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Tenet admits error in approving Bush speech

President 'had every reason to believe' uranium claim, he says

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Here is the line from President Bush's State of the Union address that CIA Director George Tenet said was a mistake:

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A line in President Bush's State of the Union address alleging that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa should never have been included in the speech, CIA Director George Tenet said Friday.

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. These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president," he said.

The CIA director also said, "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency."

Tenet's candid mea culpa came hours after the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, criticized the director for what he called the CIA's "extremely sloppy handling" of the uranium purchase claim. He also accused the agency of orchestrating "a campaign of press leaks" to discredit the president.

A CIA spokesman told CNN that Tenet, appointed to the helm of the agency by President Clinton, has no plans to resign and has not been asked to leave.

The CIA director is expected to be questioned further about the matter next week at a previously scheduled closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The president's statement came at a time when he was trying to rally support for a war against Iraq.

In his speech, Bush -- citing British intelligence information -- said Iraq was trying to buy uranium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons, in Africa. The White House concedes that information wasn't true.

Tenet said that at the time the speech was delivered, the line was factually correct because British intelligence did indeed believe that it had evidence of such activity. But he said the CIA's own investigation of those same allegations had led the agency to decide that 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."

Tenet also 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.

About that same time, the CIA learned that British intelligence officials were planning to publish an unclassified dossier mentioning reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa.

"Because we viewed the reporting on such acquisition attempts to be inconclusive, we expressed reservations about its inclusion, but our colleagues said they were confident in their reports and left it in their document," Tenet said.

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."

Yet, 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."

Yellowcake and Niger

The allegations at the center of the dispute stem from documents purportedly showing that Iraq was trying to buy uranium oxide, also known as yellowcake, from Niger as part of its drive to build nuclear weapons. Intelligence officials now concede those documents were forgeries.

The inclusion of the charge in Bush's 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 deliberately misleading the American people to build support for military action.

Sources have said early drafts of the address cited U.S. intelligence about Niger and uranium -- but that intelligence officials urged removal of that line because they did not have "high confidence" in it.

Tenet said that as CIA officials were reviewing drafts of the speech, they "raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed."

However, the allegation about African uranium remained in the speech, though attributed to British, rather than American, intelligence.

Roberts, speaking before Tenet's statement was issued, said if the CIA had changed its position, "it was incumbent on the director of central intelligence to correct the record and bring it to the immediate attention of the president. It appears that he did not.

"This is not the type of responsibility that can be delegated to mid-level officials," Roberts said. "He should have told the president, and it appears that he failed to do so."

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, while expressing support for Tenet, said Friday that the CIA had cleared the speech "in its entirety."

"The president did not knowingly say anything that we knew to be false," she said, en route to Uganda, one stop on Bush's Africa trip.

'Beginning to sound a little like Watergate'

The flap over the speech dogged Bush as he traveled through Africa this week on a five-nation tour. But speaking to reporters Friday in Uganda, the president defended the larger content and purpose of the address.

"It was a speech that detailed to the American people the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime," he said. "My government took the appropriate response to those dangers. And as a result, the world is going to be more secure and more peaceful." (Full story)

However, Democrats, including some of those running against Bush in 2004, offered withering criticism over the error.

"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."

Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois called for a full 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. It really calls him to question the leadership of the White House and in our intelligence agencies."

Republican Sen. John McCain of 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.

"Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," McCain said. "He was developing weapons of mass destruction. If he was still in power, he would be seeking weapons of mass destruction. So to somehow allege that this would have changed our dedication or our purpose or our success is just not appropriate."

CNN correspondents Jamie McIntyre and David Ensor contributed to this report.

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