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Has Pre-War Iraq Intelligence Damaged American Credibility?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from Nov. 25, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JIM ANGLE, GUEST HOST: U.S. policy in Iraq could hardly be more controversial, with Democrats charging the president intentionally misled the public on prewar intelligence and with the growing impatience over casualties to American forces there. I spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week about how far the Iraqis have come and the debate over when U.S. troops might be able to leave Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANGLE: Some Democrats have talked about withdrawal dates, some very soon. Senator Biden said the other day that there would still be some troops there by 2007. Does that sound like a reasonable window to you?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, we’ve wanted to make this effects- and results-based, not based on a specific timetable. And we have constant discussions — General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad have constantly discussions with the Iraqi government and with the Iraqi defense minister and interior minister about how this is going.

But quite clearly, Jim, we want to get to the place that Iraqis are doing this on their own. They’re more and more capable. I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now, because — for very much longer, because Iraqis are stepping up.

This is not just a matter of training numbers of Iraqi forces, but it’s actually seeing them hold territory, it’s seeing them be able to go in and defend that highway from the airport that was always considered such a violent highway.

It means that they are in control of whole areas in the south and in parts of the north. So they are actually performing particular functions that give us, and most importantly give General Casey, who the president will listen to, confidence that the Iraqis are stepping up and stepping up quite quickly.

ANGLE: Let me ask you about prewar intelligence. After voting to authorize the use of force, many Democrats are now arguing, in effect, that they were duped into thinking that Saddam was a bigger threat than he actually turned out to be. You were at the White House during those days. What do you make of that?

RICE: Well, I only know that the intelligence was what the intelligence was. Obviously, we now know that there were major problems with the intelligence.

And the president had a commission — independent commission — Silberman-Robb look at that and make recommendations on how we improve intelligence going forward.

But, Jim, everybody thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That’s why there were all those resolutions in the U.N. Security Council. That’s why there were sanctions, very harsh sanctions against Iraq.

That’s why, in 1998, President Clinton ordered the use of military force against Iraq, because of concerns about their weapons of mass destruction. And intelligence briefings were provided to the Congress by intelligence professionals.

ANGLE: Now, the Democrats say, "The White House briefed us and we did not get all the dissenting opinions."

RICE: Well, I sat in some of those briefings with John McLaughlin or George Tenet taking the lead in briefing the intelligence to the Congress...

ANGLE: You’re saying it was the CIA, it was the intelligence community, not the White House?

RICE: I’m saying that the intelligence community product was available, the national intelligence estimate in its full form available to the intelligence committees. I sat in briefings where the intelligence professionals actually briefed.

The intelligence was clearly flawed. We are all — we all think it extremely unfortunate that the intelligence was flawed.

But we have to remember, too, that Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat in 1991 that annexed a neighbor and caused us to go to war. He was a threat that, in 1998, led President Clinton to use military force against him because of his weapons of mass destruction.

He was a threat who had used chemical weapons against his own people and against his neighbors. He was a threat who was firing at our aircraft as they tried to patrol no-fly zones so that he couldn’t attack his neighbors, firing at our aircraft, once a week, twice a week, and three times a week.

The idea that somehow Iraq was sitting pacifically there, with Saddam Hussein completely under control, and the Middle East, therefore, a stable place with him in power, seems to me to be rewriting history.

ANGLE: You know, the administration’s critics will always have bones to pick with you. They will always be pointing to shortcomings instead of successes. But I have to ask you about what I hear from a lot of supporters for the president.

For instance, the Democrats came out and, for nine days in a row, held news conferences saying that the administration had not just exaggerated intelligence, but had fabricated intelligence. And, for nine days, there was very little from the White House or from the administration to suggest that you believed those charges were false, until the president finally spoke up about it.

And people asked me, "Why doesn’t the White House, why doesn’t the administration jump on these things sooner? If they have a case to make, why don’t they make it?"

RICE: Maybe we should have. But I think that the president has now made the case to the American people, as have other administration officials.

It’s one thing to debate this war and to, were we right that it was time to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for 17 resolutions against him in the U.N. Security Council? Was it right to hold him accountable, because the oil-for-food sanctions program had become, as the president called it, Swiss cheese?

Was it right to give the Iraqi people a chance not to live in mass graves, or not to die in mass graves, not to have women raped, and not to have torture rooms, to have a chance for a different kind of future? Was it right to do that, and was that the right timing?

But the administration worked from the same intelligence that had driven American policy on Iraq for the 12 years since the end of the Gulf War. And, yes, there were uncertainties about how far along any particular program was.

But the fact is the president of the United States could not afford to give a brutal dictator, who had lied to the world, who was refusing to answer just demands, the benefit of the doubt. Because, in a post- September 11th environment, we knew that you deal with threats now. You don’t allow them to multiply, and the president made that decision.

ANGLE: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for your time.

RICE: Thank you very much.

ANGLE: Thank you. Good to see you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANGLE: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Watch "Special Report With Brit Hume" weeknights at 6 p.m. EDT.

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