WASHINGTON -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy offered a point-by-point comparison yesterday of White House statements before the war in Iraq and the available intelligence, accusing President Bush of "manipulation and distortion" to build the case for an invasion.
Kennedy used almost all of a major address to the Council on Foreign Relations to make a detailed case that Bush misled the country, a move interpreted as signaling the Democrats' increasing willingness to take on the president for allegedly misrepresenting facts about Iraq's weapons and terrorist links.
"No president who misleads the country on the need for war deserves to be reelected," Kennedy said. "A president that does so must be held responsible."
Kennedy is a leading adviser to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John F. Kerry. Kerry himself has been more circumspect on Iraq, saying he does not know whether Bush exaggerated intelligence but calling for further inquiry.
The White House declined to respond directly to Kennedy's speech but has previously denied charges that the president or his advisers misused intelligence information.
The speech, more pointed than one Kennedy made in January, attempted to shift most of the blame for misjudging the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction from intelligence agencies to the administration, which he contends was bent on toppling Saddam Hussein from the first days of Bush's presidency and shaped intelligence warnings accordingly.
"The more we find out, the clearer it becomes that any failure in the intelligence itself is dwarfed by the administration's manipulation of the intelligence in making the case for war," Kennedy said. He called on the House and Senate intelligence panels to investigate.
He also called on CIA Director George J. Tenet to "set the record straight" on whether it was the White House or the CIA that believed the Iraq threat was urgent enough to justify immediate action. Tenet, in a speech Feb. 5 at Georgetown University in Washington, defended his analysts by saying they never described the threat as imminent. Tenet stopped short of addressing questions about how that intelligence was used. "Why wasn't the CIA director correcting the president and vice president and the secretary of defense a year ago, when it could have made a difference, when it could have prevented a needless war, when it could have saved so many lives?" Kennedy said.
A spokesman for Tenet declined to respond yesterday to Kennedy's assertion that the CIA director failed to protest the misuse of the intelligence he provided the White House.
As evidence for his charge, Kennedy cited specific public statements by administration officials before the war that he said were either supported by questionable sources such as Iraqi exiles or unsubstantiated by the US intelligence community.
For example, he said that although the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was "far from unified on Iraq's nuclear threat," Bush and his aides repeatedly asserted that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear capability, and raised the specter of a nuclear holocaust to justify the need to move quickly. On Oct. 2, 2002, as Congress was preparing to vote to authorize military force, Bush said in the Rose Garden that the Iraqi regime presented "a threat of unique urgency." Five days later, in a speech in Cincinnati, the president said that "facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
"President Bush himself may not have used the word `imminent,' but he carefully chose strong and loaded words about the nature of the threat -- words that the intelligence community never used -- to persuade and prepare the nation to go to war against Iraq," Kennedy said. "Nuclear weapons. Mushroom cloud. Unique and urgent threat. Real and dangerous threat. Grave threat. This was the administration's rallying cry for war. But those were not the words of the intelligence community."
Beyond exaggerating what was known about the Iraqi nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, Kennedy said Bush asserted links between the Iraqi government and the Al Qaeda terrorist network that did not exist in intelligence reports.
The October 2002 intelligence report said the Baghdad government and Al Qaeda were not cooperating and had divergent goals. It stated the two might link forces only if Hussein were "sufficiently desperate," such as if America went to war. It expressed "low confidence" that Hussein would give weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda terrorists even in desperation, Kennedy said.
Still, the president and others repeatedly failed to mention the intelligence community's dissenting views in public speeches and instead portrayed Iraq and the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as virtually the same threat, according to Kennedy.
In a Sept. 25, 2002, statement at the White House, invoked yesterday by Kennedy, Bush said: "You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terrorism." In the State of the Union address in January 2003, Bush said that Hussein could provide "lethal viruses" to a "shadowy terrorist network."
Political observers said Kennedy's speech marked a more aggressive Democratic effort to raise questions about the president's trustworthiness in the hopes of persuading voters that Bush cannot be taken at his word. Some said they expected Kerry to adopt the same themes, depending on how Kennedy's speech is received.
It also marked an attempt to raise doubts about Bush's steadiness at a time when the president is running ads touting his aggressive response to terrorist threats.
"I think this fits in with a larger Democratic strategy in attempting to undercut the president and his reputation for being a straight shooter," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. "It is part of the new Democratic message that he is a liar, a phony, and doesn't tell the truth. It goes to the issue of character, and this is supposed to be Bush's strength."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company