- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

CIA Director George J. Tenet told senators yesterday that he takes the blame for allowing a line about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa to remain in President Bush’s State of the Union address — but Democrats said the White House was still at fault.

After the hearing, Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, told reporters after the 41/2-hour closed-door hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Mr. Tenet had been questioned about the uranium intelligence.

“That subject has come up, and he has repeated his responsibility for it,” said Mr. Roberts, the panel chairman.

But that wasn’t enough for Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, who said the issue wasn’t why Mr. Tenet didn’t keep the information out of the speech, but who put it in and why.

“All roads still lead back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said. “The question is: Who in the White House was so determined to put information in the State of the Union which had been discounted so dramatically by American intelligence sources?”

Meanwhile yesterday, the White House voiced its harshest criticism yet of the Democrats on the intelligence issue, with spokesman Scott McClellan pointing out that many of the same lawmakers had voted for the war and/or backed similar claims made by President Clinton about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

“You do have to raise the question about certain members of Congress now who are trying to rewrite history,” said Mr. McClellan, who then pointedly read statements made in 1998 by Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

The spokesman cited Mr. Kerry as saying then that “Saddam Hussein has already used these weapons and has made it clear that he has the intent to continue to try, by virtue of his duplicity and secrecy, to continue to do so.”

Mr. Bush mentioned in his State of the Union Address in January, during the buildup to the Iraq war, that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in March that documents linking the uranium pursuit to Niger were forgeries. And while the British government continues to stand by its claim, Mr. Tenet said U.S. intelligence sources have not confirmed it.

After the hearing, Mr. Durbin and other Democrats said the CIA chief told the panel which White House officials had sought to include the Niger information in the address. However, they would not name them, citing the confidentiality of the proceedings.

Mr. Tenet himself said nothing beyond describing the hearing as “an uplifting experience.”

Mr. Roberts described the CIA head as “very contrite. He was very candid, very forthcoming. He accepted full responsibility.”

The Kansas senator said after the hearing that White House officials might be called before the panel to discuss the handling of the intelligence. He also said he expected open hearings on the matter, probably in September.

“There were mistakes made up and down the chain,” said Mr. Roberts, adding that the hearing confirmed to him that “the handling of this was sloppy.”

All day before the hearing, Democrats suggested that intelligence was being “shaped or exaggerated” to justify the war with Iraq, while Republicans said the criticisms amount to little more than “gutter politics.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said the Bush administration seems to have been “looking to try to find facts that support their political position” for war in Iraq.

“It shapes up to me as something of a battle between the CIA staff and the White House staff” in how to interpret intelligence, said Mr. Wyden, who voted against the resolution authorizing the president to use force to disarm Saddam.

“I’m particularly concerned about whether political judgments are made first, and then there is an effort to find a set of facts that will support the political call that was made at the outset,” Mr. Wyden said before he entered the hearing to question Mr. Tenet.

Mr. Levin, who also voted against the war, said the purpose of yesterday’s hearing and ones planned for the future are to make sure the U.S. policy-makers can rely on the intelligence they receive.

“It’s important to see whether or not the intelligence was shaped or exaggerated since they were such critical reasons for going to war that were given to the American public,” said Mr. Levin.

Mr. Levin also said he is “concerned that the alleged connection between al Qaeda and Iraq was exaggerated” and that there is “a lot of evidence of a pattern of exaggeration or stretching” of intelligence.”

Mr. Levin’s concern is contradicted by a report issued by federal Appeals Court Judge Gilbert Merritt, one of 13 judges sent to Iraq by the Justice Department to help rebuild Iraq’s judicial system.

Judge Merritt wrote in the Nashville Tennessean on June 25 that he has seen documents in Iraq that describe an Iraqi intelligence officer in Pakistan being “responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group.”

“Until this time, I have been skeptical about these claims,” the Cincinnati-based judge wrote. “Now I have changed my mind.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the president’s statement about nuclear sales to Iraq was irrelevant because it was made three months after Congress voted to support the war in Iraq.

“These people are griping and saying they are misled when they voted for it before the statement was made,” Mr. Hatch said. “It’s pure politics, and gutter politics at that.”

The war in Iraq was justified regardless of what the president said in his speech, Mr. Hatch said.

“Just look at the mass graves if you don’t look at anything else,” Mr. Hatch said. “Look at the chemical weapons [Saddam] used against his own people. It’s pure politics, anything they can do to damage the president.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat who voted for the war, told CNN late yesterday that while he wants to “get to the bottom” of the intelligence breakdown, the United States doesn’t “need to apologize for removing a tyrant like” Saddam.

“I think it’s a good thing that the people of Iraq have been liberated,” Mr. Bayh said. “I still think the case for chemical and biological weapons [in Iraq] is strong.”

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said he doesn’t see the intelligence furor as a problem for the president.

“I don’t think it’s serious at all. I think there are still questions about how [Iraq] was trying to get uranium from Africa,” Mr. Lott said, referring to how the British are standing by their intelligence.

Mr. Lott said that as the president’s critics “go in there and parse every word and re-examine everything,” they must remember that intelligence gathering “isn’t an exact science.”

“It’s very subjective, based on informants, second-hand information, satellite technology of all kinds of things that then have to be pulled together,” he said.


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