Archive for Friday, July 18, 2003

Senator: White House aide lobbied for claim in speech

July 18, 2003


— In closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill, CIA officials named a senior White House aide who persuaded the agency to allow a questionable allegation about Iraq in President Bush's State of the Union address, a senator and other officials involved in the classified hearing said Thursday.

A Democrat on the panel said the way CIA Director George J. Tenet and other witnesses described the negotiations between the agency and the White House made it clear that the administration ignored warnings not to include a discredited uranium allegation in Bush's speech.

"They weren't searching for the right words, they were searching for a way around the obvious," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the committee.

Describing White House officials as "hell bent" on working the uranium allegation into the text, Durbin said the administration "had to go into bargaining mode with the CIA to skirt around the misleading nature of the statement."

The White House was seeking to support assertions by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, a key part of the case for going to war. Much of the other evidence about Iraq's nuclear ambitions had been disputed by U.N. inspectors and other experts.

Durbin declined to name the White House official, but others identified him as Robert G. Joseph, a senior adviser on counterproliferation issues and homeland security to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan characterized Durbin's comments as "nonsense," and said the senator was "trying to justify his own vote" earlier this year against the war in Iraq.

The exchange came as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a joint news conference, again defended their decision to go to war with Iraq amid growing criticism of their prewar claims that Saddam Hussein's regime had banned weapons and posed an imminent threat.

The White House acknowledged for the first time last week that Bush's assertion that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium in Africa was based on flawed intelligence and should not have been included in the State of the Union speech.

Tenet took the blame for the matter in a statement last week, saying the agency had vetted the speech. But he also said the agency had raised objections and approved the language only because the White House reworked the text to attribute the claim to the British.

Thursday's disclosures by Durbin and other officials provided the most detailed account yet of those delicate negotiations between the White House and the CIA.

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