Saturday, July 12, 2003

ABUJA, Nigeria — President Bush yesterday praised CIA Director George J. Tenet a day after he took the blame for Mr. Bush’s questionable claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa.

“I’ve got confidence in George Tenet,” the president told reporters during a visit to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s villa in Abuja. “I’ve got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA.”

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned that “a greater, more important truth is being lost in the flap” over the disputed claim, which was included in the president’s State of the Union address in January. That truth, Mr. Fleischer said, is that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons, regardless of whether he tried to buy uranium from Africa.

Hoping to shift attention to that broader aspect of the story, the White House appeared relieved that Mr. Tenet took the blame.

“The president is pleased that the director of central intelligence acknowledged what needed to be acknowledged, which was the circumstances surrounding the State of the Union speech,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters at a Nigerian hospital Mr. Bush was touring.

“The president said that line because it was based on information from the intelligence community and the speech was vetted,” he added.

The spokesman suggested that the White House had been pressing Mr. Tenet for days to take the blame for the questionable claim, which turned out to be based in part on forged documents.

“Discussions with Director Tenet about the statement have been going on for days,” Mr. Fleischer said. “The discussion was: The CIA needs to explain what its role was in this. And the best way for any entity in the government to explain its role is to issue a statement.”

Those discussions apparently came to a head on Thursday, when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr. Tenet from Africa, where she was traveling with Mr. Bush. The White House had become concerned about news reports quoting unnamed CIA officials as blaming the president for the questionable claim.

After hanging up with Mr. Tenet, Miss Rice told reporters aboard Air Force One that the CIA director had signed off on the final text of the president’s State of the Union address. She emphasized the president would have removed that line if Mr. Tenet had raised a red flag.

Hours later, Mr. Tenet issued his mea culpa, taking full responsibility for what has become a burgeoning political tempest in Washington and on the campaign trail of Democrats eager to unseat Mr. Bush.

“It’s appropriate for the CIA to speak out,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Asked who brought up the idea of a statement — the White House or the CIA — Mr. Fleischer replied: “It was mutual.”

The spokesman suggested that Mr. Bush expected the Tenet statement to quell the controversy.

“The president sees this as much ado, that it’s beside the point of the central threat that Saddam Hussein presented,” he said. “The president has moved on. And I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on, as well.”

But before moving on entirely, Mr. Fleischer criticized Joseph C. Wilson, the retired U.S. diplomat who touched off the flap one week ago by accusing the Bush administration of distorting evidence “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”

Mr. Wilson made the accusation in an op-ed column in the New York Times and repeated it on television.

Although he opposed the war against Iraq and helped shape former President Bill Clinton’s Africa policy, Mr. Wilson was nonetheless asked by the Bush administration’s CIA in February 2002 to check out reports that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger.

After an eight-day visit to Niger, Mr. Wilson reported back that Niger denied the reports. But his report did not address whether any documents had been forged to support the claim of an attempt to buy uranium.

Yesterday, Mr. Fleischer pointed out that Mr. Wilson, whom he described as a “lower-level” former official, omitted a more ominous anecdote from his op-ed piece. In June 1999, Mr. Wilson was asked by a businessman to meet with Iraqis to discuss an Iraq-Niger business deal — which Mr. Wilson interpreted as uranium sales.

“This is in Wilson’s report back to the CIA — Wilson’s own report,” Mr. Fleischer said. “The very man who was on television saying Niger denies it, who never said anything about forged documents, reports himself that officials in Niger said that Iraq was seeking to contact officials in Niger about sales.”

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