Bush claim on Iraq had flawed
origin - White House
The White House acknowledged for the first time yesterday
that US President Bush was relying on incomplete and perhaps inaccurate
information from American intelligence agencies when he declared, in
his State of the Union speech, that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase
uranium from Africa.
The White House statement appeared to undercut one of the key pieces
of evidence that President Bush and his aides had cited to back their
claims made prior to launching an attack against Iraq in March that
Hussein was "reconstituting" his nuclear weapons program.
Those claims added urgency to the White House case that military action
to depose Hussein needed to be taken quickly, and could not await further
inspections of the country or additional resolutions at the United Nations.
The acknowledgement came after a day of questions and sometimes contradictory
answers from White House officials about an article published on the
Op-Ed page of The New York Times on Sunday by Joseph C. Wilson 4th,
a former ambassador who was sent to Niger, in West Africa, last year
to investigate reports of the attempted purchase. He reported back that
the intelligence was likely fraudulent, a warning that White House officials
say never reached them.
"There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain
uranium from Africa," the statement said. "However, the information
is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts
were in fact made."
In other words, said one senior official, "we couldn't prove it,
and it might in fact be wrong."
Separately yesterday, The Washington Post quoted an unidentified senior
administration official as declaring that "knowing all that we
know now, the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa
should not have been included in the State of the Union speech."
Some administration officials have expressed similar sentiments in interviews
in the past two weeks.
Asked about the statement early today, before President Bush departed
for a six-day tour of Africa, Ari Fleischer , the White House spokesman,
said, "There is zero, nada, nothing new here." He said that
"we've long acknowledged" that information on the attempted
purchases from Niger "did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect."
But in public, administration officials have defended the president's
statement in the State of Union address that "the British government
has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities
of uranium from Africa."
While Bush cited the British report, seemingly giving the account the
credibility of coming from a non-American intelligence service, Britain
itself relied in part on information provided by the CIA, American and
British officials have said.
But today a report from a parliamentary committee that conducted an
investigation into the British assertions also questioned the credibility
of what the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair had published.
The committee went on to say that Blair's government had asserted it
had other evidence of Iraqi attempts to procure uranium. But eight months
later the government still had not told Parliament what that other information
While Bush quoted the British report, his statement was apparently primarily
based on American intelligence a classified "National Intelligence
Estimate" published in October of last year that also identified
two other countries, Congo and Somalia, where Iraq had sought the material,
in addition to Niger.
But many analysts did not believe those reports at the time, and were
shocked to hear the president make such a flat, declarative statement.
Asked about the accuracy of the president's statement this morning,
Fleischer said, "We see nothing that would dissuade us from the
president's broader statement." But when pressed, he said he would
clarify the issue later yesterday.
Monday night, after Air Force One had departed, White House officials
issued a statement in Fleischer's name that made clear that they no
longer stood behind Bush's statement.
How Bush's statement made it into last January's State of the Union
address is still unclear. No one involved in drafting the speech will
say who put the phrase in, or whether it was drawn from the classified
That document contained a footnote in a separate section of the report,
on another subject noting that State Department experts were doubtful
of the claims that Hussein had sought uranium.
If the intelligence was true, it would have buttressed statements by
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Saddam Hussein was actively
seeking a nuclear weapon, and could build one in a year or less if he
obtained enough nuclear material.
In early March, before the invasion of Iraq began, the International
Atomic Energy Agency dismissed the uranium reports about Niger, noting
that they were based on forged documents.
In an interview late last month, a senior administration official said
that the news of the fraud was not brought to the attention of the White
House until after Bush had spoken.
But even then, White House officials made no effort to correct the president's
remarks. Indeed, as recently as a few weeks ago they were arguing that
Bush had quite deliberately avoided mentioning Niger, and noted that
he had spoken more generally about efforts to obtain "yellowcake,"
the substance from which uranium is extracted, from African nations.
Yesterdays statement, though, calls even those reports into question.
In interviews in recent days, a number of administration officials have
conceded that Bush never should have made the claims, given the weakness
of the case. One senior official said that the uranium purchases were
"only one small part" of a broader effort to reconstitute
the nuclear program, and that Bush probably should have dwelled on others.
White House officials would not say, however, how the statement was
approved. They have suggested that the Central Intelligence Agency approved
the wording, though the CIA has said none of its senior leaders had
reviewed it. Other key members of the administration said the information
was discounted early on, and that by the time the president delivered
the State of the Union address, there were widespread questions about
the quality of the intelligence.
"We only found that out later," said one official involved
in the speech.