By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vehemently defended her integrity on Wednesday when asked about an independent report that found she made 56 false statements on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
At a congressional hearing, Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, questioned Rice about a report from the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity that accuses Bush administration officials of making 935 false statements about Iraq, which the United States invaded in March 2003.
"This study has found that you, Madame Secretary, made 56 false statements to the American people where you repeatedly pump up the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and exaggerate the so-called relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," he said at the start of a testy exchange with Rice.
"Congressman, I take my integrity very seriously and I did not at any time make a statement that I knew to be false, or that I thought to be false, in order to pump up anything," Rice replied. "Nobody wants to go to war."
Bush’s statements about suspected Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were the cornerstone of his case for going to war in Iraq to topple Saddam.
No such weapons were found following the invasion. The United States now has 157,000 troops in Iraq seeking to restore stability to the country, where a vicious insurgency and sectarian violence erupted after the U.S.-led invasion.
Rice, who was national security adviser at the time of the invasion, squarely blamed the U.S. intelligence community for its erroneous conclusions that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons and was seeking to rebuild a nuclear weapons program.
When Wexler sought to cut her off, Rice spoke over him and said: "I am sorry congressman -- because you questioned my integrity, I ask you to let me respond.
"Now, we have learned that many of the intelligence assessments were wrong," she added. "I will be the first to say that it was not right."
"At no time did I intend to, or do I believe that I did put forward false information to the American people," she said.
The reputations of many Bush aides -- including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who made the case for the war before the U.N. Security Council -- have been tarnished by the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found. (Editing by Eric Beech)