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Bill Clinton on Bush uranium line: 'Everybody makes mistakes'

Former president accepts explanation on State of the Union

Bill Clinton:
Bill Clinton: "Everybody makes mistakes when they are president."

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Stephen Hadley became the second administration official to apologize for allowing tainted intelligence into the State of the Union address. CNN's Suzanne Malveaux reports (July 23)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House, attacked by critics for a now-retracted line about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa in President Bush's State of the Union address, has gotten some surprising support from former President Clinton.

"I thought the White House did the right thing in just saying 'we probably shouldn't have said that,' " Clinton told CNN's Larry King in a phone interview Tuesday evening.

"You know, everybody makes mistakes when they are president," Clinton said. "I mean, you can't make as many calls as you have to make without messing up once in awhile. The thing we ought to be focused on is what is the right thing to do now. That's what I think."

Clinton had called King to honor his guest, former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, on Dole's 80th birthday.

Clinton's comments took other Democrats by surprise, many of whom have questioned whether the Bush administration misled the public about the threat from Saddam Hussein. The uranium claim was made at a time Bush was trying to rally world support for military action against Iraq and was used to suggest that Saddam was acting on his nuclear ambitions.

Wednesday, some members of the Clinton administration indicated they didn't agree with their former boss's take on the controversy.

"In some critical respects, intelligence was overstated, and it's important for the administration to resolve these questions," said Sandy Berger, the national security adviser under Clinton.

He said Bush needs to have a news conference to fully explain how the claim about uranium made its way into the nationally televised address, despite CIA concerns about the quality of the intelligence.

Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta agreed. Unless Bush appears before the America people, the "drip, drip, drip is just going to continue."

But former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright didn't sound so sure. "The most important thing is to move forward," she said. "I agree with President Clinton on that."

The three came to the Capitol Wednesday to present a foreign policy paper at the request of Senate Democrats.

Clinton also said Tuesday night that at the end of his term, there was "a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for " in Iraq.

Stephen Hadley
Stephen Hadley

"So I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say, 'You got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions.'"

Clinton told King: "People can quarrel with whether we should have more troops in Afghanistan or internationalize Iraq or whatever, but it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons."

Earlier Tuesday, Bush's No. 2 national security aide took partial responsibility for allowing the inclusion of the dubious claim in the State of the Union address.

The admission by Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley marked the first time the White House had taken any blame in the matter. An administration official told CNN that Hadley offered his resignation, but Bush didn't accept it.

CIA takes blame

Until now, the Bush administration has said it was the CIA that permitted the shaky intelligence to get into the speech, and CIA Director George Tenet has publicly taken full responsibility, although he reportedly told a Senate panel in a closed hearing that he never read the final draft of the speech before Bush delivered it.

Democrats seized on Tuesday's admission, with Howard Dean -- one of the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls -- calling on Hadley and any other administration officials involved in the flap to step down.

"It is unacceptable for anyone who misled the president on an issue as significant as a rationale for war to continue to retain a post in government," Dean said in a written statement.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Tony Welch suggested the president should be held responsible for the retracted claim.

"First they blamed the Brits. Then, CIA Director George Tenet walked the plank," Welch said. "Now, the Bush White House is dragging former Cheney aide and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley forward to take the fall for the president's bogus claim in this year's State of the Union address."

Welch added: "Apparently, at the Bush White House, the buck stops everywhere but the president's desk."

Hadley gave his admission to reporters at an off-camera briefing during a moment when the nation's attention was focused on a decidedly different Iraqi story: the deaths of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, in a firefight with U.S. troops.

Hadley, who was responsible for vetting Bush's State of the Union address, said he should have deleted the reference to Iraq's attempts to buy uranium because the CIA had warned him months earlier -- in two memos and a phone call from Tenet himself -- that the claim was weak.

Those warnings were made to him before a speech the president gave in Cincinnati in early October, and he said he failed to recall them three months later.

"The high standards the president set were not met," Hadley said.

He said he had spoken with the president about the matter and that Bush expressed confidence in him and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Tenet has said the line in Bush's address was technically accurate because it cited British intelligence, although he said the CIA's own investigation of those same allegations had led the agency to decide that the evidence was inconclusive. Britain stands by its claims.

--Congressional Producer Steve Turnham contributed to this report.

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