WASHINGTON -- President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to three figures who were central to his Iraq policy, former CIA director George Tenet, former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer and retired Gen. Tommy Franks.
Democrats suggested Bush should have looked elsewhere, at least in the case of Tenet, in awarding the government's highest civilian honor.
Bush lauded all three for playing "pivotal roles in great events" and for advancing the cause of liberty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Tenet, who left the CIA in July after seven years as director, has been criticized for intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war.
Tenet spoke up before the terrorist attacks about his belief that the al-Qaida terror network was planning something big. But specific information was never forthcoming, and the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The CIA also has drawn considerable criticism for its part in flawed estimates that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he "would have reached a different conclusion" than Bush on giving the medal to Tenet. "I don't think (he) served the president or the nation well," Levin said.
Bush lauded Tenet as someone whose leadership helped rebuild the CIA's capabilities, win the war in Afghanistan and capture al-Qaida terrorists -- and who was "one of the first to recognize and address the threat to America from radical networks."
Bremer, the top civilian U.S. official in postwar Iraq, oversaw the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government in June.
"Jerry, Iraq is free today, and you helped make it so," Bush said, using Bremer's nickname. "And a free Iraq will help make generations of Americans more secure."
Speaking to the general who oversaw combat in Afghanistan and the initial invasion of Iraq, Bush said, "One of the highest distinctions of history is to be called a liberator and Tommy Franks will always carry that title."
Bremer has taken some blame from administration critics who say that the planning for postwar Iraq was inadequate. Adding fuel to that debate, Bremer suggested this fall that the United States had paid a price in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of major combat operations because it did not have enough troops in place to stop looting.
"Did George Tenet get the Medal of Freedom for his 'slam dunk' case for war based on weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist? Did Paul Bremer clinch this honor for speaking out against the administration's bungled war planning only after he'd left the job?" asked David Wade, a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "My hunch is that George Bush wasn't using the same standard when honoring Tenet and Bremer that was applied to previous honorees like the pope, Mr. Rogers, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr."
The White House refused to engage in such a squabble.
"This is a day to honor these three individuals for the many contributions they have made to our nation," said spokesman Scott McClellan.
Franks campaigned for the president's re-election last summer.