This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 12, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.
JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Hi, everybody. I'm John Gibson, and this is THE BIG STORY. President Bush says going into Iraq was the right thing to do. He says weapons of mass destruction or not, he made the correct call removing Saddam Hussein (search) from power.
Today I spoke with the president's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search).
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GIBSON: Dr. Rice, the president made another firm and forceful defense of his decision to invade Iraq today. Would you be able to say if there had not been a 9/11, would there have been an invasion of Iraq?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Certainly without 9/11, our thinking about how to defend our national security interests would have been different. You can't possibly have a cataclysmic event like 9/11 and not have it affect your thinking on national security. And what it taught us is not to let threats gather. It taught us not to allow a dictator, who for 12 years had defied the world, who was continuing to deceive inspectors; who was refusing, even after the world gave him one last chance to disarm; refusing to do so: it taught us not to let a threat like that in the world's most dangerous region continue.
GIBSON: But the criticism of the Bush administration decision to go in, not only from the Democrats, but from a lot of people around the world, is that there was a preconceived notion that it was time for America to go after Saddam Hussein and that the administration pushed intelligence community to come up with information that would back that decision. Was there such a notion?
RICE: You have a unanimous report of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (search) that says that there was no pressure, and I can say without any fear of contradiction among my colleagues, you want under these circumstances when you're making life and death decisions, war and peace decisions, to have the very best intelligence. Not intelligence that you've tried to slant; you want the very best intelligence.
And the very best intelligence at the time, whether it was what the president was looking at, what his security advisers were looking at, what the Congress was looking at, what the Clinton administration had looked at, what intelligence services abroad had looked at, what the Security Council had looked at. That intelligence said that Saddam Hussein, who had used weapons of mass destruction before, had the capability and intent and was refusing to account for his weapons of mass destruction and was, therefore, in material breach of his obligations to the international community.
Everybody who looked at the intelligence saw the same picture; everybody came to the same conclusion, and the president acted on that conclusion and for the best interests of the country. Because it's a much better place without Saddam Hussein and his regime that harbored terrorists, that threatened his neighbors that shot at our aircraft, that kept our forces tied down in Saudi Arabia and that continued to threaten our interests in the region.
GIBSON: Dr. Rice, as you well know, though, much of that intelligence has now been declared flawed, at least by the Senate Intelligence Committee — flawed maybe is a mild term — wrong. Based on that, would the president have made the same decision if the information had been correct? In other words, if the information had come back and said Saddam Hussein doesn't have WMD?
RICE: Well, what we do know is that while Saddam Hussein may not have had stockpiles of weapons and while certainly the Senate Intelligence Committee report has pointed out shortcomings in the intelligence end, and it will be incumbent on the administration and with the Congress to fix those shortcomings. I don't think that there's any doubt still that this is somebody who had intent and capability; he knew how to make weapons of mass destruction; he'd used them before. And he was a threat to the region and a threat to the United States.
The world is better off without him. The region is safer without him, and it is a decision that was a good decision from the strategic point of view. It was not just intelligence that went and deduced this decision. You also have to put into context this bloody dictator, sitting in the world's most dangerous region who was an avowed enemy of the United States.
GIBSON: Dr. Rice, the Senate Intelligence Committee report has 66 pages on connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Des this vindicate the vice president's often made claim that those connections justified the invasion?
RICE: Well, the connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda and, indeed, connections with other terrorist groups, was certainly one element of the decision to finally do something about Saddam Hussein's regime.
But let's remember: Saddam Hussein was unique in the nature of the circumstances that led to the decision that he was a threat. By the way, circumstances that led the Congress in 1998 to say that he was such a threat that the United States should engage in regime change.
This was somebody against whom we went to war in 1991 because he invaded his neighbors. This was someone who had used chemical weapons on his own people and on his neighbors. This was someone who was practically everyday shooting at American aircraft trying to patrol Iraq's airspace so that he couldn't use his military forces against his neighbors and against his own people. This was someone who paid $25,000 to suicide bombers to try and literally, blow up the peace process in the Middle East.
This was someone who had, yes, connections with Al Qaeda going back a very, very long way, but when you put together the entire picture of the Saddam Hussein regime sitting in the world's most dangerous region, it is really a wonder that someone didn't do something about this sooner. The fact is the status quo was not acceptable.
GIBSON: Dr. Rice, considering the flaws that have been uncovered in our intelligence abilities, especially when it comes to a regime like Iraq, and there are others, what does this do to the Bush doctrine of preemption?
RICE: Well, certainly one needs to have excellent intelligence, but let's put preemption into context. Preemption only means that you want to do something about threats before they materialize to hurt you. That's not a new concept, and you can do that through military force, you can do it diplomatically, there are lots of ways to deal with a threat.
But in the case of Iraq, this was a 12-year picture of a threat that had been left to fester and continue, someone who, I repeat, had the capability and the intent was still procuring materials for weapons of mass destruction programs, where the sanctions were weakening on him and where he maintained the kind of territory where terrorists like Zarqawi could build a network that was antithetical to American interests.
So, this is a case of a long time of letting a threat gather. It was time to deal with it.
GIBSON: Dr. Rice, the president does not appear to regret very much that the intelligence was wrong, that his decision to go after Saddam Hussein was correct in any case. How does he feel about these intelligence failures?
RICE: Well, certainly, every president wants the very best intelligence, and he's looking closely at all of the evidence of shortcomings in our intelligence; he's looking very closely at what kinds of things we might do to improve intelligence. He said that we are going to need to reform our ability to get intelligence through human agents; that we're going to need to be able to do better, in terms of surveillance by electronic means; that we're going to need to be able to do better in the sharing of intelligence and the setting of priorities. These are important elements of intelligence reform.
But let's not lose sight of what we've achieved over the last three years, since the country woke up to the threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation after September 11. The president went through a very important litany today of what has happened in the last three years: we've gotten rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which was harboring and aid and abetting Al Qaeda, we have gotten rid of the AQ Khan network, which was trading in the black market in the most dangerous weapons, that is, technology for nuclear weapons.
We have created a proliferation security initiative with 60 countries supporting it that are interdicting dangerous shipments on the high seas and by air and by land. We have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein's regime after 12 years and both in Iraq and Afghanistan: those countries are now on the way to democratic development.
Pakistan, a country which was on the fence in the war on terrorism certainly supporting the Taliban and not aggressive against Al Qaeda has gone after Al Qaeda in parts of Pakistan that haven't been governed for 100 years. And in Saudi Arabia, you now have an ally in the war on terrorism that is actively and aggressively going after Al Qaeda on Saudi territory. This is a remarkable set of achievements over the last three years.
We have a lot more work to do, but a remarkable set of achievements that sets us well on the way to winning the war on terrorism.
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