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Iraq Transition

Cheney: Murtha a 'patriot,' war debate legitimate

But intelligence charges called 'dishonest and reprehensible'

Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday praised Rep. John Murtha as "my friend and former colleague."


Dick Cheney
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Vice President Dick Cheney continued the Bush administration's efforts Monday to pull back on attacks against a decorated war veteran who called for the near-term withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq.

But Cheney, in a speech in Washington, excoriated lawmakers who say the United States misused intelligence in the lead-up to the war, calling such complaints "dishonest and reprehensible."

"A few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood. This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate," he told the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

He used the first part of his speech -- televised live by CNN and other news networks -- to praise U.S. Rep. John Murtha, "my friend and former colleague." The 17-term Pennsylvania Democrat made news last week when he called for U.S. forces to leave Iraq over a six-month period.

"I disagree with Jack and believe his proposal would not serve the best interest of this nation. But he's a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion," Cheney said.

President Bush similarly praised Murtha on Sunday during his trip to Asia.

Shift from heated rhetoric

Bush's and Cheney's comments were a far cry from initial comments by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who last week accused Murtha of "endorsing the policies of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."

Amid heavy violence and mounting death tolls in Iraq, some of the largest battles over the war have erupted in Washington in recent weeks. Democrats have assailed the administration for not being honest about the conditions in Iraq or, in some cases, about the intelligence that led to the war.

"This administration manipulated and misused intelligence information that rushed us to war," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D.-Massachusetts, one of the lawmakers leading that charge.

In Monday's speech, Cheney said he has no quarrel with those who want to debate the war or the reasons for being there.

"What is not legitimate and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible is the suggestion by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence," he said.

"Some of the most irresponsible comments have come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence materials. They are known to have a high opinion of their own analytical capabilities."

Many prominent Senate Democrats did support a 2002 resolution supporting the use of force as an option in dealing with Iraq. But many argue that the Bush administration did not give weapons inspectors adequate time to determine whether then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Democrats also say the Bush administration's argument that the Senate had access to the same intelligence is false.

Among the examples they point to: a now declassified intelligence estimate from February 2002 in which the Defense Intelligence Agency found it was possible that a key source of intelligence on Iraq "does not know any further details. It is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers."

The same document also said Shaykh al-Libi -- a captured al Qaeda operative and another major source of intelligence -- "may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest." The document was not provided to the Senate when it considered the bill authorizing use of force.

Rumsfeld: Charges of intelligence manipulation 'ridiculous'

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," said, "There is no question that there are fabricators that operate in the intelligence world. And there's also no question that you can find intelligence reports on every side of every issue."

He added, "The implication that there's something amazing about that is just ridiculous."

But some Democrats argue the administration didn't come clean about how shaky some intelligence was.

"We all operated on bad information," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, said Monday after a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. "But the only ones who took the information that was most questionable and asserted it as fact were the administration."

Earlier, during his speech, he said, "By misrepresenting the facts, by misunderstanding Iraq and misleading the war, I believe the administration has brought us to the verge of a national security debacle."

The Bush administration is also facing questions from someone who, until earlier this year, was a top official in the State Department.

Larry Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, told CNN on Sunday that after what he has learned about al-Libi's interrogation, "I'd reserve opinion now on whether or not some of the intelligence that led us into Iraq was politicized or not." (Read more on Wilkerson's comments about Cheney providing torture "guidance")

This month, CNN obtained a CIA document from January 2003 that was recently provided to Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. It appears to support the idea that the CIA thought al-Libi was lying to interrogators. (Full Story)

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita complained the document was being released "out of context, without the analysis or any other indication as to how it may have factored in."

The bipartisan Silberman-Robb commission, which Bush created, said in a March 2005 report that it "found no evidence of political pressure to influence the intelligence community's prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons programs."

But the commission emphasized that its role was to examine the intelligence -- not how those in government used it.

The commission also reported that while intelligence analysts said their findings were not influenced by political pressure, "it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

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