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WASHINGTON – National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice insists neither she nor the president knew the CIA raised serious doubts about a nuke-weapons charge against Iraq in his last State of the Union speech.

“If there was a concern about the underlying intelligence there, the president was unaware of that concern, as was I,” she told reporters Friday aboard Air Force One.

The language the White House originally wanted to use in its allegation was even more baseless and reckless – that Iraq recently sought up to 500 tons of uranium from Niger.

But CIA analysts strenuously objected, arguing that they could not verify such a charge, which we now know was based on forged letters.

Undeterred, the White House kept it in the speech, but dropped the specific references to amount and source. And, to be safe, it also attributed the charge to British intelligence.

Here’s the final language Bush used on Jan. 28: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

CIA Director George Tenet acknowledges his analysts
raised a fuss after receiving a draft “shortly before
the speech was given.” He revealed that “some of the
language was changed” to assuage them. What was
changed? “Some specifics about amount and place were
taken out,” Rice said, guardedly, in response to a
reporter’s question during the Air Force One gaggle.

According to news reports at the time, Bush began
rehearsing the speech from a teleprompter in the White
House theater on Jan. 24. It was one of the most
important speeches in history, as it was laying the
case for baldly starting a war overseas – an
American first.

Assuming he wasn’t in on the debate raging over the uranium language, Bush had to have at least wondered why at one point he was practicing to say “up to 500 tons” and “from Niger” (which isn’t an easy country to pronounce), and then, sometime later on, “significant quantities” and “from Africa.” If these revisions didn’t catch his attention, surely the addition of the reference to the “British government” did. It’s not every State of the Union that an American president cites foreign intelligence.

Yet we are led to believe that Bush remained in the dark about the reasons for the changes in the line.

It’s been reported that Tenet believed Bush to be oblivious.

But that’s not what Tenet said. Here’s the relevant quote in his carefully worded statement:

“The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound [emphasis added],” Tenet said.

Sure, the text, as revised, was technically correct (and therefore an acceptable lie that apparently everybody thought they could live with, at least at the time). However, the content that the text represented – that is, the substance of the charge – was another story entirely.

Tenet didn’t let Bush off the hook. All he said was that the president had every reason to believe that the British believed the uranium charge to be true, even though his own intelligence didn’t. That’s hardly an exoneration.

Did Bush know he was passing off bad intelligence? Depends on what the meaning of “text” is.

Rice, meanwhile, claims even she was in the dark.

Yet a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s banned weapons programs cast doubt on the uranium claim last October – just months before the speech. In the high-level secret report, which went to Rice, the CIA said it couldn’t confirm any African link to Iraq involving uranium sales, let alone the alleged Niger one. And the State Department called the claim “highly dubious.”

It strains credulity that Rice, a hands-on manager who goes by the nickname “Warrior Princess,” would not have read the Iraq report in full at the time it was sent to the White House. Her boss was beating the war tom-toms pretty hard then.

If she failed to brief Bush about the report’s reservations, and let him go into a key State of the Union speech blind to them, Bush needs to get himself a new security adviser.

Rice, for her part, blames Tenet for the bogus charge getting in the speech. So does Bush (yet he won’t fire him, oddly enough).

Truth is, Tenet thought so little of the uranium story that he personally got Rice’s deputy to yank it from Bush’s October speech on Iraq in Cincinnati. And he never once used it in any of his congressional testimonies or public statements prior to the State of the Union.

Neither did Secretary of State Colin Powell. In fact, he chose not to use it in his own speech to the U.N. eight days after the State of the Union.

Powell claims the uranium allegation was just a throw-away line in the president’s 5,500-word speech, and was not integral to the case against Iraq – unlike, apparently, Bush’s related assertion that Iraq had attempted to buy aluminum tubes to make weapons-grade uranium (oops, that also turned out to be false).

But intervening bad press might also have influenced Powell’s decision to leave the African uranium claim out of his own speech.

The day after Bush made the claim before Congress, the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, shot it down in a Washington Post interview.

“We haven’t gotten anything specific,” he argued in the Jan. 29 Post story. “Niger denied it, Iraq denied it, and we haven’t seen any contracts.”

And if it was just a throw-away line, as claimed, why was the White House so desperate to keep it in the president’s speech?

We know in hindsight that his October speech didn’t convince the U.N. to back his war. Three months later, the uranium charge reappeared, this time in the State of the Union – despite another row with the CIA.

The issue isn’t why Tenet didn’t object more strenuously to it, as the White House is trying to spin the scandal, but why the White House resisted CIA objections so strenuously? And why, of all things, did it defer to foreign intelligence over its own?

Why did it want that dubious information in there so badly?

For one, it’s the only thing in Bush’s whole speech that conveys any real sense of urgency about the alleged Iraqi threat (the rest is based on old U.N. arms reports from last decade, many of which are now available on the Internet). The key word in the 16-word uranium charge is “recently,” implying Iraq was reactivating its nuke-weapons programs and, if we didn’t act fast, we’d all be toast.

But that explanation begs another, more disturbing question about overall motives: Why did this administration want to invade and occupy Iraq so badly that it was willing to scare Congress and the American people with ginned-up intelligence in order to sell its war scheme?

It’s incumbent upon Congress to find out. It can start by calling Tenet and Rice to testify – under oath and in open hearings – before the intelligence committees about what really happened in the days leading up to the State of the Uranium.


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Previous columns:

A very curious war indeed

Believing Boy Scout Bush

The folly of ‘liberating’ Muslims

Saddam bin Laden

The Iraq echo chamber

While Nero fiddled in Baghdad…

The royal families

Yellow is for politics

My Picnic with Bill

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