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Kerry: I'd have us in a 'different place'

Senator speaks on prewar intelligence, timetables, election plans

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Sen. John Kerry: "There are a lot of things we can do to do better."

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John F. Kerry

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A top House Democrat called for a swift U.S. withdrawal from Iraq on Thursday amid a White House counteroffensive against allegations that the Bush administration misled the country over prewar intelligence.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke with Sen. John Kerry -- the Massachusetts Democrat who lost to President Bush in last year's election -- beginning by asking about the president recently quoting Kerry's prewar comments on Saddam Hussein.

"I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security," the president quoted Kerry saying, in part.

BLITZER: You firmly believed that, going into the war -- that's why you voted for that resolution?

KERRY: Providing he had those weapons, and providing -- which the president didn't quote, as he distorted again to America our position and the truth -- providing that he did the other things, which are: a follow-through on the inspections; not go unilaterally; build a legitimate coalition; plan carefully and go as a last resort. All of which the president said he would do; none of which he did do.

The record is now clear. So I said in that very same speech, which the president did not quote, that if you proceeded too rapidly, if you didn't do the things I just described, you could make a volatile region more dangerous, you could attract more terrorists and you would make America less secure, not more.

The president needs to stop being selective, and he needs to start to level with the American people. That speech on Friday, on Veterans Day -- a sacred day for veterans, which was a political-attack day for the president -- was not an honest speech.

BLITZER: But going into the war, based on the intelligence that you received, you had no doubt that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction?

KERRY: I believed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles, and I believed Saddam Hussein wanted to get more weapons. But I also believed that, as did many of my colleagues, that the intelligent way to try to deal with that was to do the inspections.

I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which I suggested that you needed to go do them. Now, ... Vice President Cheney opposed those inspections. And the very cabal -- that the former chief of staff to Secretary [Colin] Powell talked about taking over the policy -- didn't want to even do the inspections. They wanted to rush to this confrontation and to war.

Even two days before, three days before the president decided to pull the trigger and launch the war, there were offers by [U.N.] Security Council members for further diplomatic efforts to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. And I said at that very time I believed those should have been pursued, and it was disappointing they weren't.

BLITZER: According to the Congressional Record on October 9, 2002, you said, "Saddam Hussein wants to retain his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. ... These weapons represent an unacceptable threat."

You went on to say, "There is little question that Saddam Hussein wants to develop nuclear weapons.... "

On the intelligence that you saw, you came to those conclusions; on the intelligence the president saw, which he says is the same intelligence that you saw, he came to the conclusion that WMD existed.

KERRY: First of all, we did not see the same intelligence. Once again, the administration is not telling the truth. ... There were things that were not in the National Intelligence Estimate that the president put out that were not accurate. ...

Let me be very specific. When the president stood up in front of America and said that Saddam Hussein was trying to get nuclear weapons and nuclear fissionable material from Africa, that was not accurate. And the White House had been told three times in writing, three times verbally by the CIA not to use that intelligence. They did anyway.

They told America that Saddam Hussein could deliver these weapons in ... under an hour. That meant something to me. What he did not say was that the National Intelligence Agency -- or the CIA, I forgot [which] of those -- disagreed with that. That they didn't believe that. ...

Vice President Cheney stood up and said that Iraq had, in fact, had meetings, that there were meetings between Iraq and the hijackers of the 9/11 aircraft. That was [later] denied by the 9/11 commission. That never took place, and there [were] people who doubted that at the time. We weren't told that. We weren't told about these other doubts. ...

I went to Pentagon briefings, I went to the Mideast, I went to Great Britain and met with the defense and foreign secretary of Great Britain.

BLITZER: They believed he had weapons of mass destruction?

KERRY: So did we. Wolf, that's not the misleading. We believed that he had some weapons left over and that he wanted to get the nuclear weapons. What we were given was a picture that drew an immediacy of threat that was well beyond containing some of those weapons and trying, ultimately, to build a nuclear facility.

Beyond that, what I voted for I made very clear on the floor of the Senate. Every word of it was laid out in my statement.

BLITZER: Let me ask you if you agree with your former running mate, John Edwards, who wrote in The Washington Post the following ... : "I was wrong. It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002." ...

KERRY: I said that before Senator Edwards wrote that. ... I would not have voted for that resolution given what we know today. We wouldn't have even had a vote, given what we know today. ...

The reason that vote took place in the United States Senate and Congress in because they built up the immediacy of the threat.

And what many of us felt we were giving the president was the authority to use force as a last resort if -- if -- he had fulfilled his promises, gone as a last resort, built up a true coalition, done the inspections to the greatest degree possible. ...

BLITZER: You regret voting for that resolution?

start quoteThe president of the United States leaves members of the United States Senate not able to believe what he says.end quote
-- Sen. John Kerry

KERRY: I think anybody worth their salt ought to see the mistakes and incompetence of this administration. How could you possibly say you're going to vote that you'll have this incompetent administration go out and be incompetent again? Of course I wouldn't do that. But we didn't know that at the time.

BLITZER: There were some senators -- like Sen. [Carl] Levin, Sen. [Bob] Graham -- who didn't vote for the resolution, who thought it was a mistake. And clearly, from your perspective, with hindsight, they were right.

KERRY: They were prescient. And they saw things that others of us who took the president at his value and his word and shouldn't have. I mean, my regret is also that I believed the president. And I'm sorry, but the president of the United States leaves members of the United States Senate not able to believe what he says.

BLITZER: Was the president the victim of the same kind of intelligence you were the victim of? Or was there something more sinister there? Because, as you know, in that Bob Woodward book, he has a conversation he describes between him and the then-director of the CIA, George Tenet.

And the president seems to be wavering a little bit. And the president kind of [says], according to Woodward's book, "Are you sure about this?" And Tenet says, "It's a slam dunk." ...

KERRY: I can't tell you because we haven't had a full investigation, as promised over a year and a half ago for the Intelligence Committee, which is why we Democrats had to shut the Senate activities down and go into secret session -- to force people to do what they said they were going to do. ...

The answer to that question lies in that investigation. I'll tell you what I believe. The president of the United States went before the Congress and used information that the White House had been told three times, verbally and in writing, did not happen. The president and vice president both, in their speeches, linked Saddam Hussein and Iraq to terrorism and to the war on terror, and put it into the whole basket of 9/11.

How else does 70 percent of America come to the belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11? It was the rhetoric of this administration.

BLITZER: ... The theme that's coming from the [Bush administration]: ... Your criticism is, A, undermining the troops ... , and, B, emboldening and encouraging the insurgency.

KERRY: That is exactly the kind of disgraceful fear tactic, scare tactic, exploitation that this administration continually delved into in pursuit of this war. They did it all through the election last year. They tried to scare America and did, in many cases. And they're still doing it.

And I'm not going to listen to this vice president of the United States tell me that, when they send troops without armor, when they send troops in inadequate numbers, when they send troops without the support structure that they need to be able to conduct a mission, ... when they make the misjudgment that those troops are going to be welcomed as liberators with flowers strewn at their feet in parade, when they make the misjudgment not even to block and secure ammo dumps -- the ammo which is now being used against our troops -- when they make the misjudgment about disbanding the military and the civilian structure of Iraq.

And they turn around and say to us -- who all the time were saying, "Don't do those things" -- that we're somehow putting the troops in jeopardy, I'm going to stand up and fight.

Those troops deserve leadership that's equal to their sacrifice, and I think this administration has lost lives of good troops at greater risk than they needed to be because they didn't do the things necessary to support the troops. I'm fighting for the troops. I'm fighting for the people that are on those front lines.

I've been over to Iraq; I met with them. They deserve our support. And the way they get our support is to have a policy that begins to have a sensible approach to what kind of missions they're sent on, and that begins to turn the responsibility over to Iraqis. Iraqis should go into Iraqi homes. ...

BLITZER: [Democratic Rep.] John Murtha, who's very involved in the Armed Services Committee, ... says there should be an immediate withdrawal over the next six months of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Good idea?

KERRY: I respectfully disagree with John Murtha. And I laid out a plan which is, I think, a good plan, a solid plan -- that builds consistently on everything I said throughout the campaign last year -- of what you need to do to be successful. And I believe my plan supports the troops in the right way.

start quoteIf you do the right things, and I've laid out what they are, we can bring the bulk of our combat troops home over the course of next year.end quote
-- Sen. John Kerry

[Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq] has said very clearly that the large presence of our troops in Iraq is part of the problem. It attracts terrorists. ... Melvin Laird, secretary of defense for Richard Nixon, has written the same thing, that it's our presence of troops that's part of the problem. ...

BLITZER: But you don't want a timetable or a hard and fast deadline?

KERRY: I have laid out a plan where we could withdraw some 20,000 troops around the holidays, based on the fact -- not as a rigid timetable -- linked to the success of the election. (Full story)

We have about 160,000 troops in Iraq today, Wolf. We had 138,000; it went up for the purpose of making Iraq safer for the referendum and the election.

My benchmark is, if you have a successful election after having had a successful referendum, we've done our part with those extra troops; they should come home, taking us back to the level that we were at before that.

Then you set a target for the taking over of security responsibilities in Baghdad and another province ... in a sort of step-by-step basis. You set out a timetable, not for withdrawal, but for success, that allows you to withdraw. And I believe if you do the right things, and I've laid out what they are, we can bring the bulk of our combat troops home over the course of next year.

BLITZER: A year since you were defeated, do you wake up every day and relive some of the campaign, what you could have done? ...

KERRY: No, I don't relive that. I'll tell you what I obviously think about is, the different choices that I would be making today, and the difference I think there could be for the country on a number of issues.

Look at what they're doing on energy independence: more dependency on oil, not moving America to be energy independent. That affects our security and our foreign policy. We can do better than that.

Look at what we're doing on health care: Americans are just crunched under the costs of health care, more and more people losing it. They have no plan at all. ...

I had a plan, and I think about what we could be doing to make life better for Americans in health care.

Obviously in Iraq, I know we could be doing a better job of bringing countries to the table and we could, I think, save lives and restore America's honor and strength in the world. ...

BLITZER: But do you ever think, if only I had responded better to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against you? Do you go back and think about some of those kinds of things?

KERRY: Look, inevitably, you think about some of the mistakes we might have made or not made, but I'm not dwelling on them. I mean, I know what they are. And you got to go forward. Americans don't want to hear about the past. They want to know what we're going to do to make lives better for people today.

And I think there are a lot of things we can do to do better for Americans.

BLITZER: What about 2008 -- do you want to run for president again?

KERRY: It is honestly too early to tell. ... Would I like to be president? Yes, obviously. I ran for the job. I think I would have made a good president for America, a strong president. I would have had us in a very different place than we are today.

But that's in the past. Now my job is to help us provide alternatives for the country ... in 2006. And that is what I am really focused on, is helping senators, helping congressmen, helping mayors -- I was out campaigning -- helping governors. I was campaigning in New Jersey, helping Tim Kaine in Virginia.

We need to do all we can to make 2006 the choice that I think people really want to make and need to make in light of what's happening in our country. And then we'll see where we are.

BLITZER: Do you think you can beat Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary?

KERRY: Well, I don't know if Hillary's running. Who knows who's running, not running? I'm not running yet. We need to see where we're at.

I'll tell you this: If I decide to run and I get into the race -- and it won't depend on who else is running. ... If I get in that race, having learned what I've learned, and the experience I had last year, I think I know how to do what I need to do and I will run to win. ....

BLITZER: When will you make that decision?

KERRY: Oh, some time after next year's elections, when we've all had a chance to let the dust settle a little and see where we are.

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