U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell again defended the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq at a congressional hearing Wednesday, marked by skeptical questioning from, and some heated exchanges with, Democratic House members.
The secretary's appearance before the House International Relations Committee was ostensibly to defend the administration's $31.5 billion foreign-affairs budget for the coming year.
But the three-hour hearing was dominated by partisan debate over Iraq policy, with Mr. Powell and Republican members defending White House war decisions, and Democrats like New York's Gary Ackerman suggesting that the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein a year ago. "The distinguished chairman of this committee cited in his remarks the adage that truth is the first casualty of war. I would contend that the truth was murdered before a shot was fired. Now unable to discover the stockpiles of weapons that Vice President Cheney asserted were absolutely there, and that Secretary [of Defense] Rumsfeld claimed to know the exact location of, we find ourselves with a big problem," he said.
Mr. Powell, whose February 5, 2003 appearance in the U.N. Security Council was a key part of the administration's rationale for war, rejected Mr. Ackerman's suggestion that the truth had been murdered.
He said he went to the Security Council with the best assessment available at the time from U.S. and allied intelligence communities about Saddam Hussein's weapons holdings and intentions. "I went into that briefing believing that there were stockpiles, that there were weapons there. We expected to find them. We all believed that, because all the intelligence data we had suggested there were stockpiles. And it was derived from 12 years of examination, eight years of which included U.N. inspectors on the ground, and all the intelligence that was available to us, available to other agencies in other governments. And so it was not a question that we know nothing was there and we lied about it. What we did was we presented the facts that our intelligence community provided to us," he said.
Mr. Powell said repeatedly that President Bush had done the right thing by removing Saddam Hussein, and he said remarks he made in a Washington Post interview last week that seemed to distance himself from administration Iraq policy had been misinterpreted and overplayed by some "hysterical" members of the press.
The secretary, who has enjoyed good relations with members of both parties on the key House committee, had an tense exchange with Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown.
In the course of a critical line of questioning on Iraq, Mr. Brown reiterated charges, denied by the White House, that President Bush had been absent from required military drills during service with the Air National Guard 30 years ago.
Mr. Powell also publicly admonished a staff member of Mr. Brown, who he said had been shaking his head skeptically during his defense of administration policy.
The secretary got abundant support on Iraq from committee Republicans, including chairman Henry Hyde. He said the use of force against Saddam Hussein had been an "incredible success story" and a catalyst for other foreign policy gains including Libya's decision to voluntarily give up weapons of mass destruction.