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Tenet faces grilling over uranium intelligence

Democrats broaden Bush criticism

Tenet: "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Under fire, CIA chief George Tenet went behind closed doors Wednesday on Capitol Hill to face senators who are probing the reliability of intelligence information about Iraq.

Tenet last week took responsibility for allowing a since-discredited line in President Bush January State of the Union address to remain in the speech. The statement claimed deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium from Africa. The information -- which was used to underscore Iraq's interest in developing nuclear weapons -- was attributed to British intelligence.

Democrats have used the uranium issue to question whether the Bush administration secured public backing for war in Iraq on the back of false information. And some Republicans say the president was poorly served by the CIA.

"I have some very serious questions about what I think (is) one of the most important issues there could be, which is the credibility of the president of the United States," Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democratic presidential candidate, said going into the hearing.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said it was clear that the CIA's vetting of intelligence and what was passed onto the president was faulty.

"It's failed the system and the process failed the president, and it failed the country," Snowe, another panel member, said.

Tenet is speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is privately reviewing the use of U.S. intelligence before the war. Separately, the House Intelligence Committee will hold a public hearing next week on intelligence matters related to Iraq.

Democrats are pressing for an open investigation, and even some Republicans say the administration needs to better explain how an assertion about Iraq based on questionable intelligence made its way into a major presidential speech at a time when Bush was trying to rally support for military action against Iraq.

"This is a fact-finding mission we're going to be on," Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a member of the committee, told CNN Wednesday.

Noting that the CIA removed a similar uranium claim from a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati, Ohio in October because it did not have confidence that the U.S. intelligence was accurate, Chambliss asked, "If they took it out in October, allowed it in January, then why did they? Why has nobody been forthcoming since January if, in fact, the information was not correct?"

The White House has been trying to lower the heat surrounding the uranium statement, but Democrats have used it to broaden criticism of the administration.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said Monday the United States went to war Iraq "under false pretenses."

In a scathing speech, Kennedy faulted both the administration's justification for war and its handling of Iraq's reconstruction after Saddam's fall from power.

"They have undermined America's prestige and credibility in the world," Kennedy said in a speech delivered at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, agreed. "The misleading statement about African uranium is not an isolated issue," he said.

Levin said Bush's statement was "one of several questionable statements and exaggerations" in the buildup to war.

"It is therefore essential that we have a thorough, open and bipartisan inquiry into the objectivity, credibility and use of U.S. intelligence before the Iraq war," Levin said in a Senate floor speech.

The 16 words

Tenet took responsibility last week for allowing the uranium line -- or "the 16 words" as Republicans have called the issue -- to remain.

"The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound. These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president," he said. "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency."

The 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Bush on Monday told reporters he had "darn good intelligence" on Iraq despite the discredited uranium line.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "It is unfortunate that this one sentence, these 16 words, remained in the State of the Union, but this in no way has any effect on the president's larger case about Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the nuclear program, and most importantly in the bigger picture of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, dismissed the escalating attacks from Democrats as partisan politics.

"They think if they just get a little bit angrier, and a little bit meaner, and a little bit louder, the American people will start hating the president as much as they do," DeLay said in a statement.

But criticism of the administration is not strictly partisan. While Republicans generally have been more supportive of the administration, a few have said it needs to further address the question of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

"It wasn't just the CIA involved here," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska. "We had the vice president and his office involved, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, [Secretary of State Colin] Powell's people. This wasn't just a one-man show."

Hagel voted to give Bush the authority to go to war with Iraq, but he told reporters last week the administration's case for war was looking "weaker and weaker." He told CNN: "There's a cloud hanging over this administration."

CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash and National Security Producer Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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