WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that plenty of information justified war with Iraq, even if some of the intelligence used to win support for the cause turned out to be false.
"I think this is very overwrought, overblown and overdrawn," Powell said about the recent admission by the White House that President Bush included erroneous information in his State of the Union address this past winter.
Bush cited an intelligence report that Iraq had tried to buy raw uranium from the African nation of Niger (search). The information turned out to be based on forged documents.
CIA and State Department officials have said they had told the White House their doubts about the report, but were ignored.
The false intelligence was excluded from Powell's presentation to the United Nations a week later, a turnabout that Powell chalked up to newer, better vetting of the intelligence.
"You get the information and you analyze it. Sometimes it holds up, and sometimes it doesn't. It's a moving train," Powell told reporters in Pretoria, South Africa (search), adding that there was "no effort or attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in this administration to mislead or to deceive the American people."
Powell, discussing a wide range of issues as he traveled with the president in Africa, said that at the time of the State of the Union speech, the intelligence community had vetted the information.
"The sentence in the State of the Union was not put in there without the knowledge and the approval of the intelligence community that saw the speech, but I can't tell you what level saw it," Powell said, adding that plenty of additional information justified the war, including data that had existed prior to the president's administration.
Democrats criticized the White House this week as U.S. soldiers continued to die in Iraq and the White House admitted the use of the phony intelligence.
A growing number of Democrats have asked Bush to seek international assistance for the Iraq occupation, and have begun to classify the attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq as part of a "guerrilla war."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that the Defense Department did not prepare adequately for post-combat operations, adding that he feared "we may find ourselves in the throes of guerrilla warfare for years."
In a separate press conference, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., suggested that Bush seek help in Iraq from NATO.
"It makes no sense at all for us to get involved and bogged down in a guerrilla war," he said.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Democratic presidential candidate, also said the president should ask the international community to help U.S. troops.
Powell avoided the third-country issue but said there was plenty of evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime pursued development of weapons of mass destruction.
At the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, weapons were found and destroyed, Powell noted, adding that in 1998, then-President Clinton ordered a four-day bombing raid because of intelligence about a resuscitated weapons program.
The secretary of state also pointed out that all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council in Oct. 2002 found Iraq to be in "material breach" of its commitment to get rid of unauthorized weapons.
"If there is anybody who thinks that Saddam Hussein had ever lost the intent to have such weapons," Powell said, "then I think that is the most naive view imaginable."
Powell said Bush would soon decide whether to send U.S. peacekeepers into Liberia (search). Liberian President Charles Taylor, accused of war crimes and offered asylum in Nigeria (search), has said he would leave the country when a peacekeeping force arrived.
In the meantime, U.S. military experts continued to assess the ground situation in Monrovia, Liberia's besieged capital. Another U.S. team planned to meet with West African diplomats this weekend in Ghana (search). The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States has offered 3,000 troops for a peacekeeping force.
"The president hasn't made any specific decisions on the level of support or actual participation," Powell said. "I expect that over the next several days ... the president will be in a position to make a decision."
He added that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself a Ghanaian, will be in Washington on Monday to meet Bush. Iraq and Liberia likely will both be on the agenda.
Powell said that the president's trip to Africa, originally scheduled for January, had been long on substance, short on style.
"We have put before the people of Africa a solid agenda that talks about aid and trade, talks about investment, talks about the greatest threat to Africa right now and, frankly, to many parts of the world, that's HIV/AIDS, talking about expanded opportunities for investment," he said.
The president was scheduled to visit Uganda (search) and Nigeria before wrapping up his African excursion.
Powell said nothing about the trip was designed to win over African-Americans in the next election, but he hoped that American voters would take a look at the president's foreign policy agenda and "recognize that, admire it, appreciate it and respond accordingly."