Lawyers tell Bush he does not need Congress to attack Iraq

Monday, August 26, 2002

CRAWFORD, Texas -- White House lawyers have told President Bush he would not need congressional approval to attack Saddam Hussein's Iraq, sources said Sunday night.

Two senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said White House counsel Al Gonzales advised Bush earlier this month that the Constitution gives the president authority to wage war without explicit authority from Congress.

"Any decision the president may make on a hypothetical congressional vote will be guided by more than one factor," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who declined to confirm that Bush had received an opinion from Gonzales on the matter.

"The president will consider a variety of legal, policy and historical issues if a vote were to become a relevant matter. He intends to consult with Congress because Congress has an important role to play."

Despite the go-ahead from his legal advisers, administration officials said the president has not ruled out seeking lawmakers' approval if he decides to attack Iraq.

The officials noted that Bush's father was told in advance of the 1991 war that he did not need congressional authority to act, but nonetheless sought Congress' blessing for his action.

Authority to act

One of the officials said Gonzales also concluded the current president has authority to act against Saddam under the congressional resolution that authorized his father's actions in the 1991 Gulf War.

Furthermore, that official said Bush was told he also could act against Iraq on the strength of the Sept. 14 congressional resolution approving military action against terrorism.

Both of the officials said Bush had not decided whether to use military force against Saddam.

Still, the existence of a legal opinion -- along with earlier reports that the Pentagon is drafting attack plans -- reflect the seriousness of preparations within the highest reaches of government to pave way for war against Iraq if Bush so chooses.

The legal advice became public Sunday as Republicans sounded a mixed message for Bush about whether, when and how to use military action to remove Saddam from power.

Invade right away, after telling Congress, was one course. A second would have Bush wait for a better assessment of the Iraqi president's danger to American security, then hold off until lawmakers gave their approval.

Some Republicans want Bush to get U.N. authorization before moving, probably after giving Saddam an ultimatum to allow more inspections for weapons of mass destruction, which he would be expected to refuse.

Bush did not expect such divergence among leading Republicans, which broke into the open in recent weeks from lawmakers including Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader.

The Bush administration's policy is that Saddam is trying to develop weapons of mass destruction and is refusing to allow international inspectors to find and destroy them, as Iraq agreed to do after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Rep. Tom DeLay, the heir apparent to Armey in the House, who has urged military action, "the sooner, the better," said Sunday the decision to act is the commander in chief's, but he expects Bush to consult with Congress first.

"The president says he's going to consult with the Congress, and he has. The president has taken the advice of many of us in Congress; he wants input from Congress," DeLay, R-Texas, said on "Fox News Sunday."

"He has said he's going to come to Congress when he decides what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, and I expect him to do that."

While saying Bush properly "is trying to keep the (anti-Iraq) coalition together," DeLay rejected a suggestion by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III that Bush first get a resolution of support from the U.N. Security Council.

The president answers only to the American people, DeLay said, through Congress.

"He's been leading the country, and the world, for that matter, ever since" the Sept. 11 attacks, DeLay said. "So, I think this is a time to lead. Others will join when you show strong leadership, like President Bush has shown."

Baker, secretary of state to President Bush's father, wrote in Sunday's New York Times that a Security Council resolution was necessary as political cover for any U.S. military action.

"The only realistic way to effect regime change in Iraq is through the application of military force," Baker wrote.

But he added: "Although the United States could certainly succeed, we should try our best not to have to go it alone, and the president should reject the advice of those who counsel doing to. The costs in all areas will be much greater, as will the political risks."

In Crawford, Texas, where Bush is in the last days of his August vacation, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the president was listening to views from Baker and others but has not yet decided how to proceed against Iraq.

"The president welcomes thoughtful opinions. He views this as part of the healthy national debate on the threat posed to peace by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction," Fleischer said Sunday. "He always welcomes any support for decisions he has not yet made."

Lawrence Eagleburger, who succeeded Baker in 1992, the final year of former President Bush's administration, is among several old-line Republicans advocating caution.

DeLay, in his speech last week, urged quick, pre-emptive action against Saddam and said those advocating a go-slow approach were appeasers.

"It is, I guess, a pleasure for me after 30 years of being accused of being a hawk most of the time now to be accused of being a wimp," Eagleburger said on CNN's "Late Edition."

"I'm prepared to concede, from the beginning, that if the evidence is clear that Saddam Hussein has these weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips and is ready to use them, then we have no choice, we must go. I don't think that evidence is there."

"I think there are any number of complex questions that simply haven't been examined," Eagleburger said on "CNN Late Edition." "And if it's wimpish to say that ... until we know at least with some confidence that we must act now, then I say we need to be very careful about going forward.

"I'm simply saying I think this is much more complex than (DeLay) and his chest-thumpers think it is."

Hagel, likewise, warned that administration hawks might be pushing the country down a dangerous path.

"It is interesting to me that many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war," Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, said in a Newsweek article about a split in the administration over Iraq policy.

"They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for hose ghosts of the past a little bit."

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