WASHINGTON — In closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill, CIA officials named a senior White House aide who persuaded the agency to allow a questionable allegation about Iraq in President Bush's State of the Union address, a senator and other officials involved in the classified hearing said Thursday.
A Democrat on the panel said the way CIA Director George J. Tenet and other witnesses described the negotiations between the agency and the White House made it clear that the administration ignored warnings not to include an allegation about uranium in Bush's speech.
"They weren't searching for the right words, they were searching for a way around the obvious," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the committee.
Describing White House officials as "hell-bent" on working the allegation into the text, Durbin said the administration "had to go into bargaining mode with the CIA to skirt around the misleading nature of the statement."
The White House was seeking to support assertions by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, a key part of the case for going to war. Much of the other evidence about Iraq's nuclear ambitions had been disputed by United Nations inspectors and other experts.
Durbin declined to name the White House official, but others identified him as Robert G. Joseph, a senior advisor on counter-proliferation issues and homeland security to national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan characterized Durbin's comments as "nonsense" and said the senator was "trying to justify his own vote" earlier this year against the war in Iraq.
The exchange came as Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a joint news conference, again defended their decision to go to war amid growing criticism of their prewar claims that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed banned weapons and posed an imminent threat.
The White House acknowledged for the first time last week that Bush's assertion that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium in Africa was based on flawed intelligence and should not have been included in the State of the Union speech.
Tenet took the blame for the matter in a statement last Friday, saying the agency had vetted the speech. But he also made it clear that the agency had raised objections and approved the language only because the White House reworked the text to attribute the claim to Britain.
Thursday's disclosures by Durbin and other officials provided the most detailed account yet of those delicate negotiations between the White House and CIA.
According to their accounts, Joseph, the National Security Council official, had faxed a portion of the speech to the agency that included language accusing Iraq of seeking uranium from Niger.
The text was reviewed by Alan Foley, who heads the CIA's counter-proliferation center. Foley, who also testified at Wednesday's hearing, was the CIA official who identified Joseph under questioning from senators.
According to accounts of testimony presented at the hearing, Joseph called Foley to discuss the language. Foley urged the White House not to use the Niger allegation because of doubts about the underlying intelligence, and Joseph agreed.
But then Joseph suggested alternative language attributed to British intelligence, which had published a dossier in September accusing Iraq of seeking uranium from countries in Africa.
Foley replied that the CIA had sought to warn the British away from that claim. Finally, Joseph asked whether it would be accurate to say that the British had made the allegation about uranium, and Foley assented.
"I don't think this was a casual exchange," Durbin said. "Somebody [in the White House] decided they needed this to build a case."
Durbin noted that all of these negotiations took place after Tenet had personally intervened to get similar language removed from a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati in October.
The claims began to unravel publicly in March, when U.N. inspectors examined documents that were the basis for the Niger allegation and concluded that they were forgeries.
Though Durbin said he believed the testimony makes it clear the White House was "insistent" on using the uranium allegation in the speech, others said that was open to interpretation.
The CIA witnesses were "merely recounting a conversation" and never said explicitly that they felt pressured or any White House "insistence," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN. "Different senators have different interpretations. But in my view there was no pressure."
Durbin and other Democrats are now pressing to have Joseph and other White House officials, perhaps including Rice, testify before the committee.
Roberts said it would be premature to make such a request of the administration but left open the possibility, saying, "We will take this inquiry wherever it goes."
He said the committee expects to hear in coming weeks from the inspector general of the CIA, as well as Pentagon and intelligence officials overseeing the hunt for banned weapons in Iraq. Committee members also said they wanted to see memos and other communications between the CIA and the White House during the speech negotiations.
There were also new details Thursday on the origin of the Niger claim.
The forged documents were first obtained by Italian intelligence authorities, who turned them over to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October. The papers were shared with the CIA station there but were not delivered to agency headquarters in Langley, Va., until February of this year.
Even then, at first they were merely translations of the documents, a U.S. intelligence official said, with none of the markings or stamps that would have been necessary to examine them for evidence of forgery.