March 5, 2004

Iraq Threat Deliberately Inflated, Kennedy Says

By DOUGLAS JEHL

New York Times

WASHINGTON, March 5 — Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts today delivered a blistering indictment of President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, accusing Mr. Bush of deliberately exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

The speech by Mr. Kennedy to the Council on Foreign Relations was the most detailed Democratic assault to date on the issue. He has played a high-profile role in Senator John Kerry's presidential campaign, and the tone and timing of his remarks suggested that Democrats see merit in opening a new election-year challenge on the issue of Mr. Bush's credibility.

Mr. Kennedy accused the president of resorting to "pure, unadulterated fear-mongering, based on a devious strategy to convince the American people that Saddam's ability to provide nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda justified immediate war."

He also accused the Bush administration of going well beyond the assessments provided by intelligence agencies in its prewar depictions of Iraq, its alleged illicit arsenal and its ties to terrorism. The senator singled out George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who said last month that his agency had never portrayed Iraq has having presented an imminent threat to the United States, as having failed in his obligation to correct statements by Mr. Bush that described the Iraqi threat as "unique and urgent" and "grave."

President Bush has said that he acted on the best intelligence available, and that previous administrations had also considered Saddam Hussein a threat. Mr. Bush and his top advisers have said, too, that deadly unconventional weapons may yet be found in Iraq, and that the military campaign and peacekeeping operation are part of the worldwide battle against terrorism.

But Senator Kennedy has repeatedly questioned the justification for war, and he did so today in perhaps his sharpest words yet.

"Why wasn't C.I.A. Director Tenet correcting the president and the vice president and the Secretary of Defense a year ago, when it could have made a difference, when it could have prevented a needless war, when it could have saved so many lives?" Mr. Kennedy asked.

The Central Intelligence Agency had no immediate comment on Mr. Kennedy's speech. But in anticipation of it, two Republican senators, John Kyl of Arizona and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, circulated a letter noting that Democratic lawmakers as well as Republicans had made prewar statements that portrayed Iraq and its alleged weapons stockpiles as presenting an urgent threat to American security.

In his criticism of President Bush, Mr. Kennedy said: "The most important decision any president makes is the decision on war or peace. No president who misleads the country on the need for war deserves to be re-elected. A president who does so must be held accountable. The last thing our nation needs is a sign on the desk in the Oval Office in the White House that says, 'The buck doesn't stop here anymore.' "

In a separate speech today, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee planned to accuse the Bush administration of remaining "in a deep state of denial" in addressing flaws in the country's intelligence system, according to an prepared text provided by her office.

The fact that no chemical or biological weapons have been found in Iraq, despite prewar assertions by American intelligence agencies that Iraq possessed such devices, is only the most recent sign of those flaws, said the Democrat, Representative Jane Harman of California.

"Recent actions inside the C.I.A. are encouraging," Ms. Harman said in her remarks for a planned address to the American Enterprise Institute, "but there are no discernible signs from the vice president or president acknowledging the obvious flaws in our intelligence systems."

Mr. Bush announced last month the appointment of an independent commission to review intelligence problems, particularly as related to the proliferation of illicit weapons, including nuclear devices. But he has set a deadline of March 2005 for the commission to report back to the White House, a decision that Ms. Harman likened to having "kicked the can down the road." She recommended that the administration take immediate steps now, including a full-scale review of existing intelligence estimates worldwide involving illicit weapons, often called weapons of mass destruction.

"If estimates of Iraq's W.M.D. programs were so off the mark, we must be concerned that systemic deficiencies in intelligence analysis on other W.M.D. programs and activities exist, such as those in Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan."

A decision to postpone the deadline for any review until next year "will not make us safer," Ms. Harman said, adding: "That is like the auto mechanic who says, 'I'm sorry I can't fix your brakes this week, but don't worry because I made your horn louder."