RALEIGH, N.C. -- John F. Kerry and John Edwards accused the Bush administration yesterday of misleading the nation and of manipulating intelligence analysts to win support for the invasion of Iraq, though both senators stood by their votes authorizing the war.
For months, Kerry has expressed increasing skepticism about the Iraq war, but his newly chosen running mate has been relatively quiet on the topic. In October of 2002, Edwards was among the most hawkish of the Democrats in Congress, cosponsoring the Iraqi war resolution in the Senate.
But yesterday, in an interview on their campaign plane in which the candidates also discussed the possibility of financing their campaign outside the public funding system, Edwards said Vice President Dick Cheney probably pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to skew its work in support of the war.
"We know that Dick Cheney spent significant amounts of time at the CIA," Edwards said. "We know that the administration was aware, because all of us were becoming increasingly aware, of the problems within the intelligence community."
Kerry said Bush had personally misled him into casting his vote to support the war by indicating that the administration would exhaust diplomatic options before using force. In fact, Kerry said several Middle Eastern leaders, including Saudis, had told him the Bush administration was committed to war more than a year before the actual invasion. But he set aside his concerns after receiving assurances from President Bush.
"The president went back on his word," Kerry said. "I take that personally."
He added: "Evidence is mounting significantly that they made a decision, then framed an argument to support it. I think there are very serious questions about that that remain to be answered."
Nonetheless, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and his choice for vice president defended their vote in favor of the war, saying that they had been guided by the evidence laid before them at the time.
"I'm not second-guessing my vote one iota," Kerry said. "The vote was the right vote at that moment in time, and we don't deal with hypotheticals. We deal with the realities."
Polls have indicated the Iraq war as a dominant issue of the campaign; some recent surveys have reported that a majority of Americans now view the war as a mistake. Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which Edwards is a member, released a scathing report detailing voluminous intelligence failures in the run-up to the war.
The war presents Kerry and Edwards with a delicate political issue. Both supported it; Edwards did so vigorously. But with evidence mounting that the war was based on false premises, the Democratic base, crucial to their fortunes in the presidential election, is increasingly angry about the conflict.
Edwards said that the Intelligence Committee was in no position to question the case for war, although the committee's investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was turning up problems.
"After Sept. 11, we were in the process on the committee of finding out why Sept. 11 happened, why the failures occurred, all the things that we were obligated to do," Edwards said.
"We're an oversight committee . . . our responsibility is oversight. It's the responsibility of the president of the United States to make sure that we lead," Edwards added.
Kerry nodded his assent to Edwards's comments, adding that he has become convinced that the invasion had been based on flawed intelligence, particularly on tips from Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi, the longtime head of an Iraqi group with ties to conservative members of the Bush administration.
"If someone had told me it was Mr. Chalabi and his crowd, I would have discounted by exponential factors what I was hearing and had a very different set of reactions," Kerry said. "I believe that the evidence is mounting that this administration made a decision to go to war and then fashioned a support structure for that decision."
Kerry described a trip he made to the Middle East in January 2002, when he met with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and top members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, and was told they believed the Bush administration had already decided on a course for war.
"They said to me that it was their strong belief that the administration was very clear that they wanted to go do this. They didn't have a specific timing," Kerry said.
But after Kerry returned to the United States, the Bush administration, despite its initial belligerent position, had sent him signals that it would exhaust diplomacy first.
"I was convinced at that point in time, that while Cheney and company wanted to go in, the president had backed off and made a new decision," he said, adding that signals also had come from prominent Republicans like Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former President George H. W. Bush. The conditions were established for comprehensive diplomacy, said Kerry.
When a president sets "those kinds of conditions and sets them personally, as a condition of a senator's vote, as that senator, I take that personally," said Kerry, expressing dismay that Bush subsequently invaded Iraq far more quickly than Kerry had expected.
Asked if Bush had lied to him, Kerry said: "Look, those are all the words of politics. The bottom line is that the president abused the authority that we gave him. The president went back on his word. You use the words you want."
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney reelection committee, disputed the criticism, saying that Kerry and Edwards both "voted for the war in Iraq, they both said Saddam Hussein was a threat. A year later, John Kerry declared himself an antiwar candidate and they both voted against money for our troops."
He also pointed to an interview in October that Edwards gave on MSNBC's "Hardball." "I did what I did based upon a belief that Saddam Hussein's potential for getting nuclear capability was what created the threat," Edwards said. "So did I get misled? No. I didn't get misled."
Separately, Kerry conceded his campaign is assessing whether it should skip federal financing for the general election -- which would be limited to $75 million -- and instead try to raise as much money as it can on its own.
Following the example set by Bush in 2000 and fellow Democrat Howard Dean this year, Kerry passed up $45 million in federal funds for his primary campaign. While campaign spokesmen have in recent weeks ruled out the possibility, saying that it would cost valuable time and resources to raise money outside the federal funding system, some supporters are now urging him to do the same thing for the general election.
Kerry has been raising about $30 million a month, and under the federal system he will be barred from raising any more private funds once he is formally nominated on July 29. That gives Bush a five-week spending advantage over him, because he could continue to spend the more than $180 million he has raised for his primary campaign while preserving his $75 million general-election kitty, until he is formally nominated on Sept. 2.
"There are some people who have argued to our campaign that this should be done. I have not had time to sit down and evaluate it or look at it. I have no intentions. Right now my intention is to continue and do public financing," he said.
Similarly, Kerry declined to rule out repaying himself a $6.3 million loan he made to his campaign in December when it faced a cash crush. The campaign has been making the monthly interest payments on the loan to the bank from which Kerry borrowed, but under federal law, he has to decide by the Democratic National Convention -- which begins in two weeks -- whether he will have his campaign repay him the money. Otherwise, he will be personally liable for the bank's repayment.
"I don't know where we are in our cash flow or anything, but I'd sure like to," Kerry said with a smile. Meanwhile, Edwards chuckled by his side.