WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday he believes Senator John F. Kerry would, if elected president, respond to terrorism "in a robust way," challenging a comment made last week by Vice President Dick Cheney.
"I can't tell you how he might respond to it. As commander in chief, I think he'd respond to it in a robust way," the retired Army general said of Kerry during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Powell added: "There's no commander in chief, no president of the United States, who would not respond to terrorism. Now, how he would respond, which strategies that individual would use, I can't predict the future."
Cheney, speaking to supporters last Tuesday in Des Moines, said: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."
Two days later, in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, the vice president explained he would like to "clean up" his remark. "I did not say if Kerry is elected, we will be hit by a terrorist attack," Cheney said. "Whoever is elected president has to anticipate more attacks. My point was the question before us is: 'Will we have the most effective policy in place to deal with that threat?' George Bush will pursue a more effective policy than John Kerry."
Powell called attention to the clarification, saying Americans know how President Bush has responded to a terrorist attack, "and so you know where we're coming from and how we will deal with this kind of threat."
During the same interview, Powell also challenged the belief, indicated in some public opinion polls, that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
"We know that there had been connections and there had been exchanges between Al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime, and those have been pursued and looked at. But I have seen nothing that makes a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and that awful regime and what happened on 9/11," Powell said.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards seized on that remark yesterday and accused Bush and Cheney of misleading Americans by implying a link between Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Today, Secretary of State Powell made clear that there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks on September the 11th," Edwards said before an AFL-CIO rally in Detroit. "From this day forward, this administration should never suggest that there is."
Bush has declared he has seen no evidence of a direct link, but he implied there was a collaborative relationship between Hussein and Al Qaeda -- an assertion the 9/11 commission rejected.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Powell's comments are consistent with those made by Bush and Cheney.
The Kerry-Edwards campaign argued that Cheney suggested such a link as recently as last week.
Speaking Friday in Cincinnati, Cheney recounted the invasion of Afghanistan after the attacks, in which the United States punished the Taliban for harboring Al Qaeda. Then he said, "In Iraq, we had a similar situation." Hussein "provided safe harbor and sanctuary for terrorists for years," including Al Qaeda, Cheney said.
Edwards said yesterday that "Vice President Cheney should not say the kind of things he said Friday, and the president should not mislead the American people by implying there's connection between September the 11th and the attacks of September 11th and Saddam Hussein."
During another interview on "Fox News Sunday," Powell reaffirmed his distaste for Vietnam War draft policies that allowed sons of the powerful to avoid combat, as spelled out in his 1995 autobiography. At the same time, he said Bush, a congressman's son who served in the Texas Air National Guard, "served honorably."
In "My American Journey," Powell wrote, "I am angry that so many sons of the powerful and well-placed managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units."
Asked about that comment and Bush's military career, Powell said: "I disagree with the policies that were in place at that time. I didn't think it was the right set of policies for the challenge the nation was facing. But those were the policies that were in place at that time."
He added that Bush and Kerry "both served honorably, and they both were discharged honorably."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.