- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

The White House yesterday released newly declassified intelligence and dispatched a senior administration official to explain how erroneous material ended up in the State of the Union address.

The intelligence declassified yesterday — portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a U.S. intelligence summary based on the work of six agencies — asserts “compelling evidence” that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was “intent on acquiring” nuclear-weapons material.

But the excerpts from the NIE include an “alternative view” from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) that states in a footnote: “The claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR’s assessment, highly dubious.”

“We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq’s [weapons of mass destruction] program,” the CIA and other intelligence agencies concluded, according to the excerpts.

The senior administration official said Mr. Bush never saw this footnote, but would not be expected to since he was leaving it to his team to draft his speech and check the facts in it.

“We have experts who work for the national-security adviser who know this information, who understand this information. He relies upon his administration, the CIA themselves as well, to give their best judgments,” the official said.

At issue are 16 words the president uttered in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The British intelligence, which was included in the NIE, was later found to be based in part on forged documents, and the White House for the last two weeks has sought to make clear that the president was not aware the information was false.

“The president was comfortable at the time based on the information that was provided in the NIE,” a senior administration official told reporters at the White House in an often-heated, 90-minute briefing.

“The president of the United States is not a fact-checker. … He did not know that” the 16 words had been deemed “highly dubious” by the State Department, the official said.

The White House apparently released the summary because it catalogues Saddam’s clear drive to acquire nuclear weapons and sets out evidence that “Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program and invested more heavily in biological weapons” in the years following the 1998 expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors.

The eight pages of excerpts — from the 90-page NIE — assert “high confidence” that Saddam’s regime “could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.”

The summary said that “most agencies believe that Saddam’s personal interest in and Iraq’s aggressive attempts” to obtain nuclear-weapons materials “provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium-enrichment effort for Baghdad’s nuclear-weapons program.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the middle of a media firestorm over the erroneous intelligence, and Mr. Bush both said on Thursday that they have no doubt Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear-weapons program.

Mr. Blair reiterated that other intelligence gathered by the nation’s security agencies indicated that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger. He also noted that Iraq purchased about 270 tons of uranium from Niger in the 1980s.

In the excerpts, the majority of security agencies conclude that Baghdad “if left unchecked … probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade,” even if it were unable to acquire weapons-grade material. The documents also cite unsubstantiated reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from three African countries: Niger, Somalia and possibly Congo.

“Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them,” the intelligence assessment said. Most U.S. intelligence agencies, it continued, “assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that inspectors departed — December 1998.”

The senior administration official said it is not unusual for security agencies to differ over intelligence and viewpoints. While the “alternative view” is included, the report itself represents the consensus of the agencies.

“When you get all six agencies, you take dissent into consideration, you note their dissent, but there is a majority judgment that’s made. It was made in this case, and that’s why it was relied upon,” the official said.

In one passage of the INR’s dissent, the bureau states: “The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing … an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The White House also sought to put to rest the notion that Mr. Bush had doubts about the veracity of the intelligence.

“I can’t speak for everybody on the White House complex, but if you’re asking did people know about the forged documents before the State of the Union in the White House, the answer to the question is, no,” the official said.

CIA Director George J. Tenet has taken responsibility for the inclusion of the 16 words, saying that he should have insisted the offending sentence be removed from a draft of Mr. Bush’s speech sent to his agency for review.

The Bush official said yesterday that National Security Council weapons expert Bob Joseph “is responsible for that section of fact-checking.”

“He did what his job requires him to do on any speech, and that is to verify it with the CIA. That conversation took place.”

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