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Democrats step up pressure on uranium claims
Attempt to blame 'tainted' intelligence on CIA boss adds to woes for Bush
Julian Borger in Washington
Monday July 14, 2003
The Bush administration tried to bring the African uranium row to an end yesterday, insisting that the American people have "moved on", but it was clear that the scandal over the president's case for war in Iraq was still gathering momentum.
The Democratic party, having acquiesced in the invasion despite misgivings over the evidence against Saddam Hussein, is now calling for a public inquiry as a new poll found that half the electorate believes that George Bush exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam in the run-up to the war.
It is an escalating row in which Britain's role, as the source of allegedly tainted intelligence, is at the centre.
The president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said yesterday that the whole affair was "enormously overblown", arguing that it was based on only 16 words in the president's state of the union address in January, in which he quoted British intelligence as claiming Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in Africa.
The allegation was disowned by the White House last week, although the Blair government sticks by the claim.
Ms Rice said yesterday that British officials had told Washington "they had sources that were not compromised in any way by later reports in March and April that there were some forgeries".
But the Democrats, sensing the administration's vulnerability, were yesterday increasing the pressure on the White House.
"Its time for a thorough inquiry or investigation into how this happened but also into all the use of the intelligence," said Senator Carl Levin, the most senior Democrat on the Senate's armed services committee.
"The way the administration has responded in the last few days has raised more questions than it answers, because now it looks like there was a conscious attempt here to convey a misleading impression."
The gravity of the charges is all the greater, White House critics say, because President Bush made the disputed reference in the state of the union address in January, a solemn and heavily vetted annual speech to the American people.
But the scandal has also been given momentum by the White House's uncertain handling of the issue. By disowning the claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger, seeking to blame the whole matter on the British, and then - after that failed to quell the growing uproar - on the CIA chief, George Tenet, the administration has only raised more questions.
"The question is: were false statements made about why we should go to war?" Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist, said yesterday. "I believe this intelligence was manipulated, that this was not solid intelligence data, and if we have an investigation, I think we will find that this president took the very best case for himself on this."
The uproar has been fuelled by longstanding resentment among officials at the CIA and the state department, who felt they were pressured into stretching the thin evidence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction to bolster a case the White House was determined to make.
The CIA is particularly furious that Mr Tenet was obliged to take responsibility for a claim he had argued against.
Leaks in the US press yesterday, apparently from the agency, suggested he had intervened personally to have a reference to African uranium removed from a presidential speech on October 7.
But the uranium claim reappeared in draft versions of the state of the union speech. In his statement on Friday, Mr Tenet said CIA officials had expressed reservations about the 16-word sentence and agreed only that the statement attributing the allegation to British sources was at least "factually correct".
The Tenet statement yesterday triggered renewed speculation over who in the administration had overridden the CIA's doubts and apparently browbeaten the agency into accepting the speech.
"Who was pushing Tenet?" Senator Levin asked yesterday. "Tenet was pushing back against pressure from the White House, but who at the White House, who at the national security council was pressing him to make a statement that they didn't believe was accurate?"
Time magazine reported a conversation in January, a few days before the presidential speech, between a top CIA analyst, Alan Foley, and a "a key national security council official", in which Mr Foley objected to including the allegation in the speech.
Robert Joseph, the president's adviser on weapons of mass destruction, denied he was the official who approved the line about British intelligence.
But Time quoted another official as saying: "There was a debate about whether to cite it on our own intelligence. But once the UK made it public, we felt comfortable citing what they had learned."
According to the report, the disagreement was never put before Ms Rice for her judgment, and the line about uranium remained in the speech.
Fingers were also pointed at the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who was allegedly obsessed with proving his repeated claims last August that Saddam was actively pursuing a nuclear programme. According to his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, Mr Cheney had taken an interest in an Italian intelligence report in late 2001 about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Niger.
That report, which the Italian government has disowned, has turned out to have been based on forged documents.
The uproar over tainted intelligence has taken centre stage in Washington only this month, many weeks after it developed into a burning debate in London.
It bubbled to the surface in Jun, in US press reports quoting an unnamed former US ambassador as saying that he had investigated the Niger claims last year and had informed the CIA they were not credible.
But the scandal truly took off last week when the former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, went public with his account.
Headaches with no simple cures
The Commons foreign affairs select committee has called on the government to say when Jack Straw was told that documents claiming that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger were forgeries.
Joe Wilson, an envoy sent by the US to Niger, to check the documents has said that British officials knew there was no secret trade in uranium months before publishing the claim in the September dossier.
The Foreign Office says that the evidence about the forgeries did not come to light until after the dossier was published, and says the government based its claims not on the forgeries but on other intelligence sources.
Weapons of mass destruction
MPs are also pressing the government on whether the claim that Iraq could have deployed weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes is accurate in the light of the subsequent war when no such weapons were used. The origin of the claim also remains a mystery.
The claim is attributed to an "established, reliable and longstanding" MI6 source who came up with it in August. It was included in the dossier published shortly afterwards.
Tony Blair wants President Bush to agree to repatriate two British terrorist suspects held in Cuba and facing a secret military trial. Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg have been held captive at Guantanamo Bay for 18 months without access to a lawyer.
One sticking point is that Mr Blair cannot guarantee the men will go on trial in Britain as the crown prosecution service must independently assess the evidence. The Foreign Office has also refused to intervene in the case of two other London-based businessmen who have been detained at Camp Delta since March, as the men are not British nationals.
Mr Blair's closest adviser, Alastair Campbell, became engaged in a damaging public row with a BBC defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan.
Though MPs vindicated Mr Campbell of the charge of inserting the 45 minute claim into the September dossier, the foreign affairs committee was divided over his role, backing him only on the casting vote of the Labour chairman.
is speculation Mr Campbell will quit in September when his partner,
Fiona Millar, who is press secretary to Cherie Blair, is also expected
to leave Downing Street.
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