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by Walter Pincus and Mike Allen
Monday, Jul. 14, 2003 at 5:14 PM
July 13 — CIA Director George J. Tenet successfully intervened with White House officials to have a reference to Iraq seeking uranium from Niger removed from a presidential speech last October, three months before a less specific reference to the same intelligence appeared in the State of the Union address, according to senior administration officials.
TENET ARGUED personally to White House officials, including deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, that the allegation should not be used because it came from only a single source, according to one senior official. Another senior official with knowledge of the intelligence said the CIA had doubts about the accuracy of the documents underlying the allegation, which months later turned out to be forged.
The new disclosure suggests how eager the White House was in January to make Iraq’s nuclear program a part of its case against Saddam Hussein even in the face of earlier objections by its own CIA director. It also appears to raise questions about the administration’s explanation of how the faulty allegations were included in the State of the Union speech.
It is unclear why Tenet failed to intervene in January to prevent the questionable intelligence from appearing in the president’s address to Congress when Tenet had intervened three months earlier in a much less symbolic speech. That failure may underlie his action Friday in taking responsibility for not stepping in again to question the reference. “I am responsible for the approval process in my agency,” he said in Friday’s statement.
As Bush left Africa yesterday to return to Washington from a five-day trip overshadowed by the intelligence blunder, he was asked whether he considered the matter over. “I do,” he replied. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that “the president has moved on. And I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on, as well.”
But it is clear from the new disclosure about Tenet’s intervention last October that the controversy continues to boil, and as new facts emerge a different picture is being presented than the administration has given to date.
Details about the alleged attempt by Iraq to buy as much as 500 tons of uranium oxide were contained in a national intelligence estimate (NIE) that was concluded in late September 2002. It was that same reference that the White House wanted to use in Bush’s Oct. 7 speech that Tenet blocked, the sources said. That same intelligence report was the basis for the 16-word sentence about Iraq attempting to buy uranium in Africa that was contained in the January State of the Union address that has drawn recent attention.
Administration sources said White House officials, particularly those in the office of Vice President Cheney, insisted on including Hussein’s quest for a nuclear weapon as a prominent part of their public case for war in Iraq. Cheney had made the potential threat of Hussein having a nuclear weapon a central theme of his August 2002 speeches that began the public buildup toward war with Baghdad.
In the Oct. 7 Cincinnati speech, the president for the first time outlined in detail the threat Hussein posed to the United States on the eve of a congressional vote authorizing war. Bush talked in part about “evidence” indicating that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. The president listed Hussein’s “numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists,” satellite photographs showing former nuclear facilities were being rebuilt, and Iraq’s attempts to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes for use in enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
There was, however, no mention of Niger or even attempts to purchase uranium from other African countries, which was contained in the NIE and also included in a British intelligence dossier that had been published a month earlier.
By January, when conversations took place with CIA personnel over what could be in the president’s State of the Union speech, White House officials again sought to use the Niger reference since it still was in the NIE.
“We followed the NIE and hoped there was more intelligence to support it,” a senior administration official said yesterday. When told there was nothing new, White House officials backed off, and as a result “seeking uranium from Niger was never in drafts,” he said.
Tenet raised no personal objection to the ultimate inclusion of the sentence, attributed to Britain, about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa. His statement on Friday said he should have. “These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president,” the CIA director said.
Bush said in Abuja, Nigeria, yesterday that he continues to have faith in Tenet. “I do, absolutely,” he said. “I’ve got confidence in George Tenet; I’ve got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA.”
There is still much that remains unclear about who specifically wanted the information inserted in the State of the Union speech, or why repeated concerns about the allegations were ignored.
“The information was available within the system that should have caught this kind of big mistake,” a former Bush administration official said. “The question is how the management of the system, and the process that supported it, allowed this kind of misinformation to be used and embarrass the president.”
Senior Bush aides said they do not believe they have a communication problem within the White House that prevented them from acting on any of the misgivings about the information that were being expressed at lower levels of the government.
“I’m sure there will have to be some retracing of steps, and that’s what’s happening,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett said. “The mechanical process, we think is fine. Will more people now give more, tighter scrutiny going forward? Of course.”
A senior administration official said Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, does not remember who wrote the line that has wound up causing the White House so much grief.
Officials said three speechwriters were at the core of the State of the Union team, and that they worked from evidence against Iraq provided by the National Security Council. NSC officials dealt with the CIA both in gathering material for the speech and later in vetting the drafts.
Officials involved in preparing the speech said there was much more internal debate over the next line of the speech, when Bush said in reference to Hussein, “Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations, noted a disagreement about Iraq’s intentions for the tubes, which can be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium. The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency had raised those questions two weeks before the State of the Union address, saying Hussein claimed nonnuclear intentions for the tubes. In March, the IAEA said it found Hussein’s claim credible, and could all but rule out the use of the tubes in a nuclear program.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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