CIA Got Uranium Reference Cut in Oct.
Why Bush Cited It In Jan. Is Unclear
By Walter Pincus and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 13, 2003; Page A01
George J. Tenet successfully intervened with White House officials to
have a reference to Iraq seeking uranium from Niger removed from a
presidential speech last October, three months before a less specific
reference to the same intelligence appeared in the State of the Union
address, according to senior administration officials.
argued personally to White House officials, including deputy national
security adviser Stephen Hadley, that the allegation should not be used
because it came from only a single source, according to one senior
official. Another senior official with knowledge of the intelligence
said the CIA had doubts about the accuracy of the documents underlying
the allegation, which months later turned out to be forged.
new disclosure suggests how eager the White House was in January to
make Iraq's nuclear program a part of its case against Saddam Hussein
even in the face of earlier objections by its own CIA director. It also
appears to raise questions about the administration's explanation of
how the faulty allegations were included in the State of the Union
It is unclear why Tenet failed to intervene in
January to prevent the questionable intelligence from appearing in the
president's address to Congress when Tenet had intervened three months
earlier in a much less symbolic speech. That failure may underlie his
action Friday in taking responsibility for not stepping in again to
question the reference. "I am responsible for the approval process in
my agency," he said in Friday's statement.
As Bush left
Africa yesterday to return to Washington from a five-day trip
overshadowed by the intelligence blunder, he was asked whether he
considered the matter over. "I do," he replied. White House press
secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that "the president
has moved on. And I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on,
But it is clear from the new disclosure about
Tenet's intervention last October that the controversy continues to
boil, and as new facts emerge a different picture is being presented
than the administration has given to date.
the alleged attempt by Iraq to buy as much as 500 tons of uranium oxide
were contained in a national intelligence estimate (NIE) that was
concluded in late September 2002. It was that same reference that the
White House wanted to use in Bush's Oct. 7 speech that Tenet blocked,
the sources said. That same intelligence report was the basis for the
16-word sentence about Iraq attempting to buy uranium in Africa that
was contained in the January State of the Union address that has drawn
Administration sources said White House
officials, particularly those in the office of Vice President Cheney,
insisted on including Hussein's quest for a nuclear weapon as a
prominent part of their public case for war in Iraq. Cheney had made
the potential threat of Hussein having a nuclear weapon a central theme
of his August 2002 speeches that began the public buildup toward war
In the Oct. 7 Cincinnati speech, the
president for the first time outlined in detail the threat Hussein
posed to the United States on the eve of a congressional vote
authorizing war. Bush talked in part about "evidence" indicating that
Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. The president
listed Hussein's "numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists,"
satellite photographs showing former nuclear facilities were being
rebuilt, and Iraq's attempts to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes
for use in enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
was, however, no mention of Niger or even attempts to purchase uranium
from other African countries, which was contained in the NIE and also
included in a British intelligence dossier that had been published a
By January, when conversations took place
with CIA personnel over what could be in the president's State of the
Union speech, White House officials again sought to use the Niger
reference since it still was in the NIE.
"We followed the
NIE and hoped there was more intelligence to support it," a senior
administration official said yesterday. When told there was nothing
new, White House officials backed off, and as a result "seeking uranium
from Niger was never in drafts," he said.
Tenet raised no
personal objection to the ultimate inclusion of the sentence,
attributed to Britain, about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa.
His statement on Friday said he should have. "These 16 words should
never have been included in the text written for the president," the
CIA director said.
Bush said in Abuja, Nigeria, yesterday
that he continues to have faith in Tenet. "I do, absolutely," he said.
"I've got confidence in George Tenet; I've got confidence in the men
and women who work at the CIA."
There is still much that
remains unclear about who specifically wanted the information inserted
in the State of the Union speech, or why repeated concerns about the
allegations were ignored.
"The information was available
within the system that should have caught this kind of big mistake," a
former Bush administration official said. "The question is how the
management of the system, and the process that supported it, allowed
this kind of misinformation to be used and embarrass the president."
Senior Bush aides said they do not believe they have a communication
problem within the White House that prevented them from acting on any
of the misgivings about the information that were being expressed at
lower levels of the government.
"I'm sure there will have
to be some retracing of steps, and that's what's happening," White
House communications director Dan Bartlett said. "The mechanical
process, we think is fine. Will more people now give more, tighter
scrutiny going forward? Of course."
A senior administration
official said Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, does not
remember who wrote the line that has wound up causing the White House
so much grief.
Officials said three speechwriters were at
the core of the State of the Union team, and that they worked from
evidence against Iraq provided by the National Security Council. NSC
officials dealt with the CIA both in gathering material for the speech
and later in vetting the drafts.
Officials involved in
preparing the speech said there was much more internal debate over the
next line of the speech, when Bush said in reference to Hussein, "Our
intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase
high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
of State Colin L. Powell, in his Feb. 5 presentation to the United
Nations, noted a disagreement about Iraq's intentions for the tubes,
which can be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium. The U.N.'s
International Atomic Energy Agency had raised those questions two weeks
before the State of the Union address, saying Hussein claimed
nonnuclear intentions for the tubes. In March, the IAEA said it found
Hussein's claim credible, and could all but rule out the use of the
tubes in a nuclear program.
Staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report from Nigeria.
2003 The Washington Post Company