While taking responsibility for allowing bad intelligence to creep into President Bush’s State of the Union address, CIA Director George Tenet said Wednesday that a White House official insisted the unconfirmed claim about Iraq’s nuclear intentions be included in the speech, according to a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D.-Ill., said Tenet named the official in a four-and-one-half-hour, closed-door hearing, but he would not repeat the name, because the hearing was confidential.
Durbin said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that there was negotiation between the White House and CIA on how far the president could go in making a case for sending troops to Iraq and still be telling the truth. “Unfortunately, those 16 words were included in the most important speech the president delivers in any given year,” he said.
Tenet said last Friday that Bush’s assertion, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” should not have been included and that his agency was responsible for not having it removed.
“The more important question is who is it in the White House who was hell-bent on misleading the American people and why they are still there,” Durbin said, according to The Associated Press.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Thursday described Durbin’s statement that someone in the White House was pressuring to include the statement in the president’s speech “absolute nonsense.”
McClellan would not say who was responsible for putting the sentence in the State of the Union address in the first place, attributing it to the “usual vetting process,” which includes “a number of people” and “a lot of discussion.”
He said the uranium reference was just one piece of a larger body of evidence that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States and its allies. He accused Durbin and a small number of others of “seeking to rewrite history” as a way to justify their own votes opposing military action.
“The people of Iraq are liberated from a brutal, oppressive regime,” McClellan said. “Look at Saddam Hussein. He is gone from power. He is no longer a threat to the region, to his people, or to the world. And he is no longer a threat to America. His weapons of mass destruction, he cannot use his weapons of mass destruction.”
Since Tenet took responsibility for the snafu, Republicans have asked why the CIA director, who didn’t read the speech before Bush gave it in January, wasn’t more involved. Democrats, meanwhile, questioned whether the White House knowingly used dubious intelligence in order to strengthen its case for going to war.
“The responsibility is not the CIA’s, it is not anyone else’s, it is the president’s responsibility,” Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is running for president, said, according to Reuters.
Asked by a reporter whether the president is ultimately responsible for the words that come out of his mouth, McClellan said: “You bet the president is responsible for the decisions he makes to protect the American people. And it was the right decision to confront what was a grave and growing threat in the form of Saddam Hussein and his regime. It was based on solid and compelling evidence, and America is safer for it.”
Asked about the episode Monday in a White House photo opportunity, President Bush said his speech was cleared by the CIA, which only afterward began to have doubts.
“When they talked about the speech and when they looked at the speech, it was cleared,” Bush said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put it in the speech. I’m not interested in talking about intelligence unless it’s cleared by the CIA. And as Director Tenet said, it was cleared by the CIA.”
The CIA lacked confidence in the intelligence last fall, however, before the State of the Union address, enough to want a reference to the proposed sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq removed from a speech the president gave in October. The information had been given to members of Congress in a secret briefing prior to a vote on a resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war, according to The New Yorker.
The decision to include it in the State of the Union speech came after Tony Blair’s government made public a dossier containing previously classified information that Iraq had sought to buy significant quantities of uranium from an unspecified African country, despite having no active civil nuclear program requiring it.
In March, it was reported that letters used to support the claim–purported to be between officials in Iraq and Niger—were forgeries.
A Baptist ethicist renewed a call issued Monday for “straight talk” from U.S. officials about Iraq.
“Instead taking responsibility for misleading the nation about the nature of Iraq’s nuclear threat, President Bush and his staff are bent on misstating facts, creating scapegoats, misdirecting public attention and downplaying the seriousness of this problem,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
“The right thing to do,” Parham said, “is to tell the truth and trust the American people.”