Dean: Bush's 'intelligence-handling a disaster'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House said a claim in the president's State of the Union address that Iraq sought large quantities of uranium in Africa was not accurate.
CIA Director George Tenet issued a statement late Friday saying his agency made a mistake in clearing the language in the president's speech.
Democrats have stepped up their criticism of Bush in recent days over the statement and the president's reasons for going to war.
CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl talked to Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean about the dispute Friday before Tenet's statement was released:
KARL: The president and his national security adviser are saying that the CIA, and George Tenet specifically, cleared this speech and signed off on it. Does that get the president off the hook?
DEAN: We don't know that. The fact is that [former U.S.] Ambassador [to Niger Joseph] Wilson, in a public statement in The New York Times, has indicated that his report showing that there was no involvement between Niger and Iraq in terms of the uranium deal went to the office of the vice president, the secretary of state and the CIA. So I don't know what the president knew and when the president knew it, but I know that this intelligence-handling is a disaster for the administration at best, and either no one got to the secretary of defense or the president, or his own senior advisors withheld information.
So this is a serious credibility problem, and it's a lot deeper than just the Iraq-Niger deal, it has to do with assertions by the secretary of defense that he knew where weapons were that turned out not to be there, it has to do with assertions by the vice president there was a nuclear program that turned out not to exist, and assertions made by the president himself, not just about the acquisition of uranium, but also about the ability of [deposed Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] to use chemical weapons on the United States. We need a full-blown public investigation not held in Congress but by an outside bipartisan commission.
KARL: Condoleezza Rice specifically mentioned George Tenet, and now the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is specifically saying that George Tenet had a responsibility to tell the president about this but didn't.
DEAN: It's beginning to sound a little like Watergate. They start throwing people over the side. The deeper you go, the more interesting it will be. It's very clear that it may be George Tenet's responsibility, but that information also existed in the State Department and it also existed in the vice president's office, so they will not get away with simply throwing George Tenet over the side.
KARL: How big a deal is this?
DEAN: The big deal is not so much that we went to war over a deal between Iraq and Niger which didn't exist and that the administration knew ahead of time it didn't exist. The big deal is the credibility of the United States of America and the credibility of the president in telling the American people the truth and the rest of the world the truth. That's a very big deal.
KARL: What about your colleagues as presidential candidates? A number of them who supported very strongly the president's action going to war with Iraq are out there like you raising strong questions about this.
DEAN: Well, I think those that voted for the war in Iraq are on very thin ice. They did not exercise their senatorial requirement to advise and consent knowing all the facts. They jumped five months ahead of time, voted for a pre-emptive strike based now on what appears to be evidence that they did not question. I think that's a problem for them as well.
KARL: Do you think they were fooled?
DEAN: I can't speak to that, but you have to ask why they didn't ask the questions I was asking at the same time. I'm not even from Washington, and I could figure out that the president wasn't making the case, and the question is why didn't they figure that out.
KARL: You put out a very strong statement saying somebody should resign for this.
DEAN: I believe that.
DEAN: Well, we don't know yet. ... I hope we'll get to that conclusion soon.
KARL: Is there a larger question regarding Iraq and the continued violence? Has the president really leveled with the American people?
DEAN: We had estimates before we went into Iraq that this was going to be over within 18 months, then it got to two years, then four years. I believe that we are going to be there for a very long time. I have repeatedly called for the internationalization of the occupation force in Iraq, both with NATO and United Nations troops. They have a better record of peacekeeping than we do, they have a better record of administering foreign countries than we do that are under protectorates. We need to start pulling our reserve units out of Iraq, and we cannot do that. We cannot afford to lose the peace in Iraq under any circumstances, and yet this president seems to be handcuffed in terms of his ability to straighten the situation out over there.
KARL: The conventional wisdom has been that if the Democrats are going to beat Bush they're going to beat him on the economy and that national security is his strong suit.
DEAN: I have said that I think I am the most electable candidate because people have continually underestimated me. My national security people who I was just meeting for an hour and a half before you got here are pretty smart people. I've been talking to them for a year and a half. Don't underestimate governors from small states. We can learn in a hurry.