ENTEBBE, Uganda—President Bush said Friday that the CIA had cleared his prewar argument that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa to revive a nuclear-weapons program.
Bush made the allegation Jan. 28 in his State of the Union address, but in March it was revealed that the primary documents justifying the allegation had been forgeries. The White House acknowledged earlier this week that Bush shouldn't have included the allegation in his speech.
The issue remains highly controversial because critics, led by Democrats, say it exemplifies how the Bush administration knowingly exaggerated the threat that Saddam Hussein posed because it wanted to topple him whether or not the facts justified a military invasion.
A senior CIA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told Knight Ridder on June 12 that the CIA had warned the White House and other government agencies on March 9, 2002—10 months before the president's speech—that it couldn't verify reports about an Iraqi attempt to purchase uranium from Niger.
Since then, other officials have confirmed the CIA's warning, but said the uranium allegation was mixed with other intelligence and wasn't "red-flagged" for special attention. A senior administration official, who also requested anonymity, contended that the CIA's reservations were well-known throughout the government before Bush's speech.
Asked Friday how the unverified information about the uranium made it into his State of the Union address, the president said: "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services. And it was a speech that detailed to the American people the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime. And my government took the appropriate response to those dangers."
Bush's comment came during a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. He declined to answer further questions.
White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice also said Friday that the CIA had vetted Bush's speech and the sentence involving Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa had been amended "so that it reflected better what the CIA thought. ... The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety."
Rice said that if CIA Director George Tenet had urged the deletion of that sentence, "it would have been gone, without question."
She said later revelations that the uranium allegation had been based upon forged documents made White House officials realize that it shouldn't have been included in the speech, "but that's knowing what we know now. ... "
She noted that the British government had included the uranium allegation in an official intelligence paper last September, and that Bush cited Britain as his source when he included that item in his Jan. 28 address.
"The British continue to stand by their report," Rice said aboard Air Force One as Bush traveled from South Africa to Uganda on the fourth day of his five-day trip.
"I can assure you that the president did not knowingly, before the American people, say something that we thought to be false," Rice said. "It's just outrageous that anybody would claim that."
She said Bush still had confidence in Tenet.
"I'm not blaming anybody," Rice said. "The CIA director, George Tenet, has been a terrific (director) and he has served everybody very, very well."
Rice said no one at the White House at the time suspected the allegation was false; it had been included in the National Intelligence Estimate, which the CIA publishes "as the collective view of the intelligence agencies about the status of any particular issue. ...
"If there were doubts about the underlying intelligence in the NIE, those doubts were not communicated to the president. If there was a concern about the underlying intelligence there, the president was unaware of that concern, as was I."
Intelligence officials have told Knight Ridder that the NIE discussion of the uranium allegation hedged the information and noted in a footnote that analysts differed on it. In addition, one senior intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because the matter is classified, said the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research called the Niger reports highly dubious in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
In Washington, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued a statement chastising CIA officials for what he termed their apparent effort to discredit Bush and holding Tenet responsible for the flap.
"I am very disturbed by what appears to be extremely sloppy handling of the issue from the outset by the CIA," Roberts' statement said. "What now concerns me most, however, is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the president.
"I understand that as late as mid-January, 2003, approximately 10 days before the State of the Union speech, the CIA was still asserting that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Africa.
"I have seen no documentation that indicates that the CIA had reversed itself after January 17th and prior to the State of the Union. If the CIA had changed its position, it was incumbent on the Director of Central Intelligence to correct the record and bring it to the immediate attention of the President. It appears that he failed to do so."
Eight days after the president's speech, doubts about the accuracy of the uranium allegation prompted Secretary of State Colin Powell to drop it from the list of charges he leveled against Iraq in a major speech to the United Nations.
Powell said Thursday that "the president was presenting what seemed to be a reasonable statement at that time." But Powell said he assiduously rechecked all allegations about Iraq before he spoke later to the United Nations and decided the uranium report wasn't solid.
"When we looked at it more thoroughly," he said, " ... we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore. It was not standing the test of time."
Powell said the whole controversy "is very overwrought and overblown and overdrawn. Intelligence reports flow in from all over. Sometimes they are results of your own intelligence agencies at work. Sometimes you get information from very capable foreign intelligence services. And you get the information, you analyze it. Sometimes it holds up, sometimes it does not hold up. It's a moving train. And you keep trying to establish what is right and what is wrong. Very often it never comes out quite that clean, but you have to make judgments."
Thomma reported from Entebbe, Landay from Washington.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.