Hussein was a certain or imminent threat.

Before the invasion of Iraq 11 months ago, Bush and Cheney both argued that Iraq was an urgent threat to the United States, stating with certainty that Iraq had chemical and biological arms and had rebuilt a nuclear weapons program. "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," Bush said in March 2003.

Bush said he would "visit" with the commission he named last week to investigate the Iraq intelligence but suggested that he would not testify before it. Asked about why the commission will not report until next March -- after the presidential election -- while a similar commission in Britain will operate much more quickly, Bush said: "We didn't want it to be hurried. This is a strategic look, kind of a big-picture look about the intelligence-gathering capacities of the United States of America."

While saying that "it's important this investigation take its time," Bush added that "there is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made good calls" in ousting Hussein.

Bush addressed himself to relatives of the more than 500 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. "For the parents of the soldiers who have fallen who are listening, David Kay, the weapons inspector, came back and said, in many ways Iraq was more dangerous than we thought," he said. "We are in a war against these terrorists who could bring great harm to America, and I've asked these young ones to sacrifice for that."

Bush's appearance on the Sunday talk show, the first of his presidency, comes as new polls show declining public support for his leadership. A Newsweek poll released yesterday found that 48 percent of Americans approve of his performance in office, the lowest in three years. By 50 percent to 45 percent, respondents said they did not want to see him reelected.

Another poll, by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, found support for Bush at 64 percent after his State of the Union address Jan. 20, but plunged to 54 percent between Jan. 26 and Jan. 31 -- the time when Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector, said weapons stocks were unlikely to be found in Iraq. Bush's approval rating stands at 56 percent in this poll.

Though Bush has been careful about acknowledging fault in the prewar intelligence, or his allegations against Hussein, he said in naming the commission Friday that Kay "stated that some prewar intelligence assessments by America and other nations about Iraq's weapons stockpiles have not been confirmed. We are determined to figure out why."