Democrats want uranium claim probed
From Dana Bash
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrats are calling for an investigation into President Bush's assertion in his State of the Union address that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa -- a claim the White House has since admitted was erroneous.
An administration official said Bush would not have included the reference in his speech January 28 had his advisers known it was false.
But other U.S. officials said the White House had a report from a former U.S. ambassador a year before the speech that the intelligence was bogus.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the latest White House statements "only reinforce the importance of an inquiry into why the information about the bogus uranium sales didn't reach the policymakers during 2002.
"And why, as late as the president's State of the Union address in January 2003, our policymakers were still using information which the intelligence community knew was almost certainly false."
Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, used even stronger language.
"It's bad enough that such a glaring blunder became part of the president's case for war. It's far worse if the case for war was made by deliberate deception," Kennedy said.
"It's more important than ever that Congress conduct a real investigation into the use of intelligence sources as a justification for war. The American people deserve to know whether the president is making war and peace decisions based on reliable information. We cannot risk American lives because of shoddy intelligence or outright lies."
President Bush refused to be drawn into the controversy during a news conference in South Africa on Wednesday.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace, and there is no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power," Bush said
Bush also pointed out that his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, raided Iraq in 1998 "based upon the very same intelligence."
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania defended the administration, saying it has been "very forthright ... as to what they knew and when they knew it, and I think they had the best information that they thought was reliable at the time the president said it."
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota urged that "a full investigation of the facts surrounding this situation be undertaken, the sooner the better."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, also urged an investigation.
"The Bush administration doesn't get honesty points for belatedly admitting what has been apparent to the world for some time -- that emphatic statements made on Iraq were inaccurate," Kerry said.
Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe went so far as to accuse the administration of a cover-up.
"This may be the first time in recent history that a president knowingly misled the American people during the State of Union address," McAuliffe said.
"Either President Bush knowingly used false information in his State of the Union address, or senior administration officials allowed the use of that information. This was not a mistake. It was no oversight, and it was no error."
Key point in war rationale
Senior White House officials have conceded information that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from Niger was inaccurate, but they said Bush's State of the Union speech was based on a broader range of intelligence.
"The issue of Iraq's attempts to acquire uranium from abroad was not an element underpinning the judgment reached by most intelligence agencies that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program," White House spokesman Michael Anton said.
The assertion that Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program was a key point in the administration's rationale for war.
In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Bush cited British intelligence, which had published a similar report the previous September.
In March, the International Atomic Energy Agency dismissed as forgeries documents that alleged Iraq may have tried to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger. (Full story)
A British panel also found intelligence on the Iraq allegations was inaccurate, according to reports.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked Monday about former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's assertion in Sunday's New York Times and elsewhere that -- well before Bush's speech -- the CIA sent him to Niger and he reported back that the story the African nation had sold yellowcake uranium to Iraq was bogus. (Full story)
Fleischer said there was "zero, nada, nothing new here" and that the administration had "long acknowledged the information was incorrect."
But he said the administration did not know the information was false before the State of the Union address. "I see nothing that goes broader that would indicate that there was no basis for the president's broader statement," Fleischer said.
"But specifically on yellowcake ... we acknowledge that that information did turn out to be a forgery. We see nothing that would dissuade us from the president's broader statement," he said.
But Fleischer also conceded that the "president's broader statement was based and predicated on the yellowcake to Niger."
What happened to Wilson's report?
It remains unclear why senior administration officials did not know about Wilson's report to the CIA.
U.S. officials said a report citing Wilson's conclusions was given to the White House and other agencies nearly a year before the president's State of the Union address.
The officials said the report said Nigerian officials denied the suggestion Iraq had tried to buy the uranium, and that given the entities controlling the mines, it was illogical there could have been such a contract with Niger.
A U.S. official said the report was just part of a "flood of paper" the White House gets daily.
CNN correspondent David Ensor contributed to this story.