WASHINGTON – A photo essay on the White House website shows President Bush had a hands-on role in “revising” January’s State of the Union speech that included a now-disputed allegation about Iraq’s alleged nuclear-weapons program. It also indicates he scribbled notes beside various passages of text in the
margins of the speech drafts.

Bush yesterday ducked a direct question regarding the controversial line at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Asked if he’d take responsibility for putting the claim that Iraq was recently shopping for uranium in Africa in his State of the Union, Bush said, “I take responsibility for putting troops into action. I take responsibility for making the tough decision to put together a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein.”

Jan. 23: Bush reviews text with Michael Gerson, director of presidential speechwriting

CIA Director George Tenet says the White House insisted on keeping the allegation in the speech, despite warnings from CIA analysts, including senior analyst Alan Foley, that it was unreliable. Tenet says the analysts protested after receiving a draft of the speech “shortly before the speech was given.” He said “some of the language was changed” to assuage them.

Asked about it at a press conference last week, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said “some specifics about amount and place were taken out.” Her staff, including senior aide Robert G. Joseph, had wanted the statement to say Iraq recently sought up to 500 metric tons of uranium from Niger. Also, the revised charge was attributed to British intelligence.

The final language, as Bush read it Jan. 28, stated: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Rice maintains that neither she nor the president knew the CIA raised serious doubts about the statement during the drafting of the speech.

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

Just three months earlier, however, Tenet himself phoned Rice’s deputy, Stephen Hadley, at the White House to get him to pull a similar statement from Bush’s Iraq speech in Cincinnati. And a veteran envoy dispatched to Africa by the CIA early last year reported back that he found the uranium charge without merit. The envoy, Joseph Wilson, insists the White House received a March 2002 CIA memo summarizing his findings. The White House denies knowing about his findings until this year. Additionally, the CIA in September asked the British government to drop the uranium allegation from its Iraq dossier, citing the unreliability of the information. Turns out much of the allegation was based on forged letters from Niger.

Rice’s staff worked closely with Bush’s speechwriters on the text. It’s not immediately clear how closely Bush worked with Rice or her staffers, if at all.

But there’s no doubt Bush worked closely with the speechwriters, who were in regular contact with Rice’s staffers.

A page on the White House website shows a picture of Bush working on his speech Jan. 23, five days prior to delivering it, with a caption that says, “President Bush gives his speechwriting team a few points after revising the State of the Union address in the Oval Office.”

Shown meeting with Bush are speechwriters Matthew Scully, John McConnell, Michael Gerson and senior adviser Karen Hughes. Gerson, the president’s chief speechwriter, reportedly can’t recall which one of them worked on the controversial uranium line.

Another Jan. 23 photo shows Bush again in the Oval Office sketching notes in the margin of the speech. A caption says he rewrote “portions” of the address.

A Jan. 26 photo shows Hughes going over parts of the speech with White House Staff Secretary Harriet Miers and Director of Communications Dan Bartlett, as White House speechwriters confer behind them during a rehearsal in the family theater of the White House.

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Marine general admits Iraq intelligence flawed

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