WASHINGTON – Under attack by House Democrats, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Wednesday he was surprised U.N. and American inspectors did not find storehouses of hidden weapons in Iraq.
But Powell told the International Relations Committee (search) that "we presented what we believed the truth to be at the time."
Powell testified that President Saddam Hussein's (search) apparent intent to develop and use weapons, his record of gassing his own people and his defiance of the United Nations all were -- and remain -- valid reasons for going to war to overthrow him.
He said President Bush and he had relied on intelligence provided by CIA Director George Tenet, and the only serious question raised about the analysis since the war was whether Iraq had storehouses of weapons of mass destruction.
"I don't think anyone in America should think that President Bush cooked the books," Powell said.
"The reason we told you there were stockpiles there was because we believed it to be true," Powell said. "We were surprised when they did not turn up."
But Reps. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., Robert Melendez, D-N.J., Rep. Robert I Wexler, D-Fla., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, challenged Powell about the administration's case, suggesting it may have been misleading from the outset.
"Truth is the first casualty of war," Ackerman said. "I would contend truth was murdered before a shot was fired."
"We went into this war under false premises," Melendez said.
Wexler told Powell he considered him to be "the credible voice in the administration."
"When you reached the conclusion that Iraq represented a clear and present danger to the United States, that meant a lot to me," Wexler said. "But the facts suggest there was a part of the story that was not true."
Powell fielded the assertions calmly, defending the president's judgment and his own.
But when Brown contrasted Powell's military experience to Bush's record with the National Guard, saying the president "may have been AWOL" from duty, Powell exploded.
"First of all, Mr. Brown, I won't dignify your comments about the president because you don't know what you are talking about," Powell snapped.
"I'm sorry I don't know what you mean, Mr. Secretary," Brown replied.
"You made reference to the president," Powell shot back.
Brown then repeated his understanding that Bush may have been AWOL from guard duty.
"Mr. Brown, let's not go there," Powell retorted. "Let's not go there in this hearing. If you want to have a political fight on this matter, that is very controversial, and I think it is being dealt with by the White House, fine, but let's not go there."
Powell then went on to defend the Bush administration's assertions on Iraq's prewar weaponry. "We didn't make it up," Powell said. "It was information that reflected the views of analysts in all the various agencies."
But the dispute with Brown did not end.
"Are you shaking your head for something, young man?," Powell asked when he noticed an aide to Brown apparently disagreeing.
"I seldom come to a meeting when I'm talking to a congressman and I have people aligned behind you giving editorial comment by headshakes," Powell said.
Brown, defending his assistant, said "I think people have opinions."
Eager to move on, the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., observed that "we're on a very emotional subject," but "we've been doing swimmingly until now."