WASHINGTON – Saddam Hussein and Iraq's weapons programs were sufficient threats to the United States to justify the U.S.-led invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) said Thursday, joining in the Bush administration's public defense of the war.
The White House took into account a report from last October by CIA Director George Tenet (search) that summarized U.S. intelligence findings about Iraq, Cheney said in a speech, arranged on short notice, at conservative think tank.
Quoting from the report, Cheney said: "We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction program in defiance of U.N. resolutions and restrictions.
"Iraq has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions. If left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
Cheney then told about 200 people at the American Enterprise Institute (search) that "those charged with the security of this nation could not read such an assessment and pretend that it did not exist."
"Ignoring such information or trying to wish it away would be irresponsible in the extreme and our president did not ignore that information," the vice president said.
President Bush, top aides and GOP congressional leaders have been trying to counter embarrassing questions about prewar intelligence and the performance of Bush's national security team. Administration officials have argued that Iraqis and the rest of the world are safer now that Saddam is out of power and they are attempting to shift the debate away from questions about banned weapons that have yet to be found.
The effort has been hampered by a changing White House story -- from first blaming the CIA and then the British to new revelations by Stephen Hadley, deputy national security adviser, that contradict earlier statements by his boss, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said Cheney offered "empty rhetoric" in the administration's attempt to "divert the nation's attention away from the fact that this administration misled" the country in the buildup to the war.
In a speech in Livonia, Mich., Bush issued a strong defense of the war.
Iraq now will not threaten America and its allies with banned weapons, or provide support to terrorist organizations, or destabilize the Middle East, the president said.
"A free Iraq can set a hopeful example for the entire region," he said. "And as the pursuit of freedom replaces hatred and resentment and terror in the Middle East, the American people will be more secure and the world will be more peaceful."
Cheney said that had the U.S.-led coalition not acted, torture chambers would still exist, mass graves would not have been found, terrorists would have a safe haven and Saddam would have vast wealth to finance weapons programs.
The White House had hoped that Tuesday's deaths of Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, would quell attacks on U.S. troops by Saddam loyalists. But on Thursday, three more U.S. soldiers were killed, their convoy hit by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in northern Iraq.
The latest deaths brought to 158 the number of U.S. servicemen killed in action since the war began March 20, surpassing by 11 the death toll in the 1991 Gulf War.
Cheney said the Iraqi war was part of a larger fight against terrorism begun after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Having lost thousands of Americans on a single morning, we are not going to answer further danger by simply issuing diplomatic protests or sharply worded condemnations," Cheney said.
He recalled various terrorist attacks of past decades and talked about acts of terrorism since Sept. 11 -- in Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
"The terrorists intend to strike America again," Cheney said. "One by one, in every corner of the world, we will hunt the terrorists down and destroy them."