Bush Owns Up to Lack of WMD in Interview

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush on Sunday conceded for the first time that he relied on flawed assumptions and inaccurate information in launching the Iraq war, but he denied having intentionally misled the American people.

Sounding far from defensive, however, a forceful Bush said repeatedly that he had made the right decision to oust Saddam Hussein. "It's a war of necessity," the president said, declaring that he had "no choice" but to attack because the Iraqi dictator was a dangerous "madman."

Beset by sagging job-approval ratings and sharper attacks from the Democratic presidential candidates, Bush used an unusual hourlong interview on NBC television's "Meet the Press" to lay out his new rationale for the war, but also to mark the battle lines on which he intends to fight the coming election campaign.

In the most substantial shift so far from his previous position that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Bush said Hussein's ability to produce such weapons, coupled with his history of acquiring and using them, constituted sufficient grounds for the "regime change" in Baghdad.

"The man was a threat, and we dealt with him," Bush said.

More broadly, he outlined positions ranging from the economy to questions that have been raised about his service in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War.

At the heart of the message was the image of Bush as a wartime leader whose first priority must always be the security of a threatened nation. "I'm a war president," he said.

"I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind."

In arguing that the U.S. attack was justified even though weapons of mass destruction have not been found and may not have existed, Bush told host Tim Russert: "I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It's too late if they become imminent."

Despite the now-discredited intelligence that Hussein had illicit weapons, the president said, " ... [W]hat wasn't wrong was the fact that he had the ability to make a weapon."

Bush's admission that he had been wrong in his prewar assertions that Hussein had such weapons came during an exchange in which Russert quoted the president as having said on March 17, the night Bush launched the Iraq war:

"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

"Right," Bush replied.

"That apparently is not the case," Russert said.

"Correct," Bush said. "I expected to find the weapons ... I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons."

The president then cited what he called theories about "where the weapons went," adding: "Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country. And we'll find out."

Bush continued: "There is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial regime of ironclad, absolutely solid evidence. The evidence I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon."