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Iraq WMD report enters political fray

On eve of debate, Republicans, Democrats use conclusions

President Bush makes a statement in reference to the Iraq Survey Group report Thursday on the South Lawn of the White House.
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CNN's David Ensor on the Duelfer report on WMD.

Duelfer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
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Do you believe Saddam Hussein intended to produce weapons of mass destruction?
George W. Bush
John Kerry
Iraq Survey Group

(CNN) -- With the release of the report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, Republicans and Democrats used its conclusions Thursday to bolster their positions on the Iraq war.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney maintained that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, while prominent Democrats -- including Democratic presidential challenger Sen. John Kerry -- said the findings prove wrong the administration's reasons for going to war.

A day after the chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer delivered his Iraq Survey Group's report to the Senate, President Bush acknowledged that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction at the time he ordered the invasion but said Saddam Hussein was "systematically gaming the system" and the world is safer because he is no longer in power. ( Report: No WMD stockpiles in Iraq)

"He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away," Bush said. "Based on all the information we have to date, I believe we were right to take action."

John Kerry, spending the day in Englewood, Colorado, preparing for Friday's second presidential debate, spoke to reporters about the report: "Mr. President, the American people deserve more than spin about this war," Kerry said.

"They deserve facts that represent reality, not carefully polished arguments and points that are simply calculated to align with a preconceived conception."

At a town hall-style campaign event in Miami, Florida, Cheney on Thursday focused on the report's conclusions that Saddam was actively undermining the U.N. oil-for-food program.

"He was using [the oil-for-food program] to siphon off billions," he said. "He was, in effect, corrupting the program in such a way that he was trying to buy support from countries outside Iraq so they would support lifting sanctions imposed on Iraq. ...

"It's clear the whole sanctions regime structure that was in place was breaking down -- he was undermining it.

"The notion we could have waited, not done anything, and sooner or later Saddam would not be on the scene doesn't make any sense."

The report indicated that Saddam was trying to have the sanctions lifted and that he hoped then to restart his weapons programs -- primarily for defense against Iran.

At the same time, the report said that "the former regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after the sanctions."

As for nuclear weapons, the report found that Iraq's "ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed" after the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991 -- and a nuclear weapon would have been years away.

Bush, speaking from the White House lawn before departing on a campaign trip to Wisconsin, did not budge from his position that Saddam had to go.

"He was a threat we had to confront, and America and the world are safer for our actions," he said.

Democrats, however, didn't buy the president's position.

Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, said such logic in the face of the the Iraq Survey Group's conclusions was "convoluted" and said the administration needs to "level with the American people."

"They think if they keep saying it over and over that the American people will believe them and not what they see with their own eyes," Edwards said at a campaign stop in Bayonne, New Jersey.

"But you can't fix a mess unless you recognize there is a mess. You can't fix a mistake unless you recognize there is a mistake."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the administration of constantly changing the reasons it went to war.

"After the war started, the administration began an effort to change the subject of the debate from the actual presence of weapons of mass destruction to WMD programs, then to WMD-related program activities and more recently to speculation about intentions," Levin said.

None of that, he said, should detract from the fact that 1,700 Iraq Survey Group investigators looked at 1,200 potential weapons sites in Iraq and came away empty-handed.

"It is important to emphasize that central fact because the administration's case for going to war against Iraq rested on the twin arguments that Saddam Hussein had existing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and that he might give weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda to attack us -- as al Qaeda had attacked us on 9/11," Levin said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, pointed to the administration's insistence before the invasion that Saddam posed a grave threat and needed to be dealt with immediately.

"Despite the efforts to focus on Saddam's desires and intentions, the bottom line is Iraq did not have either weapon stockpiles or active production capabilities at the time of the war," Rockefeller said in a written statement.

"The report does further document Saddam's attempts to deceive the world and get out from under the sanctions, but the fact remains, the sanctions combined with inspections were working and Saddam was restrained."

David Kay, Duelfer's predecessor as the head of the Iraq Survey Group, said Thursday that the "real danger [was] not so much that Saddam would pass along the secrets of weapons of mass destruction, but scientists and engineers in their desperate desire to better themselves, to keep their families alive, might well have sold these secrets."

"We do, after all, have the case of A.Q. Khan, who, for 20 years, sold secrets of nuclear weapons production to countries around the world," Kay said, referring to the scientist known as the father of Pakistan's nuclear program. "It took about 18 years before we discovered it and managed to stop it."

Khan has admitted giving nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and other countries. He is living in a villa after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pardoned him this year. None of Khan's co-conspirators have been brought to trial.

Kay agreed with Duelfer's conclusion that Saddam's push to create a lasting legacy for himself had created "an environment of corruption and fear" in Iraq. But, he said, "the most meaningful conclusion ... is the failure of our intelligence services and the intelligence services of other Western countries" to determine that Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction nor means to build them.

"We need to take that lesson to heart so a next president does not have to go through the same trauma that this one has when you turn out the reasons for going to war to be so different than the actual facts," he said on CNN's "American Morning."

The president agreed.

"The Duelfer report makes clear that much of the accumulated body of 12 years of our intelligence and that of our allies was wrong, and we must find out why and correct the flaws," he said.

"I look forward to the intelligence reform commission's recommendations, and we will act on them to improve our intelligence, especially our intelligence about weapons of mass destruction."

CNN's Wayne Drash contributed to this report.

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