Advice on Alleged Uranium Buy Was Refused
By Walter Pincus (July 11, 2003, Washington Post)
The CIA tried unsuccessfully in early September 2002 to persuade the British government to drop from an official intelligence paper a reference to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa that President Bush included in his State of the Union address four months later, senior Bush administration officials said yesterday.
"We consulted about the paper and recommended against using that material," a senior administration official familiar with the intelligence program said. The British government rejected the U.S. suggestion, saying it had separate intelligence unavailable to the United States.
At that time, the CIA was completing its own classified national intelligence estimate on Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Although the CIA paper mentioned alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from three African countries, it warned that State Department analysts were questioning its accuracy when it came to Niger and that CIA personnel considered reports on other African countries to be "sketchy," the official said. The CIA paper's summary conclusions about whether Iraq was restarting its nuclear weapons program did not include references to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa.
The latest disclosures further illustrate the lack of confidence expressed by the U.S. intelligence community in the months leading up to Bush's speech about allegations of Iraqi efforts to buy uranium in Africa. Even so, Bush used the charge -- citing British intelligence -- in the Jan. 28 address as part of his effort to convince Congress and the American people that Iraq had a program to build weapons of mass destruction and posed a serious threat.
The White House on Monday acknowledged that Bush's uranium claim was based on faulty intelligence and should not have been included in the speech, further stoking a controversy over the administration's handling of prewar intelligence. Democratic lawmakers yesterday called for public hearings, while the Democratic National Committee opened an advertising campaign to encourage people to sign petitions calling for an independent commission.
At a news conference in Botswana, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell defended the president's use of the intelligence. "There was no effort or attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in the administration to mislead or to deceive the American people," Powell said. "There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used."
Only eight days after the State of the Union speech, however, Powell himself did not repeat the uranium allegation when he presented the administration's case against Iraq to the U.N. Security Council. "After further analysis, looking at other estimates we had and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn't hold up, and we said so, and we've acknowledged it, and we've moved on," Powell told reporters in explaining his decision. Under the British formulation of events, Powell would not necessarily know all of the basis underlying their statement.
The U.S. and British governments, whose intelligence agencies have a long history of close relations, have sought to maintain a united front despite suggestions in Congress and Parliament this week that both governments may have exaggerated the evidence against Iraq to support the case for war. But as the controversy escalates, the interests of the two allies have begun to diverge.
The Bush administration effectively has discarded the uranium allegation. The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, has stood behind its September conclusion that Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" for a possible nuclear weapons program despite the release of a report by a British parliamentary commission this week that challenged the allegation and, in effect, Bush's decision to include it in his address.
British officials have insisted that the Bush administration has never been provided with the intelligence that was the basis for the charge included in London's September intelligence dossier.
National Security Council guidance distributed within the U.S. government yesterday acknowledged that "no intelligence has been provided to the United States [by Britain] on this subject," sources said. The British intelligence was provided by an unidentified "third country," a diplomatic source said.
Meanwhile, administration officials shed some new light yesterday on the process that led to the inclusion of the uranium-purchase allegation in the president's State of the Union speech in which Bush said that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The early drafts of the speech did not include Britain as the source of the information, according to administration officials. A senior official denied that Britain was inserted in the final draft because the CIA and others in the U.S. intelligence community were concerned that the charge could not be supported. The British addition was made only "because they were the first to say it publicly in their September paper," the official said.
Powell noted yesterday that the British government continues to believe in the information it produced. "I would not dispute them or disagree with them or say they're wrong and we're right, because intelligence is of that nature," Powell said. "Some people have more sources . . . on a particular issue. Some people have greater confidence in their analysis."
Administration officials preparing drafts of the speech also wanted to name Niger as the focus of Iraqi attempts to buy uranium, according to a senior administration official who has looked into the process. But when CIA officials said there were problems with the Niger information, the more vague reference to Africa was substituted for Niger. The State Department, in its talking points on Iraq, had made a similar change the month before the speech.
The International Atomic Energy Agency told the U.N. Security Council in March that the Niger claim had been based on forged documents, a conclusion the Bush administration did not dispute at the time.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
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