Mr. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who oversaw combat in Afghanistan and the initial invasion of Iraq, former CIA Director George Tenet and former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer.
Franks is a retired four-star Army general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. He didn't decide until last summer to endorse Mr. Bush's re-election, but then spoke on the president's behalf at the Republican National Convention and campaigned for him through the fall.
Mr. Bush said Franks "led the forces that fought and won two wars in the defense of the world's security and helped liberate more than 50 million people from two of the worst tyrannies in the world."
Tenet left the CIA in July after seven years as director. He has been criticized for intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the never-proven prewar allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Bush credited him as "one of the first to recognize and address the threat to America from radical networks." He said that after Sept. 11, Tenet was "ready with a plan to strike back at al Qaeda and to topple the Taliban."
Bremer was the top civilian U.S. official in postwar Iraq, overseeing the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government in June. "For 14 months Jerry Bremer worked day and night in difficult and dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty," Mr. Bush said.
This fall, Bremer suggested the United States had paid a price in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of major combat operations because it did not have enough troops in place to stop the looting.
Those remarks gave Bush critics ammunition for their claims that the administration's postwar planning was inadequate.
Bremer tried to calm that controversy by saying he had constantly supported the president's strategy in Iraq.
The Medal of Freedom, established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their efforts during World War II, was reinstated by President Kennedy in 1963 to honor distinguished service.
"This honor goes to three men who have played pivotal roles in great events and whose efforts have made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty," Mr. Bush said.