Bush: Niger Doubts Came Late

Iraq Nuclear Atomic Atom Flag Weapons
CBS
New confusion surrounded the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa Tuesday after President Bush defended his case for war by saying the CIA raised objections to mentioning the alleged Africa link only after he had delivered the State of the Union speech.

"Subsequent to the speech, the CIA had some doubts," the president said. "But when I gave the -- when they talked about the speech and when they looked at the speech, it was cleared. Otherwise, I wouldn't have put it in the speech."

In the Jan. 28 speech, the president claimed British intelligence had learned that Iraq sought uranium in Africa, apparently referring to evidence of uranium shopping in Niger. Documents obtained as evidence of the attempt were later proven to be forgeries.

But there are several indications U.S. intelligence had doubts about the claim much earlier. What's unclear is whether the president was aware of them.

The CIA sent a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, to check out the Niger claim in early 2002 and found no evidence to support it.

The Washington Post reports that a high-ranking military officer, Marine Gen. Carlton W. Fulford Jr., also probed the claims and found that Niger's uranium stores were secure. Fulford tells the newspaper he passed his findings to Joint Chiefs chairman Richard Meyers. A spokesman for Meyers said he did not recall the report.

The Post has also reported that the CIA tried to stop Britain from alleging the Africa link in a September dossier on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons programs, and managed to get a reference to the claim removed from a speech Mr. Bush made in October.

As drafts the State of the Union was prepared, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says CIA analysts objected to the way some aspects of the Africa claim were presented. When those references were changed, Rice says, the agency signed off on the speech.

The director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, has accepted responsibility for allowing the Africa claim to get into the State of the Union speech.

"CIA approved the president's State of the Union address before it was delivered … the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound," Tenet said in a statement Friday. "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."

In addition to clearing the president of any blame, the White House has worked to downplay the significance of the uranium claim.

"This revisionist notion that somehow this is now the core of why we went to war, a central issue of why we went to war, a fundamental underpinning of the president's decisions, is a bunch of bull," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday.

At the same time, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts, officials still refused to say the uranium report was flat out wrong, just not solid enough to include in the State of the Union.

"We don't know if it's true but nobody — but nobody — can say it was wrong," Fleischer said. "That is not known."

Administration officials said Mr. Bush's statement was technically correct since he was simply saying that British intelligence said something was true. Britain stands by the allegation, claiming to have evidence beyond the forged documents.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, said the United States and Britain have intelligence that supports Mr. Bush's contention that Saddam sought uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons. This reportedly relates to countries other than Niger.

The uranium claim was one of several lodged in the State of the Union. Mr. Bush also claimed Iraq had not proved the destruction of stocks of materials that could make anthrax, botulinum, sarin, VX and mustard agent, or demonstrated that it rid itself of munitions for delivering chemical attacks. The Africa claim was unique because it referred to a "recent" and overt act by the Saddam regime.

In more than three months since Baghdad fell, no weapons of mass destruction have been located in Iraq. A new CBS News poll found a growing number, 56 percent, of Americans now believe the White House overstated the threat from Saddam's alleged weapons.

Democrats, anxious for any opening to challenge the president's popularity, have leapt on the issue.

"Why isn't he leading to determine who should be held accountable for this?" asked Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. "And why isn't he advocating reforms within the intelligence community to avoid a repetition?"

Republican sources say it's "amazing" that no one has been fired over this. And, they add, the longer it goes on the more it appears the president is "letting mediocrity reign."

Mr. Bush said the United States was reviewing documents and interviewing Iraqis in an intensive effort to support the administration's still unproven claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Defending his credibility, Mr. Bush said he made the right decision to invade Iraq.

"I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence. And the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence," the president said.

In other developments:

  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who travels to the White House later this week, has defended his intelligence services. But new polls show two-thirds of Brits think he misled them, either knowingly or unknowingly. He will face tough questions from Congress Thursday.
  • A top U.N. weapons hunter says it would have been "virtually impossible" for Iraq to revive a nuclear bomb program with equipment recently dug up from a Baghdad backyard, as the Bush administration contends.
  • Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter released a new book, accusing President Bush of illegally attacking Iraq and calling for "regime change" in the United States at the next election. Ritter, a former U.S. Marine, was a weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's policy on Iraq.