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, and CIA Director George Tenet agreed with Bush and said he never should have let the president make the assertion.
Tenet issued his statement Friday evening after the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee chastised CIA officials in a prepared statement for what he termed their apparent effort to discredit Bush with anonymous leaks, and held Tenet responsible for the flap.
The issue has been highly controversial because critics, led by Democrats, have said that Bush's assertion about Iraq's quest for uranium 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.
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.
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. Critics have charged that the Bush administration ignored warnings that the uranium issue was bogus because the allegation boosted the case against Saddam.
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."
In Washington, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued a statement blasting the CIA.
"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 ten 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."
A few hours after Roberts' statement, Tenet issued one:
"First, CIA approved the president's State of the Union address before it was delivered. Second, I am responsible for the approval process for 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."
Tenet's statement explained at some length that CIA analysts held doubts about the uranium report, but still mentioned it in the National Intelligence Estimate, which the CIA published last October as the collective view of the intelligence agencies about the status of any particular issue.
Rice 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."
"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."
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.