WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday defended his decision to go to war in Iraq, even as he refrained from repeating his earlier assertions that Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Days after the top U.S. arms inspector, David Kay, said he did not believe that Iraq had stockpiled chemical or biological weapons or had a substantial nuclear weapons program, Bush did not answer directly when reporters asked about his own earlier claims.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a gathering threat to America and others. That's what we know," Bush said. "We know that he was a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world."
Bush said he wants to wait until the Iraq Survey Group, which Kay headed until he resigned Friday, completes its work "so we can find out the facts and compare the facts to what was thought."
The president made his comments at the end of a meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Bush's remarks immediately reverberated on Capitol Hill and among the Democrats competing to run against him in the autumn.
In a meeting later in the day between Bush and congressional leaders about this year's legislative agenda, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) confronted Bush with the questions raised by Kay about the justification for the Iraq war, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Daschle complained that lawmakers had based their votes on the war on erroneous information about weapons of mass destruction. Bush interrupted to defend the war as "a worthy effort."
Daschle said he was not questioning the worth of the war but insisted that the government needed to get to the bottom of the intelligence failure. A senior Republican at the meeting, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), reportedly backed Daschle on that point.
In New Hampshire, presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) accused Bush of misleading the public.
"When the president of the United States looks at you and tells you something, there should be some trust," Kerry said. "He's broken every one of those promises."
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean added: "The White House has not been candid with the American people about virtually anything with the Iraq war."
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) echoed Bush's view that "regime change" in Baghdad has made the world safer.
But he added: "The premise of weapons of mass destruction we can debate, we should debate."
And Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said: "The American people have not been well served by either the administration's exaggerations or by the intelligence community's mistakes."
Kay's conclusions have given new life to a question that has dogged the White House for months: How could the United States have so badly misjudged Iraq's weapons capabilities?
Republicans have tended to blame faulty intelligence while Democrats have argued that senior Bush administration officials distorted intelligence analyses to make their case against Hussein.
In building a case for war in Iraq, Bush and other officials often asserted that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney said: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction."
In making his own case, the president pointed repeatedly to Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Kurdish towns in northern Iraq and in his war with Iran as proof that the Iraqi strongman not only had such weapons but also was willing to use them.
However, the search for such arms has so far proved fruitless. On Tuesday, Kay said documents found by U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq, as well as interviews with Iraqis, indicated that Hussein's regime actually destroyed some biological and chemical weapons in the mid-1990s but did not report that to United Nations inspectors.
Hussein, Kay said in an interview with the Washington Post, may have been bluffing about having unconventional weapons to create the illusion of power and as a deterrent to adversaries.
"Saddam wanted to enjoy the benefits of having chemical and biological weapons without having to pay the costs," he said.
Even before Kay made his views known, pressure was mounting on the president and his administration to document their claims.
For the most part, they have sidestepped the questions, saying either that it is too early to say whether there were stores of banned weapons, or arguing that ousting Hussein and building a democratic government in Iraq will make America and the world safer.
"There is no doubt in my mind the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein," Bush said Tuesday. "America is more secure, the world is safer and the people of Iraq are free."
As the weapons hunt has continued with meager results, Bush has chosen his words on the issue with ever greater care.
In his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 20, Bush made reference to Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Kay has also raised new questions about the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community and whether it had supplied the president with seriously erroneous information.
"Clearly, the intelligence that we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong," Kay told NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw in an interview aired Monday evening, one of several he has given in recent days. Kay also said the intelligence community owed Bush an apology.
But the president Tuesday expressed "great confidence" in the intelligence apparatus.
"These are unbelievably hard-working, dedicated people who are doing a great job for America," he told reporters.
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.