Rice defends Bush over Iraq planning

Posted in United States | 19-Apr-04 | Author: Kirk Semple| Source: The New York Times

Adviser rebuts account in new book

Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser for President George W. Bush, said Sunday that the president had decided in March 2003 to go to war against Saddam Hussein, not in January 2003, as a new book contends.

She said she was with Bush in Crawford, Texas, in January 2003 when he expressed his frustration with how weapons inspections were proceeding in Iraq.

"He said, 'Now, I think we're probably going to have to go to war, we're going to have to go to war,'" Rice said Sunday on the CBS News program "Face the Nation." "It was not a decision to go to war. That decision he made in March when he finally decided to do that."

Rice's statement corresponds with a contention made by Bush in a televised news conference on March 6, 2003, that he had not yet decided whether to invade Iraq. "I've not made up our mind about military action," he said at the time.

But the new book - "Plan of Attack" by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post - contends that Bush decided in January to go to war and informed Secretary of State Colin Powell after the fact, in a 12-minute conversation that also covered other matters.

Rice, who appeared on three of the Sunday morning news programs, denied that Bush had kept Powell in the dark about the president's thinking on a possible invasion of Iraq.

In his book, Woodward said that at the request of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had even briefed Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, on the American war plans before telling Powell. Cheney and Rumsfeld used a top-secret war map, supposedly off-limits to foreigners, to describe the administration's plan, the book contends.

"I can't let this impression stand," Rice said on the CBS news program. "The secretary of state was privy to all of the conversations with the president, all of the briefings for the president. They were in almost daily contact about what was going on at the United Nations."

She added: "It's just not the proper impression that somehow Prince Bandar was in the know in the way that Secretary Powell was not. It's just not right. Secretary Powell had been privy to all of this. He knew what the war plan was."

Rice's comments were the most extensive response so far to Woodward's book, which began circulating earlier this week.

The book provides the most detailed account to date of the debate and tensions between senior Bush administration officials in the 16-month period of planning and preparation that culminated with the attack on Iraq last March.

Rice also defended the president's private request of Rumsfeld in November 2001 to devise a war plan against Iraq even though the United States was still heavily engaged in Afghanistan.

"By the end of November, things are starting to wind down in Afghanistan, and I do think the president's mind was beginning to move to what else he would have to do to deal with the blow, with the threat that had emerged as a result of 9/11," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.

Iraq represented "the most hostile relationship that we had in the Middle East," she said.

"It's not at all surprising that the president wanted to know what his options were before he began a course of diplomatic activity," she said.

Rice denied an assertion in Woodward's book that differences between Powell and Cheney had poisoned their relationship and that they remained hostile toward each other. The book describes Powell clashing with Cheney, whom Woodward describes as being preoccupied with reports of links between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Powell regarded Cheney's intense focus on Hussein and Al Qaeda as a "fever," the Woodward book says, and he believed that the vice president misread and exaggerated intelligence about the Iraq threat and supposed terrorist ties.

"I can tell you, I've had lunch on a number of occasions with Vice President Cheney and with Colin Powell, and they're more than on speaking terms," Rice said on Fox News Sunday. "They're very friendly."