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Blame shifts back to White House over uranium claim

WASHINGTON—A senior White House adviser emerged Thursday as a key player in the mention of disputed intelligence on Iraq in President Bush's State of the Union speech, prompting a partisan tug-of-war over Bush's responsibility for the misleading claim.

The revelation moves the spotlight back to the White House and away from the CIA, where President Bush and CIA Director George S. Tenet had placed it last Friday.

Senior CIA officials told a closed Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday that, before Bush gave the speech, they discussed the reliability of intelligence about Iraq's alleged attempts to buy uranium in Africa with National Security Council aide Robert Joseph, according to two senior U.S. officials. Joseph, a top aide to Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, coordinates policies to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

The two U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the hearing was classified.

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and an Intelligence Committee member, said Thursday on ABC News that Tenet told the committee that a White House official—whom Durbin didn't identify—was "insistent" that the uranium reference be in Bush's address. Later, two U.S. officials confirmed to Knight Ridder that Joseph was the White House aide Durbin described.

That alleged push from Joseph puts a different light on the controversial allegation, distinct from Bush's emphasis last Friday, when the president stressed that the CIA had approved the wording of his speech. Tenet later issued a statement saying he had done so, though in retrospect he shouldn't have, because the intelligence underpinning the allegation was suspect.

Many Democrats reject Tenet's taking responsibility for Bush's allegation, saying the blame lies with the president and some of his aides, who they suggest were so intent on making the case for war against Iraq that they distorted intelligence findings to boost their argument.

Bush was asked Thursday at a news conference whether he took responsibility for the uranium statement. He ducked the question, saying he took responsibility for waging war against Saddam Hussein.

The White House acknowledged July 7 that the president's uranium statement shouldn't have been in the State of the Union address because it was based on British intelligence that the CIA was unable to confirm. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at a White House news conference Thursday that his government still stood behind its intelligence finding that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday that the uranium claim wasn't central to Bush's case against Saddam, which he said "was based on solid and compelling evidence."

"There are some in Congress that are seeking to rewrite history," McClellan said.

Knight Ridder first reported last month that it was Joseph, working with Vice President Dick Cheney's office, who led an effort by pro-invasion administration officials to include the uranium allegation in Bush's address.

The two U.S. officials disputed Durbin's account of Wednesday's hearing, saying it wasn't Tenet, but CIA analyst Alan Foley, who described the White House-CIA discussions on the uranium issue. Foley heads an agency unit, known by the acronym WINPAC, that analyzes intelligence about weapons proliferation.

One of the U.S. officials said Foley, recalling his telephone conversations with Joseph, "didn't say `he (Joseph) insisted, he jammed it down my throat,' or anything like that."

Foley, the official continued, "doesn't remember the exact conversation" with Joseph because no one anticipated the inclusion of the material would ignite such controversy.

When questioned later, Durbin stood by his account.

"There were clearly negotiations between the White House and the CIA about the wording of this," he said, noting they took place three months after the CIA persuaded the White House to remove a similar uranium reference from a Bush speech in Cincinnati.

"It raised the question in my mind about why we're not focusing on those individuals in the White House who were so hell-bent on including this questionable conclusion on the president's most important speech of the year," Durbin said.


Knight Ridder correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.