WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Tuesday vigorously defended his decision to go to war against Iraq despite chief inspector David Kay's conclusion that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, as the United States had believed.
Bush said he had "great confidence" in the intelligence community, which had provided prewar estimates about what Saddam had in his arsenal. But Bush refrained from saying -- as he once did -- that weapons of mass destruction would be discovered eventually. Bush had cited Saddam's alleged weapons as justification for the war.
"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 he was a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world," the president said.
The issue was injected into the presidential campaign when retired chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay said he had concluded, after nine months of searching, that deposed Saddam did not have stockpiles of forbidden weapons. Confronted with Kay's statement, administration officials declined to repeat their once-ironclad assertions that Saddam had them.
Kay, in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, said, "Clearly, the intelligence that we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong." Kay stepped down from his position Friday and went public with his doubts about Iraq's weapons.
'The world is 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."
Bush spoke with reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
The Polish leader defended Bush.
"It's very difficult today to judge how it was -- when he had (weapons), when he decided to continue these projects of mass destruction weapons," Kwasniewski said.
Kwasknieswki said a top U.N. weapons inspector had told him that "absolutely, Iraq is ready to produce if it is necessary to keep the power of the dictatorship of Saddam and to play such an important role in the region."
A year ago, the president appeared certain about Iraq's arsenal. "The dictator of Iraq has got weapons of mass destruction," Bush said on Jan. 22, 2003. On Tuesday, Bush said, "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," the president said.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry, seeking the Democratic nomination, said Bush had misled the people. "When the president of the United States looks at you and tells you something, there should be some trust. He's broken every one of those promises," he said.
Howard Dean, another Democratic candidate, said, "The White House has not been candid with the American people about virtually anything with the Iraq war."
Kay, meanwhile, was called to appear today at a public hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee and agreed to attend.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle demanded an investigation, either by the Senate Intelligence Committee or an independent commission, into the "administration's role in the intelligence failures leading up to the war with Iraq."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, another Democratic candidate campaigning in New Hampshire, also urged an investigation or congressional hearings "on the intelligence that some of us saw directly, and the statements that the administration was making and the emphasis the administration was putting on weapons of mass destruction."
Vice President Dick Cheney, meeting in Rome with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, did not answer when a reporter asked if he felt prewar intelligence was faulty. Cheney has been among the administration's most forceful advocates of war and was outspoken in describing Iraq's alleged threat.
Kerry has questioned whether Cheney tried to pressure CIA analysts who wrote reports on Iraq's weapon programs.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, traveling in Vienna, Austria, said the Iraq war was justified, even if banned weapons are never found, because it eliminated the threat that Saddam might again resort to "evil chemistry and evil biology."
Even before Kay announced his conclusion, Bush had expanded his public rationale about the war as the search for weapons proved fruitless. Bush cast it as a broader war against terrorism, calling Iraq the central front, and said democracy would spread in the Middle East if it should take hold in Iraq.