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Bush Administration Defends Rationale Behind War

Aired May 29, 2003 - 15:04   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: The failure so far to find compelling evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has opened the Bush administration to critics who say that a key reason for going to war may have been in error. At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer today defended the rationale behind the war, citing the recent discovery of trucks U.S. government experts believe were used as mobile chemical weapons labs.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Those biological trucks themselves, as Secretary Powell pointed out to the United Nations, it doesn't take a lot to produce a lot of deaths. The biological weapons can be small in quantity and large in death.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Disarming the Iraqi regime, of course, was the key administration argument for invading Iraq in the first place. As Fleischer mentioned, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case in person at the United Nations back in February.

And in a new issue of "Vanity Fair" magazine, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that the weapons threat was just one reason for the war. Wolfowitz says, "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason that everyone could agree on."

Wolfowitz also points to a larger goal of eventually removing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia. In his words, "Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is, itself, going to open the door to a more peaceful Middle East."

Well the attacks on U.S. troops and the continued search for weapons are, of course, top concerns for Pentagon officials. Standing by with us for mall on all of this, our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

Jamie, first of all, on the number of troops, before the war, it was the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who said the numbers wouldn't be so large. Now we're told maybe 200,000. First of all, is there some sort of a discrepancy here?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't think so. Part of the controversy was when the Army chief of staff, General Shinseki, was asked for his guesstimate in a congressional briefing, he said it might take several hundred thousand troops.

The Pentagon immediately said that was wildly overstated. And right now, in Iraq, there's about 150,000 troops in Iraq. That 200,000 figure would count if you count the people outside of Iraq supporting them.

The Pentagon says that essentially 150,000 or so is not close to several hundred thousand, which they consider to be about 300,000 or more. But what's definitely happening here is that the U.S. had hoped by now they'd be able to send home many of the troops that fought their way into Baghdad and had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. That has not happened because of the continued security problems there. Instead of sending those troops home, the U.S. is now considering redeploying them to other parts of Iraq to try to bring more stability -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: And Jamie, separately, the comments by Secretary Wolfowitz in the "Vanity Fair" article, that weapons of mass destruction were never the main reason for going to war, they were just one of several reasons, and yet that came across as the principal reason, I think, to many Americans. What is the status of that and how much of a priority are the weapons now?

MCINTYRE: Well, I haven't read the "Vanity Fair" article. However, I did read the interview, the transcript of the interview provided by the Pentagon of Secretary Wolfowitz's comments, and I'd have to say that that's not what he said.

He says in this interview with "Vanity Fair" that weapons of mass destruction was the "core reason," were the words he used. The one reason he said that everyone could agree on, but he went on to list many other benefits of going to war with Iraq. But he never said that they weren't the main reason.

He said it was, in fact, the one reason that everybody could agree on. Nevertheless, the U.S. is in a bit of a pickle, as they have not yet found convincing evidence of those weapons of mass destruction. You saw Ari Fleischer there pointing to those mobile biological labs. At this point, that's the best evidence the U.S. has been able to come up with.

However, they're still saying that this is a process that's going to take some amount of time, that there's a large area that needs to be searched. And the chairman of the joint chiefs, as recently as this week, expressed confidence that he believes eventually weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq.

WOODRUFF: OK. It's an ongoing question. All right. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

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