WASHINGTON — National security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Sunday defended her characterization of Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities in the months before the Iraq invasion, even as a published report said government experts had cast doubt at the time.
In the run-up to the March 2003 war, Rice said in a television interview in 2002 that the Iraqi president was trying to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes to rebuild his nuclear weapons program. The tubes, she said, were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs."
On Sunday, Rice acknowledged she was aware of a debate within the U.S. intelligence community about whether the tubes were intended for nuclear weapons. "I knew that there was a dispute. I actually didn't really know the nature of the dispute," Rice told ABC's "This Week."
"The intelligence community assessment as a whole was that these (tubes) were likely and certainly suitable for, and likely for, his nuclear weapons program," Rice said. She said the director of the CIA at the time, George Tenet, believed that the tubes were for centrifuge parts.
"When you are faced with an assessment that Saddam Hussein is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program, that he has by the end of the decade the probability of having a nuclear weapon . . . the tendency is always not to want to underestimate these programs," Rice said.
But two years later, Rice insisted she has no regrets about how the administration portrayed what it believed was a dangerous threat posed by Saddam.
"I stand by to this day the correctness of the decision to take seriously an intelligence assessment that Saddam Hussein would likely have a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade" if action wasn't taken.
"We were all unhappy that the intelligence was not as good as we had thought that it was. But the essential judgment was absolutely right. Saddam Hussein was a threat," she said.
Later, in an interview on CNN's "Late Edition," Rice said, "If you underestimate the nuclear threat of a tyrant, you make a really big mistake."
A New York Times story Sunday quoted four CIA officials and a senior administration official as saying that Rice's staff had been told in 2001 that Energy Department experts believed the tubes were probably intended for small artillery rockets — and not nuclear weapons.
Rice said she learned of objections by the Energy Department only after making her 2002 comments.
During the CNN interview in 2002, Rice said the tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." In bolstering the administration's argument of the threat the nation faced, she said, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry seized on the latest debate over flawed prewar intelligence as more evidence that the Bush administration misled the country into invading Iraq.
"These are questions the president must face, these are the questions that a president has to answer fully to the American people and to the troops," Kerry told a town hall meeting in Ohio on Sunday.
Kerry foreign policy adviser and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke told "This Week," "What the Times article is saying is that the top nuclear experts in the country said those aluminum tubes were not for nuclear weapons, and that this was suppressed by the administration, particularly Vice President Cheney."