Friday, May 05, 2006

Rumsfeld on defensive over Iraq

Rumsfeld on defensive over Iraq
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faced tough questions and hecklers during a stormy speech in Atlanta on Thursday, with a former CIA analyst accusing him of lying his way into the Iraq war.

Rumsfeld, an unyielding defender of the war, denied lying. He told an audience at the Southern Center for International Studies that the Bush administration gave an "honest opinion" that prewar Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"I would like to ask you to be upfront with the American people. Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary, that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?" asked audience member Ray McGovern, who had a 27-year career as a CIA analyst.

"Well, first of all, I haven't lied," Rumsfeld said.

One woman whose son was a U.S. soldier killed in the war asked if the Pentagon was making sure American troops were better equipped for combat. "You bet," Rumsfeld said. "And I'm so sorry about your son."

There have been 2,411 U.S. military deaths in the war, with 17,874 troops wounded in combat, the Pentagon said on Thursday. Opinion polls show U.S. public support for the war declining. President George W. Bush recently voiced strong support for Rumsfeld after a handful of retired generals demanded his ouster, accusing him of strategic blunders in Iraq and ignoring military advice.

Rumsfeld, whose speech focused on U.S. military alliances worldwide, was interrupted briefly by hecklers, including one clutching a sign that read: "Guilty! of war crimes."

McGovern pressed Rumsfeld about the case for war made by the administration before the March 2003 invasion.

"I'm not in the intelligence business," Rumsfeld said about U.S. assertions that now-deposed President Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was seeking nuclear arms.

Rumsfeld said then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his February 2003 speech before the United Nations detailing U.S. beliefs about Iraqi arms, had "spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate."

Rumsfeld said Bush, who made the threat posed by Iraq's weapons his main justification for war, also "spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence people" before making his case to the American people.

"They gave the world their honest opinion," Rumsfeld added. "It appears that there were no weapons of mass destruction."


McGovern shot back, "You said you knew where they were," referring to the Iraqi weapons.

"I did not," Rumsfeld retorted. "I said I knew where suspect sites were."

"You said you know where they were, near Tikrit, near Baghdad, and north, east, south and west of there. Those are your words," McGovern shot back.

"I'd just like an honest answer," McGovern added. "We're talking about lies," also mentioning the administration's assertions of prewar ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.

A week and a half into the war, Rumsfeld was asked on March 30, 2003, on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," whether he found it curious that U.S. forces had not yet found weapons of mass destruction.

"Not at all," Rumsfeld responded, according to a Pentagon transcript of the interview.

"We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat," Rumsfeld stated.

Rumsfeld on January 20, 2003, said Saddam's government had "large, unaccounted for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, including VX, sarin, mustard gas, anthrax, botulism, and possibly smallpox," as well as "an active program to acquire and develop nuclear weapons."

Other audience members in Atlanta were gentler. One asked about "what happened in your childhood to make you the man you are today? This might help some parents, because you're a great man." Rumsfeld noted that "my mom was a school teacher and my dad read history voraciously."