The CIA wrongly allowed President Bush to tell the American people that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa, despite analysts’ doubts about the information, the agency’s director, George J. Tenet, acknowledged Friday.
“These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president,” Tenet said, referring to a section of January’s State of the Union address in which Bush said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The agency vetted the speech and raised some concerns about earlier versions of the text, but it ultimately let the statement stand, Tenet said. “This was a mistake.”
Tenet’s contrite statement capped a day in which mounting criticism of the administration’s prewar claims erupted into an extraordinary round of high-level finger-pointing.
Earlier in the day, President Bush and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice put the blame squarely on the CIA for a controversy that has called the president’s credibility into question and threatens to follow Bush into next year’s presidential election.
Pressed by reporters traveling with the president in Uganda to explain why that statement was included, Bush replied: “I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services.”
Rice spoke more bluntly, taking direct aim at Tenet. She said the uranium language in the speech had been specifically vetted by the CIA, and if Tenet had objections to the inclusion of the uranium claim, “he did not make them known.”
Forcefully defending Bush, Rice said: “The president did not knowingly, before the American people, say something that we thought to be false.”
Their remarks represented rare, direct, on-the-record criticism of the CIA by the White House. And Tenet’s highly unusual three-page statement was clearly aimed at defusing a conflict that had built during the week through a series of damaging disclosures and leaks to the media.
Indeed, some officials in the intelligence community had said earlier Friday that a statement from Tenet taking the heat off Bush might be the only way for the CIA director to save his job.
Tenet is the only high-level holdover from the Clinton administration working for Bush, and the two are said to have forged a collegial bond.
But increasingly evident problems with the prewar intelligence on Iraq may have strained Bush’s relationship with Tenet, whose agency is still being investigated for intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Asked whether Tenet has offered to resign or would consider doing so, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, “I’ve heard no discussions whatsoever along those lines.”
Even though Tenet’s statement was meant to blunt the controversy, it contains elements that seem at odds with the White House’s version of events and may add to the friction between the two sides.
At one point in the document, Tenet says that CIA analysts reviewing the State of the Union text “raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature” of the intelligence on uranium with members of the National Security Council, which is part of the White House staff. As a result of those objections, some language was changed.
But Tenet suggested that the agency went along with the final text only because of a technicality -- the fact that the allegation was attributed to British intelligence.
Agency officials “in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct, i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa,” Tenet said. “This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address,” he concluded. “This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.”
This appears somewhat at odds with Rice’s description of events. In a lengthy interview with reporters on Air Force One, she said the only changes sought by the CIA were to remove specific references to amounts of uranium and countries from which Iraq was seeking to obtain it.
She said the agency did not object to the core of the assertion -- that Iraq was seeking to procure uranium from Africa.
“If the DCI [director of central intelligence] had said, ‘There’s a problem with this,’ we would have said, ‘It’s out of the speech,’ ” Rice said.
She went on to say that the president “absolutely” has confidence in Tenet and that he “has been a terrific DCI and he has served everybody very, very well.”
The allegation was a key piece of evidence supporting claims by both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. Those claims supported their argument that Iraq posed an imminent threat.
On Monday night, as Bush left for his five-nation African tour, the White House issued a statement acknowledging for the first time that the uranium claim should have been left out of Bush’s speech because the evidence was so flimsy.
Questions about what the White House knew and when it knew it have given new momentum to the push on Capitol Hill for a fuller accounting. The questions have also given Democrats hope that they have found an issue that could be damaging to Bush in next year’s presidential race.
Even some Republican lawmakers who backed Bush’s decision to go to war called Friday not only for answers about the unsubstantiated uranium claims but also for accountability from senior administration officials.
“We need to have an investigation, find out who was responsible for it and fire them,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a television interview Friday.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, singled out Tenet.
“The director of central intelligence is the president’s principal advisor on intelligence matters,” Roberts said. “He should have told the president, and it appears that he failed to do so.”
Bush’s statement was largely based on documents that Italian authorities had obtained and passed on to Britain, purporting to show an attempt by Iraq to purchase uranium from Niger.
The International Atomic Energy Agency subsequently investigated the documents and concluded in March that they were crude forgeries, with signatures of officials who were not even in office at the time the supposed deal was to have transpired.
A series of embarrassing disclosures has ensued.
The CIA has acknowledged that in February 2002 -- almost a year before the State of the Union speech -- it dispatched a former U.S. diplomat to Africa to investigate reports that Iraq had approached Niger for uranium. That envoy, Joseph C. Wilson IV, concluded that the allegations were false and reported his findings to the agency upon his return.
In a television interview this week, Wilson said he assumed that his findings had been shared with White House officials, including Cheney. But Cheney’s office insists that never happened. Rice said Friday that Wilson’s mission “was not known to anybody in the White House” and that she didn’t learn of it until a month ago.
Another damaging disclosure came Thursday, when intelligence officials acknowledged that the CIA had tried last fall to warn the British government away from mentioning the Iraq-uranium claims in public dossiers used to make the case for war.
That raised questions of why the agency would warn off the British but, months later, fail to take similar steps with drafters of the president’s State of the Union address.
The British government included the language anyway and continues to stand by the claim, saying it has intelligence from other sources. Iraq is also alleged to have sought uranium from Congo and Somalia.
Also, in October, the CIA was assembling a 90-page classified report on Iraq’s weapons programs -- a document that was the basis for much of the administration’s case for war.
In his statement, Tenet acknowledged that this National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. But he said that there were “six reasons for this assessment; the African uranium issue was not one of them.”
The report contained paragraphs on Iraq’s alleged efforts to procure uranium “in the interest of completeness.” What’s more, Tenet said, the State Department’s intelligence bureau insisted on a footnote describing the claims as “highly dubious.”
That footnote helps to explain why Secretary of State Colin L. Powell refused to include the uranium claims in his Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations, just days after Bush’s State of the Union address.
This complex backdrop “makes it even more troubling that the 16 words eventually made it into the State of the Union speech,” Tenet said.
Even if Tenet’s mea culpa succeeds in blunting the uranium issue, the White House still faces broader questions about its prewar claims about Iraq. Two other critical allegations also remain unproven: that Baghdad had stocks of biological and chemical munitions and that it had links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Entebbe, Uganda, and special correspondent William Wallace in London contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Here are excerpts from a statement made Friday night by CIA Director George J. Tenet:
Legitimate questions have arisen about how remarks on alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa made it into the president’s State of the Union speech. Let me be clear about several things right up front. First, CIA approved the president’s State of the Union address before it was delivered. Second, I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. And third, the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound. These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president....
Although the documents related to the alleged Niger-Iraqi uranium deal had not yet been determined to be forgeries, officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues.... Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct, i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address ... and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times