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White House hits back at Democratic critics

Cheney meets with House GOP leaders

From Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

Administration officials say the White House will be more aggressive in answering Democratic critics on Iraq.
Administration officials say the White House will be more aggressive in answering Democratic critics on Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With the controversy over prewar intelligence on Iraq growing, the White House has decided to strike back harder at President Bush's strongest critics in the Democratic Party, according to sources.

"If this is the turf they want to play on, by all means let's do it," a senior administration official told CNN on Wednesday.

Vice President Dick Cheney told House Republicans he hopes to be more aggressive in defending the White House from Democratic charges that the administration manipulated intelligence data to bolster the case for war, according to two senior GOP congressional aides.

The administration is under fire for Bush's statement in his January State of the Union address that British intelligence indicated Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa -- a move that would suggest Iraq's interest in developing nuclear weapons. Administration aides said last week, however, that the uranium claim could not be verified and should not have been included in the speech.

While acknowledging the White House could have handled the controversy over Bush's address better, Cheney laid out for GOP House leaders why they should still make the case Saddam Hussein had well-documented, illicit weapons programs, the sources said.

"He said Republicans should focus on the big picture, that the Niger uranium issue was only part of the case against Saddam Hussein," said one GOP aide.

A separate GOP source said Cheney promised to get talking points on the matter to House Republicans for distribution as soon as possible.

The vice president attended a regular House GOP leadership meeting in the Capitol Wednesday afternoon, which, according to an aide, had been scheduled for weeks.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that "some are more focused on elections and possibly even revising history, rewriting history."

Asked later to clarify his statements, McClellan answered, "The last thing anyone should do is politicize this issue by rewriting history. There are some where the present rhetoric does not match their past record. So look back at past comments."

He then produced letters and statements from 1998 and attributed them to two of Bush's most vocal critics on the intelligence flap: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is running for his party's nomination for president, and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who has called for an investigation into the intelligence in Bush's speech.

According to McClellan, in a 1998 letter to then-President Clinton, Levin called on the commander-in-chief to "take necessary actions to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs."

McClellan also read two 1998 statements he attributed to Kerry, both urging action against Saddam for the sake of stability in the Middle East.

A senior administration official said that more of this strategy of confronting critics will be on display from the administration, both from the White House and from surrogates.

Such a strategy was also on display when Democrats first began to criticize the administration's handling of the September 11, 2001 attacks. At that time, the White House launched a counterattack on Democrats questioning a president who the administration said was only trying to make Americans safe.

Of the Cheney meeting, GOP congressional sources said House leaders were also telling the vice president they believe their party needs to be more aggressive in fighting back against Democratic critics.

Several GOP congressional sources told CNN there was some frustration among Hill Republicans who believe they did not have clear direction from the White House on the issue.

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