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Bush: 'I expected to find the weapons'
Updated: 2004-02-09 08:10

U.S. President Bush denied he marched America into war under false pretenses and said the U.S.-led invasion was necessary because Saddam Hussein could have developed a nuclear weapon.

"I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best," the president said. Bush suggested Saddam may have destroyed or spirited out of the country the banned weapons the Bush administration cited as a main rationale for the war.

"I expected to find the weapons," Bush said in an Oval Office interview broadcast Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"Sitting behind this desk, making a very difficult decision of war and peace, I based my decision on the best intelligence possible," the president said. The interview was taped Saturday.

Bush also was asked about the fugitive Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks whom the president had pledged to get "dead or alive."

He chuckled when told that a Republican lawmaker had predicted Osama would be captured before the presidential election. "I appreciate his optimism," Bush said. "I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice. ... I know we are on the hunt."

The interview, his first on a Sunday talk show since taking office, came as the president's approval rating has dipped to 47 percent, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in early February; that compares with 56 percent just a month ago.

The appearance followed weeks of criticism from Democrats over the failure so far to find Iraq's cache of weapons.

"They could have been destroyed during the war," Bush said, speculating about reasons the reports might have been wrong. "Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country, and we'll find out."

The president said he retained confidence in CIA Director George Tenet. Bush shook his head from side to side when asked if Tenet's job was in jeopardy. "No, not at all, not at all," Bush said.

Bush pledged to cooperate with a commission he set up last week to examine prewar intelligence lapses and defended its March 2005 reporting date, which is four months after the White House election.

"There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess ... whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power," Bush said.

Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail said Sunday they wanted to see the findings before the election, if possible.

"What we've got here is a president who simply doesn't want to be held accountable," presidential hopeful Wesley Clark  told CNN's "Late Edition."

Bush did not directly respond to election-year allegations that his administration exaggerated intelligence, but made clear that the United States considered the Iraqi president a dictator who brutalized and killed his own people.

"I strongly believe that inaction in Iraq would have emboldened Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "He could have developed a nuclear weapon over time — I'm not saying immediately, but over time. ... We would have been in a position of blackmail. In other words, you can't rely upon a madman."

Also on the foreign policy front, Bush said "diplomacy is just beginning" with North Korea. The United States and its allies are seeking to persuade the communist nation to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. "We are making good progress," Bush said.

On domestic issues, Bush said his tax cuts were responsible for an economic rebound.

He dismissed news reports that there is no evidence he reported for National Guard duty in Alabama during the summer and fall of 1972, during the Vietnam War. "There may be no evidence but I did report; otherwise, I wouldn't have been honorably discharged."

Bush expressed indifference about polls that showed him trailing the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. "I'm not going to lose," Bush said. "I don't plan on losing."

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