- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

ENTEBBE, Uganda — President Bush yesterday said the CIA approved the use of erroneous intelligence in his State of the Union address that accused Iraq of trying to buy nuclear weapons material from Africa, although the White House acknowledged its vetting needs to be tightened up.

Hours later in Washington, CIA Director George J. Tenet said his agency made a “mistake” by allowing Mr. Bush to cite the information provided by the British government even though analysts were concerned about its accuracy.

“These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president,” Mr. Tenet said about the claim Iraq tried to get uranium from Niger.

“Let me be clear about several things right upfront,” he said in a statement. “First, CIA approved the president’s State of the Union address before it was delivered. Second, I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. And third, the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound.”

Mr. Tenet’s statement was released after he spoke with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who told reporters on Air Force One that Mr. Tenet never objected to the final draft of the speech, which he was given in advance.

“Now, I can tell you that if the CIA, the Director of Central Intelligence, had said ‘take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone, without question,” Miss Rice said during a flight from South Africa to Uganda.

“I can assure you that the president did not knowingly, before the American people, say something that we thought to be false. It’s just outrageous that anybody would claim that,” said Miss Rice.

A growing number of Democrats, presidential candidates and journalists have been strongly intimating that the president’s statement on uranium in January’s State of the Union address demonstrated his willingness to exaggerate the case for war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. News reports have quoted unnamed CIA officials as saying they had warned the White House not to include the uranium accusation in the speech.

Earlier yesterday, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, a presidential candidate and strong backer of the war, demanded a congressional investigation.

“We now know that the information in the State of the Union was false and misled the American people,” Mr. Lieberman said. “This breaks the basic bond of trust we must have with our leaders in times of war and terrorism.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who voted against the war, took the floor yesterday demanding answers.

“The purpose of my speech was to say that whoever misled the president and the American people must be held accountable,” Mr. Durbin said. “I hope the president focuses on this immediately upon his return from Africa and removes this person.”

Mr. Durbin characterized as “backpedaling” the explanations given by Miss Rice and that “the British continue to stand by their report.”

“Now she’s trying to salvage what she can,” Mr. Durbin said. “That’s her job.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN yesterday that he will convene public hearings on intelligence gathering in September. He also placed the blame for this controversy at the feet of Mr. Tenet.

“If the CIA had changed its position [on the nuclear material], it was incumbent upon the director of the CIA to correct the record and bring it to the attention of the president,” Mr. Roberts told CNN. “He failed to do so.”

Other Republicans, while also expressing interest in investigating the gathering of intelligence, said Democrats are just trying to score political points on this issue and will ultimately fail.

“I don’t think anyone will ever believe the president intentionally misled the American people in trying to convince them of the need to go to war in Iraq,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “This kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking is particularly unappealing coming from Democratic presidential candidates. It’s not going to work to help them advance their cause at all.”

Asked specifically about calls for an investigation into the intelligence Mr. Bush had access to, Mr. McConnell said “all of that is already under way.”

“The Intelligence Committee is reviewing that currently,” he said.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said “the whole issue is childish” and “driven by the candidates running for president.”

“To try to make this appear as if the president did this to sell the country on the war is an absolute lie and insult to our commander in chief,” said Mr. Inhofe.

To counter the charges, Miss Rice gave an unusually long and detailed explanation for the inclusion of the uranium charge in the president’s speech.

The explanation came one day after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also spent considerable time explaining the complicated sequence of events to reporters traveling with Mr. Bush through Africa.

The flap is troublesome to the White House because it has the potential to strike at the very heart of the president’s popularity — his veracity.

That is why his top aides are going to such lengths to defend their boss.

“The president didn’t exaggerate that statement,” Miss Rice said. “He didn’t make it up.”

But that defense has been complicated by the fact that one week after Mr. Bush leveled the uranium charge in January, Mr. Powell dropped it from his presentation to the United Nations in February.

Miss Rice said that the administration did not learn until March that the allegation was based in part on forged documents. Still, she acknowledged the State Department’s intelligence arm raised a red flag about the allegation even before the president’s speech.

The red flag came in the form of a footnote to the allegation that was contained in a National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus on Iraq that had been reached by the government’s various intelligence branches, including the CIA — which did not raise its own red flag.

Despite pulling back from the uranium charge, Miss Rice pointed out that it might be true after all. The revelation that it was based in part on forged documents merely made it unworthy, in hindsight, for a presidential speech, she said.

“We don’t say it’s false,” Miss Rice said. “And I heartily object to headlines that say it was false, because nobody has still said that this was false.”

CIA and administration officials told the Associated Press they did not expect Mr. Tenet to resign. The Democrat is the lone holdover from the Clinton administration and, while distrusted by some conservatives, has enjoyed Mr. Bush’s confidence.

The flap over the speech has dogged Mr. Bush throughout his five-day, five-nation tour of Africa, which wraps up today with a visit to Nigeria.

James G. Lakely and Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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