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Did the Bush Administration exaggerate the threat from Iraq?

By Wolf Blitzer

President Bush made the allegation about Iraq in his State of the Union address in January.

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Washington (CNN) -- It was perhaps the most compelling reason for the U.S. to go to war against Saddam Hussein -- namely that he was rebuilding his nuclear weapons program. But that allegation has now come back to embarrass the President.

The White House now acknowledges President Bush should never have said this in his State of the Union address in January:

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

That's in part because the British government itself has now backed away from that assertion.

What's clear now is that earlier intelligence reports suggesting Saddam Hussein's regime was attempting to obtain uranium from the African nation of Niger were based on false information, including forged documents.

But what's even more embarrassing to Bush administration officials is that the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department had themselves earlier concluded the Niger uranium reports were almost certainly not true.

Former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson was sent by the CIA to Niger in February 2002 -- eleven months before the President's State of the Union Address -- to investigate the allegations.

"I traveled there, spent eight days out there, and concluded that it was impossible that this sort of transaction could be done clandestinely," Wilson told CNN.

Two months after the President's address to Congress, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and went further than the president in alleging Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program.

"He's had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons," Cheney said.

The White House has now released a statement acknowledging the Niger documents were forged but insisting there were other intelligence reports at the time suggesting Iraq was indeed attempting to acquire uranium from other countries in Africa. Still, the White House says, those reports were not specific.

"Because of this lack of specificity, this reporting alone did not rise to the level of inclusion in a presidential speech. That said, 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," the statement said.

Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, says this issue reinforces the need for a formal inquiry -- why as late as the President's State of the Union address, the President was "still using information which the intelligence community knew was almost certainly false."

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