WASHINGTON – President Bush on Tuesday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (search) to former CIA Director George Tenet (search), retired Gen. Tommy Franks (search) and Paul Bremer (search), the former U.S. administrator in Iraq.
"This honor goes to three men who have played pivotal roles in great events and whose efforts have made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty," Bush said during a ceremony at the White House.
The medal is the highest civilian award and recognizes exceptional meritorious service.
President Truman established the medal in 1945 to recognize notable service in the war. In 1963, President Kennedy began awarding it as an honor for distinguished civilian service in peacetime.
Tenet retired from the CIA this year after seven years as director under Bush and former President Clinton. He became one of Bush's closest advisors after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and it was his intelligence that fueled the urgency of the war in Iraq.
But he has been criticized for intelligence failures before Sept. 11 and the never-proven prewar allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Tenet assured the Bush administration about Iraq's apparently non-existent chemical and biological weapons stocks. He was quoted as saying, "it's a slam dunk."
Bush credited him as "one of the first to recognize and address the threat to America from radical networks." He said that after Sept. 11, Tenet was "ready with a plan to strike back at Al Qaeda and to topple the Taliban."
Asked on Tuesday whether Tenet's receipt of the medal signifies that Bush doesn't hold the former CIA director responsible for the flawed WMD intelligence, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded: "This is a day to honor these individuals, and that's where we intend to keep our focus."
Franks, a retired four-star Army general and the former chief of the U.S. Central Command (search) who commanded forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, designed and executed what officials called a brilliant battle plan for Iraq, using fewer troops than many people thought were needed, and going faster than many expected.
He didn't decide until last summer to endorse Bush's re-election, but then spoke on the president's behalf at the Republican National Convention and campaigned for Bush through the fall.
Bush said Franks "led the forces that fought and won two wars in the defense of the world's security and helped liberate more than 50 million people from two of the worst tyrannies in the world."
But Franks' critics say he went too fast in the war, that he failed to secure stocks of explosives and left intact the insurgency that continues to battle the U.S.-led force in Iraq.
Even members of the coalition team in Iraq, such as Bremer, say there weren't enough troops to adequately manage the occupation.
In September, Bremer, who ran the U.S. civilian administration of Iraq before the interim government was formed, said the United States had "paid a big price" for insufficient troop levels and said he had raised within the Bush administration the issue of too few troops and "should have been even more insistent" when his advice was rejected. He later backpedaled on those remarks.
Bremer also fought for substantial reconstruction aid for Iraq and pushed through a temporary constitution that's notable for its human rights guarantees.
"For 14 months Jerry Bremer worked day and night in difficult and dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty," Bush said.
White House aides say the president feels each of the three men made important contributions to this country's security and to world peace, and he is pleased to be honoring them.
"All three of these individuals have served their country when called. They have helped to extend freedom to 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq," McClellan told reporters on Tuesday before the ceremony.
"I think they each have a long record of service ... Bush will specifically highlight what he sees as their achievements," McClellan continued, adding that all three men "exemplify the nobility of service."
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.