09 July 2003

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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 was.
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 intelligence estimate.
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.
Yesterday’s 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.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
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