WASHINGTON – One of Condoleezza Rice's toughest critics, California Sen. Barbara Boxer (search), drilled the secretary of state nominee on Tuesday, saying Rice's loyalty to President Bush on Iraq overwhelmed her respect for the truth.
"I personally believe that your loyalty to the mission you were given to sell this policy overwhelmed your respect for the truth," Boxer told the nominee during Rice's confirmation hearing.
Boxer, who two weeks ago held up congressional certification of Bush's election win after objecting to the Electoral College votes from Ohio, said Rice had directly contradicted herself in trying to sell the war to the American people by changing the story on whether Saddam Hussein (search) had nuclear weapons. Boxer also referred to the visual image and lasting impression Rice left when she warned that the smoking gun in Iraq shouldn't be a mushroom cloud.
"That image had to frighten every American into believing that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of annihilating them if he was not stopped. And I will be placing into the record a number of such statements you made which have not been consistent with the facts," Boxer said.
Rice returned fire by saying that Boxer should not try to discredit Rice when bad intelligence led everyone to think Saddam was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program.
"I have never ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It is not my nature, it is not my character," Rice said. "And I would hope that we can have this conversation and discuss what happened before and what went on before and what I said, without impugning my credibility or my integrity."
She added that while the Bush administration "did face a very difficult intelligence challenge," it knew that Saddam Hussein was a troublemaker who was threatening neighbors, cavorting with terrorists and "was the world's most dangerous man in the world's most dangerous region" who had previously used weapons of mass destruction.
"But, Senator Boxer, we went to war, not because of aluminum tubes. We went to war because this was the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a man against whom we had gone to war before, who threatened his neighbors, who threatened our interests, who was one of the world's most brutal dictators and it was high time to get rid of him. And I'm glad that we're rid of him," Rice said.
Boxer, re-elected to a third six-year term in November, revealed before the hearing that despite Rice's expected confirmation to the post being vacated by retiring Secretary Colin Powell, she planned to press the nominee on her participation in the Iraq war planning, of which Rice was instrumental as Bush's national security adviser.
Boxer's opposition to Rice, who has been named as a possible opponent to Boxer in the 2010 Senate election, runs counter to that of the other Democratic senator from California, Dianne Feinstein (search), who introduced Rice during the hearing and called her a "remarkable woman" and the natural choice for the job.
Rice, who was raised in Birmingham, Ala., lists California as her residence after having served for six years as provost of Stanford University (search), Feinstein's alma mater. It's customary for nominees to ask home-state senators to introduce them at confirmation hearings.
Boxer, who is more liberal than the senior senator from her state, is on the opposite side of Feinstein when it comes to the Iraq war (search), having voted against the original authority given to the president to launch a war against Iraq. She said Tuesday that as long as people are still dying over there, she will continue to demand answers about how the strength of Saddam Hussein's weapons regime could be so miscalculated.
"If you were rolling out a new product like a can opener, who would care what we said. But this product is a war and people are dead and dying ... You have not laid out an exit strategy, you have not set up a timetable and you don't seem to be willing to a) admit a mistake or give any indication of what you're going to do to forcefully involve others," Boxer said.
Rice acknowledged that not all the intelligence was good, but the outcome was not in error.
"We have made, multiple, many decisions, some of which were good, some of which might not have been good. But the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one," she said.
Boxer also suggested that Rice was insensitive to the widespread death and destruction caused by the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 156,000 people because Rice called it a "wonderful opportunity" for the United States to reach out to countries in the Muslim world and build goodwill.
"If you're going to become the voice of diplomacy, this is just a helpful point when Senator Voinovich mentioned the issue of tsunami relief you said, your first words were, 'the tsunami was a wonderful opportunity for us.' Now, the tsunami was one of the worst tragedies of our lifetime, one of the worst, and it's going to have a 10-year impact on rebuilding that area," Boxer said.
Rice is likely to be confirmed by the Senate as early as Thursday, the day Bush is inaugurated, during an afternoon session of the Senate. She already has been working out of a temporary office at the State Department as she tries to get to know the vast number of employees there and operations. Stephen Hadley, the deputy adviser replacing Rice at the White House, has been running operations at the National Security Council in Rice's absence.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.