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Bush's 16 words still hotly debated

President Bush delivers his State of the Union address January 28, 2003.
President Bush delivers his State of the Union address January 28, 2003.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Republican senator said Sunday it is "irresponsible" for the Bush administration to assign responsibility to CIA Director George Tenet for the State of the Union claim that Iraq tried to obtain uranium in Africa.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN's "Late Edition" the intelligence flap "is bigger, wider, deeper than just about one person."

"To just throw George Tenet's body from the train and say, 'That takes care of the problem,' I don't think is the way to do this," Hagel said.

Hagel pointed to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney as part of the process that led to Bush including the report in the annual presidential address.

Tenet has accepted responsibility for the claim, which he said was technically accurate because it cited British intelligence as its source, and senior administration officials have said Tenet retains their confidence.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, said "responsibility ultimately takes place at the top."

Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and Hagel both supported the October congressional resolution authorizing Bush to take military action against Iraq.

Rockefeller told "Late Edition" attributing the African uranium allegation to British intelligence was "tricky" and "potentially misleading to the American people."

Since a U.S.-led invasion deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in April, no chemical or biological weapons have been found and little evidence of weapons programs has emerged.

"The innuendo -- the fact, no nuancing whatsoever in the State of the Union -- was that there were weapons of mass destruction," Rockefeller said. "That is a very big difference between programs that lead to weapons."

"Hyped" intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs has hurt U.S. credibility unnecessarily and made the job of rebuilding Iraq more difficult, said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware.

Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC's "Meet the Press," he did not regret his vote to authorize force against Iraq, but he said the Bush administration moved too quickly to invade without generating international support.

"They hyped it, in my view, to create a sense of urgency and a threat," said Biden, a possible presidential candidate in 2004.

Biden said there was "no hard evidence" that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, and Republicans would have "ripped the skin off" a Democratic president for making the kind of disputed statement Bush did.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said on "Meet the Press" that President Clinton launched a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998 based on the same evidence.

"He didn't give a speech about it, he just did it," Hastert said.

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