Blame Game Over False WMD Info

Oprah Winfrey and Sarah Palin
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A Washington blame game is being played out over now-discredited claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. On a stop in Africa, President Bush said Friday that the CIA signed off on his using that information in his State of the Union.

"I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services, and it was a speech that detailed to the American people the dangers posed to the American people, the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime," Mr. Bush said in Uganda.

Senior administration officials told CBS News Thursday that the president included the claims about Iraq buying uranium from Africa in his Jan. 28 speech despite initial objections from the CIA.

The White House used the accusations as a rallying point for war, but now admits the information was wrong, based on faulty British intelligence. Nevertheless, top administration officials have been on parade in recent days defending themselves against charges they misled the public.

In a rare press conference aboard Air Force One on Friday, the president's national security adviser said the CIA had vetted the State of the Union speech.

If CIA Director George Tenet had any misgivings about that sentence in the president's speech, "he did not make them known" to Mr. Bush or his staff, said Condoleezza Rice.

However, there are indications of misgivings both before and after the State of the Union.

A newspaper reports the CIA voiced doubts about the Africa claim to Britain as early as September.

And Secretary of State Colin Powell did not repeat the claim in his Feb. 5 testimony to the Security Council.

Rice acknowledged that the State Department's intelligence division considered the uranium-purchasing allegations dubious, and this was noted in a footnote in an intelligence assessment given to Mr. Bush.

The White House withdrew the uranium claim on Monday. The evidence in question referred to a supposed deal between Iraq and Niger, though neither the president nor the British identified that country in public.

The president's statement was incorrect because it was based on forged documents, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday.

The White House retraction followed assertions by an envoy sent by the CIA to Africa to investigate the allegations. The envoy, Joseph Wilson, has written that he quickly found the story was no true and told Vice President Dick Cheney's office. Fleischer said Monday that Cheney did not request information about Wilson's mission to Niger.

But CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports that before the State of the Union speech was delivered, CIA officials warned members of the president's National Security Council staff that the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.

According to sources, White House officials responded that a September dossier issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion: "Iraq has…sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

As long as the statement was attributed to British intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections.

In his State of the Union speech, the president ultimately said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But The Washington Post is reporting that the CIA's doubts were so strong it even tried to persuade Britain from including the uranium allegation in a September dossier.

Rice said the CIA "cleared the speech," and raised only one objection to the sentence involving an allegation that Iraq was trying to obtain yellow cake uranium, she said. "Some specifics about amount and place were taken out," Rice said.

"With the changes in that sentence, the speech was cleared," she said. "The agency did not say they wanted that sentence out."

"If the CIA — the director of central intelligence — had said 'Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone," Rice said. "We have a high standard for the president's speeches."

According to Rice, the CIA had mentioned the claim that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa in a classified National Intelligence Assessment made periodically to the president.

Rice also said that the State Department's intelligence division considered the uranium-purchasing allegations dubious, and this was also noted in a footnote in an intelligence assessment given to Mr. Bush.

Rice acknowledged that Powell had reservations about the report and chose not to mention the allegations in his Iraq presentation to the Security Council a few days later.

"I didn't use the uranium at that point because I didn't think that was sufficiently strong as evidence to present before the world," Powell said Thursday.

The White House retraction of the uranium claim is the only time it has admitted a flaw in its case for war with Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction was a leading rationale.

No weapons have been found yet, spurring allegations the prewar intelligence was exaggerated. Three Congressional committees are reviewing the prewar claims, but Democrats are calling for a public inquiry.

"If the intelligence agencies come up with reliable information which is then distorted by political operatives in the White House and delivered to the American people, it'll destroy the credibility of the White House and the presidency," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

The administration says the Niger claim was only one part of the argument for military action, and only a portion of the evidence that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons.