WASHINGTON,(Reuters) – In the sharpest White House attack yet on critics of the Iraq war, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Wednesday that accusations the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to justify the war were a "dishonest and reprehensible" political ploy.
Cheney called Democrats "opportunists" who were peddling "cynical and pernicious falsehoods" to gain political advantage while U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.
Democrats cried foul but President George W. Bush, at a news conference in Kyongju, South Korea, defended Cheney. He said it was "patriotic as heck" to disagree with him but that Democrats were irresponsible for accusing him of misleading Americans about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
"What bothers me is when people are irresponsibly using their positions and playing politics. That”s exactly what is taking place in America," he said.
Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush would keep fighting on the issue. He told reporters with Bush in South Korea that the criticism had reached a critical mass and that it "requires a sustained response."
The comments were the latest salvo in an aggressive White House counterattack on war critics, launched as Democrats step up their criticism of the war and polls show declining public support for the conflict.
Cheney repeated Bush”s charge that Democratic critics were rewriting history by questioning prewar intelligence on Iraq”s weapons of mass destruction even though many Senate Democrats voted in October 2002 to authorize the invasion.
"The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone — but we”re not going to sit by and let them rewrite history," said Cheney, a principal architect of the war and a focus of Democratic allegations the administration misrepresented intelligence on Iraq”s weapons program.
Cheney said the suggestion Bush or any member of the administration misled Americans before the war "is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."
"Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing force against Saddam Hussein," he said in a speech to the conservative Frontiers of Freedom Institute.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada responded that "tired rhetoric and political attacks do nothing to get the job done in Iraq."
Reid, who voted to authorize the war and has led the push for a probe into the intelligence, said on the Senate floor that Cheney”s speech showed "this administration intends to ”stay the course” and continue putting their political fortunes ahead of what this country needs — a plan for success."
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who also voted for the war in 2002 and whom Bush defeated in the presidential election a year ago, accused Cheney of engaging "in the politics of fear and smear."
"It is hard to name a government official with less credibility on Iraq than Vice President Cheney," Kerry said.
”A PLAY FOR POLITICAL ADVANTAGE”
Bush, whose public approval ratings have dropped to the lowest point of his presidency, has given two speeches in the last five days blasting Democratic critics and trying to use their support for the war against them.
Twenty-nine Senate Democrats voted in favor of an October 2002 resolution authorizing military force in Iraq. Many have since said it was a mistake based on misleading information.
"What we”re hearing now is some politicians contradicting their own statements and making a play for political advantage in the middle of a war," Cheney said.
Democrats have charged the administration, led by Cheney, manipulated the intelligence on Iraq to justify the war and leaked classified information to discredit critics.
Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a top aide to Cheney, was indicted last month for obstructing justice, perjury and lying after a probe into the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame”s identity. Plame”s husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, has said she was outed to get back at him for his criticism of the war.
Administration officials have acknowledged intelligence on Iraqi weapons was faulty, but say Democrats, Republicans and foreign intelligence agencies all believed Baghdad had deadly weapons before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.