Former President George W. Bush defended his decision on Thursday to allow harsh interrogations on the terror mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, saying he did what was necessary to prevent what his advisors believed was another imminent attack.
Describing the decision to use waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in March 2003, Bush said the idea was first cleared with his lawyers in order to "take whatever steps that were necessary to protect" the American public.
"The first thing you do is ask, what's legal? What do the lawyers say is possible?" he said. "I made the decision, within the law, to get information so I can say to myself, 'I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people.' I can tell you that the information we got saved lives."
In an apparent reference to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has recently spoken out against the Obama administration's decision to end the use of harsh interrogations, Bush cautioned, "Nothing I am saying is meant to criticize my successor. There are plenty of people who have weighed in. Trust me, having seen it firsthand. I didn't like it when a former president criticized me, so therefore I am not going to criticize my successor. I wish him all the best."
The often-tearful meetings he had with relatives of fallen soldiers were "in some ways... very hard and in some ways, it was very uplifting," the Texas Republican said in a speech to The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan at Lake Michigan College.
Bush, the nation's 43rd president, spoke to 2,500 people about "the fog of war" that followed the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the economic downturn and his return to life as a regular citizen.
"It was a roller coaster of emotions, it really was," Bush said of the terror attacks. "I think about it now at times but I definitely thought about it every day as president."
He talked about the economy, blaming "a lack of responsible regulation" in the lending industry for the recession and said that the Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., or Freddie Mac, shouldn't have engaged in certain financial practices.
"I don't want to sound like a self-serving guy, but we did try to rein them in," Bush said.
He also said he believes he was right to depose Iraq president Saddam Hussein and that it may lead to the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East.
The audience, which gave Bush a warm welcome at his arrival, cheered when he said he wanted to be remembered as a president who "showed up in office with a set of principles and he was unwilling to sacrifice his soul for the sake of popularity."
Mark Brewer, chairman of the state Democratic Party, disagreed.
"I think it takes a lot of gall for him to come into Michigan without acknowledging the damage that his policies have done to the state," Brewer said. He did not offer any specifics.
About eight people protested Bush's appearance outside the venue, carrying signs that called him a murderer and a traitor. The speech Thursday was one of the first made by the former president since leaving office in January.
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