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Tony Blair to Receive US Congressional Medal - 2003-06-25

The House of Representatives has voted to award a congressional gold medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow, to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Although most lawmakers supported the action, some opposed it and used the opportunity to renew calls for a full investigation into the issue of intelligence information used to justify the war in Iraq.

The resolution recognizes Mr. Blair's support for the United States in the war in Iraq, and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

New York Congressman Peter King, a Republican, is a primary supporter of the award to Mr. Blair and said, "The first foreign leader to come to this country to express his regrets, while the smoke was still there, while the flames were still burning, he visited the World Trade Center, he visited New York, and came here to our nation's capital, was British Prime Minister Tony Blair."

But others noted that Prime Minister Blair is now under intense pressure to explain his government's use of information regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq before the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Congressman Jim McDermott is a Washington state Democrat who opposed the war in Iraq. He said Congress would be "cheapening" the significance of the medal by awarding it to Mr. Blair. "If this award to Mr. Blair is appropriate, it is either too late or too soon. If the medal had been awarded when it was first introduced [proposed], before these deceptions were discovered, it would have been smooth sailing. If it is brought up later, perhaps Mr. Blair will have cleared his name. But at this moment we are pre-judging, and perhaps trying to influence the outcome of some very serious investigations going on in Britain," he said.

Mr. McDermott noted that Congress has only awarded a medal to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill posthumously in 1969, and only once awarded a medal to a sitting head of state, Nelson Mandela, during his final months as president of South Africa.

Others also attempted to shift the focus of the debate from Mr. Blair's steadfast support of the United States, to the Iraq weapons intelligence issue.

Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the level of investigation in Britain far exceeds what is happening in the United States. This, he said, should send a message to Congress. "We need a blue ribbon commission to examine all the intelligence that was used. England is doing it right now. Tony Blair is accepting that examination. We should have the courage in our own country to give all of the information to the American public. The intelligence in this country is right now not complete with regard to what our government knew before we voted on the floor of this Congress," Mr. Markey said.

Prime Minister Blair maintains there was no attempt to deceive the British people about weapons of mass destruction. Two of his Cabinet members resigned over the issue, and other ministers and staff members have faced sharp questions in parliament.

But Republican Congressman Porter Goss, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, says it is important not to lose track of the main point of the honor for the British leader.

"Good men are not infallible. Mistakes can be made. But good men acting on good judgment, doing the best with what they have got, is what we are celebrating here today," Mr. Goss said.

The House approved the medal for Mr. Blair by voice vote. The Senate has already approved a similar resolution.