President Stands by the CIA

Times Staff Writers

President Bush expressed support Saturday for CIA Director George J. Tenet, a day after the director acknowledged that the agency had failed to strip an erroneous allegation against Iraq from the president’s State of the Union speech.

But the controversy widened Saturday amid fresh disclosures that Tenet had personally intervened to remove similar language from a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati in October.

Administration sources said Tenet had warned senior White House officials, including deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley, to delete an allegation that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Africa, because of concerns about the quality of the underlying intelligence.


The new information raises questions about why the White House insisted on including the allegation in the State of the Union address three months later. It is also unclear why Tenet and the CIA were more adamant that the text be removed from the Cincinnati speech than from Bush’s high-profile address before Congress.

The disclosures, in the wake of the administration’s effort to have Tenet take the blame for the matter, triggered new recriminations Saturday -- including a sharp rebuke from a key Democrat on Capitol Hill -- that suggest the issue is far from closed.

Concluding his trip to Africa, Bush told reporters that he still trusts Tenet.

“Yes I do, absolutely. I’ve got confidence in George Tenet. I’ve got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA, and I look forward to working with them as we win this war,” Bush said.

But even as White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said “the president considers the matter closed and wants to move on,” the administration continued to face persistent questions.

In particular, Fleischer was pressed to explain why the White House had not admitted the mistake after it learned that Bush’s assertion in the State of the Union address was wrong. The president said British intelligence indicated that Iraq had sought to acquire uranium from Africa to help reconstitute its alleged nuclear weapons program.


Fleischer said the record was corrected in March, when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that documents that were the basis for the claim -- purporting to show a transaction between Iraq and Niger -- were crude forgeries.

But the White House continued to stand behind the claim, part of its rationale for invading Iraq, until last week, even though there were indications before the war that it was erroneous. For example, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell refused to include the uranium claim in his Feb. 5 speech before the United Nations because the underlying intelligence was flawed.


CIA Took ‘the Fall’

Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the White House has yet to explain how a discredited claim about Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from Africa made its way into the president’s speech to begin with. In his statement accepting blame, Tenet acknowledged only that the CIA didn’t do enough to get the language removed.

Tenet and the CIA “have been made to take the fall to shield the president and his advisors,” Rockefeller said, adding that he believes the National Security Council pressed to include the allegation even though it “knew the underlying information was not credible.”

“If they didn’t [know that],” Rockefeller said, “they weren’t showing up for work.”

He added that he believes that the White House’s admission that it should not have included the allegation is only the starting point for investigators on Capitol Hill. “I don’t like the smell of this, I don’t like the taste of this,” he said.

Rockefeller directed particularly pointed criticism at national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, saying her very public role in pinning the blame on Tenet is “dishonorable.”

“Why does this all fall on George Tenet? Because it’s convenient,” Rockefeller said. “My guess is [Rice] had a lot more to do with this mistake than Tenet did.”

Rice, who accompanied the president on his recent tour of Africa, could not be reached for comment late Saturday.

A National Security Council spokesman would say only that “Dr. Rice and Director Tenet have fully explained the facts of this matter. We consider this matter behind us.”

Fleischer said Tenet’s mea culpa Friday was the product of several days of discussions between the White House and the CIA director. Asked whether Tenet was prompted to make the statement, Fleischer said, “It was mutual. The president is pleased that [Tenet] acknowledged what needed to be acknowledged.”

Other Democrats also criticized the administration’s handling of the matter Saturday, saying Tenet should not be singled out for a failure that some believe reflects a broader effort by the administration to exaggerate the evidence on which it based its case for going to war with Iraq.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, suggested in a television interview that Bush should hold himself accountable. “In the end,” Gephardt said, “the president is responsible for the information he puts out to the American people.”

The controversy stems from a line in the Jan. 28 State of the Union speech in which Bush said that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The allegation was based in part on documents purporting to show an Iraqi effort to purchase uranium from Niger. In March, on the eve of the war in Iraq, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the documents were crude forgeries.

In his Friday statement, Tenet said his agency had raised objections to including the language in the president’s speech but ultimately let the remark stand because attributing it to the British made it “factually correct.”

The finger-pointing in Washington also sent ripples across the Atlantic. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw issued a letter Saturday acknowledging that the CIA had expressed doubts about language in a British dossier alleging that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Africa.


Envoy Sent to Niger

But Straw said the CIA did not explain why it doubted the information. Nor, he said, did the agency disclose to the British that, in February 2002, it had sent to Niger an envoy who investigated the Iraq uranium claim and concluded that it could not be substantiated.

Despite the CIA reservations, the British government included the uranium allegation in the dossier, which was released in September 2002 as Prime Minister Tony Blair was trying to build public support for confronting Iraq. The British still stand behind the claim.

“U.K. officials were confident that the dossier’s statement was based on reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S.,” Straw wrote. “A judgment was therefore made to retain it.”

Poll results Saturday showed that a growing number of Americans believe that the administration misled the public about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

In an ABC-Washington Post poll, more than half of the respondents said they believed the administration intentionally exaggerated the evidence.

A separate Newsweek Poll found that 45% believed the administration misinterpreted or misanalyzed intelligence reports that it claimed showed Iraq had banned weapons. Both polls showed that a majority still support the president, and the decision to go to war, but those numbers had declined from recent months.


Miller reported from Washington and Chen from Abuja, Nigeria.