WASHINGTON—The Bush administration launched a campaign Thursday to blunt the effect of a damaging report that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction by arguing that the report's findings still justify the decision to invade Iraq.
President Bush said the report by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer shows that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was manipulating the United Nations' oil-for-food program to gain influence with countries that could help him lift U.N. economic sanctions.
"He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program, once the world looked away," Bush said in his first comments on the report, which found Saddam had no stockpiles of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and no concrete programs to make them.
"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," the president said.
But Bush also made his most emphatic statement yet on his administration's error, saying Duelfer's findings show that U.S. and allied intelligence on Iraq's weapons "was wrong."
Duelfer concluded that Saddam hadn't restarted his nuclear weapons program, had destroyed biological and chemical weapons stocks, and had hoped to eventually redevelop such weapons to deter neighboring Iran and enhance his regional power, not to attack the United States, as Bush and his aides claimed.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, charged Thursday that the report showed that Bush had "fictionalized" the threat from Saddam. The White House, Kerry said, was in "absolute full spin mode" over its findings.
But Bush and his top aides sought to focus attention on parts of the Duelfer report that revealed Saddam's elaborate plans to evade and weaken the U.N. sanctions, which they said would free him to revive banned weapons programs.
Duelfer said dozens of influential world figures and some American companies were given the right to buy specific quantities of Iraqi oil below world market prices. They could resell these rights at a profit.
Among those who received these rights, according to Duelfer, were Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Charles Pasqua, France's interior minister.
By awarding these rights, Saddam was hoping to get their help to lift sanctions against his regime, according to Duelfer's report.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview with Knight Ridder, said Saddam "was doing everything he could to get out from under the sanctions. He was cheating on the sanctions."
Powell made the administration's case on Saddam's weapons programs and ties to terrorism in a February 2003 address to the U.N. Security Council.
Powell also cited Saddam's "potential" connections to terrorist organizations as a reason to act.
"All those things taken together suggest that this was just a danger to the region, to the world, and in the post-9/11 environment, it was a risk the president was not willing to take," Powell said.
Yet in another classified report delivered to policy-makers last week, the CIA found that it couldn't confirm that Saddam had a relationship with terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as Powell had suggested in his U.N. address.
The secretary of state said that, nonetheless, al-Zarqawi "had a presence in Baghdad. He traveled in and out. He was responsible for the murder" of U.S. Agency for International Development official Laurence Foley in neighboring Jordan.
Campaigning in Florida, Vice President Dick Cheney highlighted the Duelfer report's finding that Saddam had siphoned off billions of dollars from the U.N. oil-for-food program and hoped to bribe other countries.
"As soon as the sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going back to business as usual" and restarting the weapons programs, Cheney told a town hall meeting of supporters in Miami. "So delay, defer, wait was not an option."
The arguments Bush, Cheney and Powell made Thursday were a far cry from their pre-war arguments for invading Iraq.
Cheney, who was among the most vocal officials warning of the threat from Saddam, said then that the Iraqi dictator had weapons stockpiles that he might give to terrorists. Cheney suggested at one point that Saddam might have nuclear weapons.
Additionally, Duelfer's report doesn't go as far as Cheney did Thursday in predicting what Saddam might have done.
Duelfer, who interviewed Saddam, concluded the deposed dictator wanted to restart the weapons programs he had abandoned after the 1991 Gulf War and could have done so within months of sanctions being lifted.
But Duelfer also wrote that "the regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions."
Democratic lawmakers and other critics say Duelfer's report shows that the U.N. inspections and international sanctions were working to contain Saddam's ambitions.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Charles Homans in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHENEY