| THE WHITE HOUSE
has mounted a spirited defense of Bush’s accusation that Baghdad sought
uranium from an African later identified as Niger, even though it
subsequently acknowledged this week that making the claim was a mistake.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other officials asserted this week that the president’s statement was justified at the time because the CIA cleared the address in its entirety, including the uranium claim. They said the CIA never told the White House that the claim was suspicious.
But U.S. officials told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell that Tenet himself advised Rice’s top deputy, Steven Hadley, to remove a reference to the uranium report from a speech Bush delivered Oct. 7 in Cincinnati, establishing that the nation’s top intelligence officials suspected that the allegation was false more than three months before they approved Bush’s repeating it in his nationally televised address on Jan. 28.
The Washington Post reported Friday that the CIA also told British officials about its doubts and passed word along to several U.S. agencies before the State of the Union address.
BRITISH REPORT AT ISSUE
As charges of deception swirled around the White House and Democratic and Republican senators alike called for an investigation, the CIA issued a statement early Friday evening in which Tenet said he was to blame.
Tenet acknowledged that the CIA approved the State of the Union address, including the uranium claim. “The President had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound,” Tenet said. “These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President.”
|President Bush remains
confident in his intelligence agencies, a top adviser said. Click "Play"
for more on the Iraq dispute.
The false allegation, which Bush made to bolster his argument for military action in Iraq, was based on a British intelligence report in September that said Baghdad had “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The United Nations, however, determined in February that the British report was based primarily on forged documents initially obtained by European intelligence agencies. Senior U.S. officials, meanwhile, said they concluded as long ago as early 2002 that the claim was unlikely, after a retired diplomat traveled to Niger at the CIA’s request and spoke with officials who denied having any dealings with Iraq.
Tenet said CIA officials approved the speech because it was “factually correct” that the British report said Iraq sought uranium from Africa, without taking into account the agency’s own serious doubts that the British report was accurate.
“This should not have been the test for clearing a Presidential address,” Tenet said. “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.”
Text of Tenet's statement
PRESSURE BUILDS ON TENET
Tenet’s statement came at the end of a week during which the president’s top advisers blamed him for not blowing the whistle on the false uranium claim and leading senators demanded an investigation.
Asked whether Tenet would consider resigning, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said Friday night, “I’ve heard no discussion along those lines.”
Likewise, when asked whether Bush had confidence in the CIA, Rice replied, “Absolutely.”
Speaking to reporters Friday aboard Air Force One as Bush flew from South Africa to Uganda on his tour of Africa, Rice insisted that if Tenet had any misgivings about the uranium claim, “he did not make them known” to Bush or his staff.
“If the CIA — the director of central intelligence — had said, ‘Take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone. We have a high standard for the president’s speeches,” she said.
Rice acknowledged that Secretary of State Colin Powell had his own reservations about the report and chose not to mention the allegations in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council a few days later.
Tenet’s position weakened later Friday afternoon significantly when Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blamed him for the CIA’s “sloppy handling” of the faulty information. Roberts had not previously been a harsh critic of the agency or of Tenet.
“If the CIA had changed its position, it was incumbent on the director of central intelligence to correct the record and bring it to the immediate attention of the president. It appears that he did not,” he said.
CIA INVESTIGATION SOUGHT
Democrats went further, accusing the administration of deliberately misleading the public about the need for war in Iraq. One of them, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, introduced a bipartisan non-binding resolution Thursday night calling for an investigation. The Senate attached an amendment that would authorize such an investigation to a bill to authorize State Department spending, which the Senate could approve as early as next week.
| “The credibility
of our president is on the line, and I believe that he should move forward
as quickly as possible to call for a full investigation,” Durbin said. “We
should be able to point to those people responsible for putting that
misleading language in the State of the Union address. They should be held
accountable, and they should be dismissed.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, one of nine Democrats running for president, released a statement warning that the White House “cannot and should not play fast and loose with our intelligence information.”
“Quite simply, we need to know what people in the administration knew about the weakness of our uranium intelligence reports and when they knew it.”
Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida, two of Lieberman’s challengers for the Democratic nomination, made similar statements Thursday, while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory, MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.