WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 — President Bush declined Tuesday to repeat his claims that evidence that Saddam Hussein had illicit weapons would eventually be found in Iraq, but he insisted that the war was nonetheless justified because Mr. Hussein posed "a grave and gathering threat to America and the world."
Asked by reporters if he would repeat earlier expressions of confidence that the weapons would be found in light of recent statements by the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David A. Kay, that Mr. Hussein had gotten rid of them well before the war, Mr. Bush did not answer directly.
"I think it's very important for us to let the Iraq Survey Group do its work, so we can find out the facts and compare the facts to what was thought," he said at an appearance with the visiting president of Poland.
Just within the last few days, Vice President Cheney has said that it is clear that a couple of vehicles that were found in Iraq were mobile biological weapons labs, exactly the opposite of what David Kay is reportedly saying.
Senator Carl Levin
Mr. Bush praised Dr. Kay's work and came to the defense of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose reporting on Iraq's weapons programs Dr. Kay sharply criticized in interviews over the weekend. "These are unbelievably hard-working, dedicated people who are doing a great job for America," Mr. Bush said of the intelligence community.
Yet at the White House and on Capitol Hill, many officials said it was obvious that the intelligence reports about Iraq had been deeply flawed. They said they doubted that Mr. Bush would have the luxury of waiting to confront the issue.
Democrats demanded that an independent panel examine how the National Intelligence Estimate — the 2002 document that Mr. Bush used as the basis of his comments that Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States and its allies — could have been so flawed. The White House expressed no interest in the formation of such a panel.
"I think it is critical that we follow up and find out what went wrong," the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, said on Tuesday, before meeting with Mr. Bush with a group of other Congressional leaders from both parties. At the meeting, Mr. Daschle noted that Congressional leaders had depended on sound intelligence in voting on the war. Officials knowledgeable about the exchange said Mr. Bush interrupted Mr. Daschle and argued that the Iraq war was a "worthy" effort and that the administration had not manipulated the evidence. The president also said he had not given up the search for the weapons.
Dr. Kay resigned last week as head of the Iraq Survey Group. In an interview with Reuters last week, he said one reason he stepped down was that his team had been diverted to some degree to help battle the insurgency.
In private, some administration officials acknowledged Tuesday that Dr. Kay's conclusion that the intelligence was deeply flawed was becoming an unwelcome political problem that the White House would have to confront, either now or when the presidential campaign heats up.
Two administration officials reported that a debate has erupted within the administration over whether Mr. Bush should soon call for some kind of reform of the intelligence-gathering process. But the officials said Mr. Bush's aides were searching for a formula that would allow them to acknowledge intelligence-gathering problems without blaming the Central Intelligence Agency or the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, who approved that National Intelligence Estimate.
"We spent the summer with the White House and the agency spitting at each other," said one official, recalling the arguments over who was to blame for Mr. Bush's inaccurate accusation in the State of the Union address last year that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy nuclear material in Africa. "We can't afford another of those."
Two Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that senior members of the administration continue to exaggerate evidence about unconventional weapons.
"Just within the last few days, Vice President Cheney has said that it is clear that a couple of vehicles that were found in Iraq were mobile biological weapons labs, exactly the opposite of what David Kay is reportedly saying," said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, said the "overwhelming question" surrounding the intelligence issue remained "was this a predetermined war or not?"
In a recent interview, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who won his party's New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, said he had been "repeatedly misled" about the evidence by a number of administration officials. He cited Mr. Cheney, but also noted that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — who had been the most cautious in the administration about the evidence — told him that the reason to vote to authorize military action was Mr. Hussein's weapons ability — and that other reasons, including bringing democracy to Iraq, were secondary.
But in public on Tuesday, Mr. Bush, while careful in his claims, made it clear that he had no regrets.
"There is just no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a grave and gathering threat to America and the world," Mr. Bush told reporters as he met with the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski. "There is just no doubt in my mind. And I say that based upon intelligence that I saw prior to the decision to go into Iraq, and I say that based upon what I know today."
Yet Mr. Bush's own words on the subject have been a moving target. In the State of the Union address a week ago, he referred to "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities" that inspectors had found, drawing the wording from Dr. Kay's interim report last fall. He did not mention Dr. Kay's other conclusions: that those activities were largely in research and development, that most made little progress, and that they were intended to deceive Mr. Hussein into thinking that he was spending money fruitfully.
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, argued Tuesday that Mr. Bush had never said that Iraq posed an "imminent" threat, but only a "grave and growing" one. That may be literally correct, but both Mr. Bush and his aides made it clear many times that they believed Mr. Hussein already had unconventional weapons.
For example, on Oct. 7, 2002, during a speech in Cincinnati that laid out how America was threatened by Mr. Hussein, Mr. Bush said: "If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today — and we do — does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?"
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18, 2002, said, "We do know that the Iraqi regime currently has chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction."
Such statements were important then because Mr. Bush had to convince the country and his allies that, especially in the post-Sept. 11 world, he could not wait to build a broader coalition against Mr. Hussein.
Moreover, international law has been far more forgiving of "pre-emptive war" against a country about to begin a strike of its own than it is of "preventive war" against a country that may, some day, pose a challenge to another state. That is seen more as an act of raw power than of self-defense.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company