Senator points finger at White House in Iraq flap
Presidential spokesman criticizes effort to 'rewrite history'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Democratic senator on Thursday blamed "someone in the White House" for President Bush's now-disputed State of the Union claim that Iraq sought to purchase uranium from Africa, but a Bush spokesman called that "nonsense."
CIA Director George Tenet has accepted responsibility for the inclusion of the statement in Bush's January speech despite the U.S. intelligence community's doubts about that intelligence. Tenet said the line was technically accurate since it cited British intelligence, but he said it should not have been included in the address.
In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois -- a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- blamed unnamed "people in the White House" for the error.
"Someone in the White House decided that they would cut a corner and allow the president to say this by putting in that phrase, 'based on British intelligence.' I would think the president of the United States would be angered over the disservice done to him by members of his staff," said Durbin, who opposed the October congressional resolution that authorized Bush to take military action against Iraq.
"I would think the president of the United States would acknowledge the fact that even if Director Tenet could not discourage that member of the White House staff and stop them from putting in that language, that the president has within his ranks on his staff some person who was willing to spin and hype and exaggerate and cut corners on the most important speech the president delivers in any given year."
White House: 'Nonsense'
Durbin's comments were the latest in a series of assaults on the Bush administration by leading Democrats over Iraq. White House spokesman Scott McClellan quickly dismissed Durbin's comments as "absolute nonsense."
"There are some in Congress who are seeking to rewrite history and making those claims," McClellan said. "Some of these were in the small minority who opposed the action that we took. They are sitting there seeking to justify their votes against the action that we took. But the bottom line is America is safer -- the world is safer -- because of the action we took."
Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said Tenet talked extensively about contacts between the CIA and the White House's National Security Council during a five-hour hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday.
The sources did not provide the names of those Tenet mentioned in the closed hearing, but several sources told CNN that negotiations between the two agencies over Bush's State of the Union statement involved Robert Joseph at the NSC and Alan Foley of the CIA.
Joseph is a special assistant to the president and senior director for proliferation strategy, counterproliferation and homeland defense, according to the NSC. He was appointed by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in early 2001.
Foley heads the CIA's counterproliferation effort, according to a government official.
Several sources at Wednesday's hearing said Foley attended the hearing.
In his testimony, Foley identified Joseph as the person who wanted to include the now-controversial allegation about Iraq's alleged attempts to buy uranium, the sources said.
According to Foley's testimony, Joseph provided him with the excerpt from the draft speech, which Foley said detailed reports of Iraq receiving 500 tons of uranium from Niger.
Foley said he called Joseph back, telling him the information was not solid enough and could jeopardize sources.
Joseph then mentioned, sources said, that the British had published an unclassified dossier that mentioned reports of Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa.
Foley tried to discourage Joseph from referencing the report, saying the CIA had suggested to the British that they not use the information, but added the British said they had other information to support the claim.
Then asked if it would be technically correct to say that the British had reported that uranium charge, Foley told Joseph that it would be technically correct. The conversation ended there.
Sources at the hearing said Foley did not characterize his phone conversation with Joseph as anything other than a discussion.
Foley never said he felt pressured by Joseph, and never said Joseph had insisted on anything, the sources said, potentially countering the Durbin charge that the White House was trying to "spin and hype" the State of the Union address.
Sources also said Foley never discussed the matter with any of his superiors.
One official added that Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, never reviewed the final draft of the State of the Union address.
During Wednesday's closed hearing, Tenet also admitted that he never read the speech before it was delivered, sources who attended the hearing told CNN. (Full story)
At the White House, McClellan would not confirm reports identifying Joseph, nor would he discuss whether Joseph had shared his discussions with the CIA with Rice.
"I think the bottom line here is that this has been addressed," he said.
A senior Bush administration official disputed part of Foley's reported testimony.
"If that was the testimony, it is not an accurate recounting of events. There was never at any time mention of place or amount in any draft of the State of the Union."
A U.S.-led army invaded Iraq in March to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after U.S. and British officials accused Iraq of developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Bush used the State of the Union speech to outline his arguments for military action.
But no banned weapons and little evidence of weapons programs has turned up since Saddam's government collapsed April 9, raising questions about the administration's case.
Nevertheless, McClellan said Bush made the decision to go to war "based on solid and compelling evidence."
"He made the right decision to confront this threat instead of ignore it," McClellan said. "We live in a very dangerous world in this post-September 11 era that we are living in, and this was important to address."