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CIA Admits It Allowed Error in Bush Speech

Comment about Iraq seeking uranium 'should never have been included,' Tenet says. White House publicly criticizes the agency.

July 12, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The CIA wrongly allowed President Bush to tell the American people that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa, despite analysts' doubts about the information, the agency's director, George J. Tenet, acknowledged Friday.

"These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president," Tenet said, referring to a section of January's State of the Union address in which Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The agency vetted the speech and raised some concerns about earlier versions of the text, but it ultimately let the statement stand, Tenet said. "This was a mistake."

Tenet's contrite statement capped a day in which mounting criticism of the administration's prewar claims erupted into an extraordinary round of high-level finger-pointing.

Earlier in the day, President Bush and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice put the blame squarely on the CIA for a controversy that has called the president's credibility into question and threatens to follow Bush into next year's presidential election.

Pressed by reporters traveling with the president in Uganda to explain why that statement was included, Bush replied: "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services."

Rice spoke more bluntly, taking direct aim at Tenet. She said the uranium language in the speech had been specifically vetted by the CIA, and if Tenet had objections to the inclusion of the uranium claim, "he did not make them known."

Forcefully defending Bush, Rice said: "The president did not knowingly, before the American people, say something that we thought to be false."

Their remarks represented rare, direct, on-the-record criticism of the CIA by the White House. And Tenet's highly unusual three-page statement was clearly aimed at defusing a conflict that had built during the week through a series of damaging disclosures and leaks to the media.

Indeed, some officials in the intelligence community had said earlier Friday that a statement from Tenet taking the heat off Bush might be the only way for the CIA director to save his job.

Tenet is the only high-level holdover from the Clinton administration working for Bush, and the two are said to have forged a collegial bond.

But increasingly evident problems with the prewar intelligence on Iraq may have strained Bush's relationship with Tenet, whose agency is still being investigated for intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Asked whether Tenet has offered to resign or would consider doing so, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, "I've heard no discussions whatsoever along those lines."

Even though Tenet's statement was meant to blunt the controversy, it contains elements that seem at odds with the White House's version of events and may add to the friction between the two sides.

At one point in the document, Tenet says that CIA analysts reviewing the State of the Union text "raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature" of the intelligence on uranium with members of the National Security Council, which is part of the White House staff. As a result of those objections, some language was changed.

But Tenet suggested that the agency went along with the final text only because of a technicality -- the fact that the allegation was attributed to British intelligence.

Agency officials "in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct, i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa," Tenet said. "This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address," he concluded. "This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed."

This appears somewhat at odds with Rice's description of events. In a lengthy interview with reporters on Air Force One, she said the only changes sought by the CIA were to remove specific references to amounts of uranium and countries from which Iraq was seeking to obtain it.

She said the agency did not object to the core of the assertion -- that Iraq was seeking to procure uranium from Africa.

"If the DCI [director of central intelligence] had said, 'There's a problem with this,' we would have said, 'It's out of the speech,' " Rice said.

She went on to say that the president "absolutely" has confidence in Tenet and that he "has been a terrific DCI and he has served everybody very, very well."

The allegation was a key piece of evidence supporting claims by both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. Those claims supported their argument that Iraq posed an imminent threat.

On Monday night, as Bush left for his five-nation African tour, the White House issued a statement acknowledging for the first time that the uranium claim should have been left out of Bush's speech because the evidence was so flimsy.

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