Bush stands by CIA after Iraq mistake
Tenet admits error in agency's approval of president's speech
ABUJA, Nigeria (CNN) -- President Bush said Saturday that he remained confident in George Tenet after the CIA director took responsibility for the now-discredited line in the State of the Union address alleging that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa.
The White House now says the allegations were unsubstantiated.
"I've got confidence in George Tenet, I've got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA," Bush told reporters Saturday during an appearance with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
In a statement released Friday evening, Tenet said that the CIA had seen and approved the speech before it was delivered, and he took responsibility for the mistake.
"The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound," the Tenet statement said. "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."
The CIA director also said, "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Saturday that Bush is pleased that Tenet "acknowledged what needed to be acknowledged." Bush considers this issue "closed" and has "moved on," Fleischer said.
The spokesman said Tenet's statement was not requested by the White House, nor a response to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's comments Friday that the CIA had cleared the State of the Union address "in its entirety."
Tenet's statement came hours after the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, criticized the director for what he called the CIA's "extremely sloppy handling" of the uranium purchase claim. Roberts also accused the agency of orchestrating "a campaign of press leaks" to discredit the president.
At the time the speech was delivered, Tenet said the line was correct because British intelligence believed that it had evidence of such activity. But he said the CIA's investigation of those same allegations had led the agency to decide that the evidence was inconclusive.
"From what we know now, [CIA] officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct -- i.e., that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa," he said. "This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address.
"This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed."
But the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended his government's decision to include those claims in a dossier.
In a letter to Donald Anderson, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Straw acknowledged that the CIA expressed reservations about the allegation.
"However, the U.S. comment was unsupported by explanation, and U.K. officials were confident that the dossier's statement was based on reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S. (for good reasons, which I have given your committee in private session)," he wrote. "A judgment was therefore made to retain it."
Tenet said top administration officials -- including Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney -- were never briefed on the CIA's skepticism about the uranium purchase allegations. Nor did he tell members of Congress during briefings on Iraq last fall.
An unclassified CIA document published in October also made no mention of the allegation "because it was not fundamental to the judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program and because we had questions about some of the reporting."
Despite all of those reservations, the line made it into the speech delivered January 28.
"The background ... makes it even more troubling that the 16 words eventually made it into the State of the Union speech," Tenet said. "This was a mistake."
Dean: 'Beginning to sound a little like Watergate'
The inclusion of the charge in the State of the Union address has set off a political firestorm in Washington. Some Democrats who were opposed to the war in Iraq accused the president of misleading the American people to build support for military action.
"It's beginning to sound a little like Watergate," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. "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."
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, called for an investigation into how the mistake was made.
"The credibility of the president is on the line," he said. "We should be able to point to those people fully responsible for putting that misleading language in the State of the Union address. They should be held accountable, and they should be dismissed.
"Someone in the White House knew that the National Security Council had been briefed and told that this information is not accurate, and yet it was still included in the State of the Union address."
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, also called on the White House to "find out who is responsible for it and fire them."
But he also said the dispute "does not change the justification for going to war, which some of the critics are alleging."
Tenet is expected to be questioned further about the matter next week at a previously scheduled closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
CNN Correspondents David Ensor, Suzanne Malveaux and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.