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U.S. in damage control over Iraq

Rice: Disputed charge doesn't change justification for war

The U.S. administration is working hard to defend Bush's use of those '16 words.'
The U.S. administration is working hard to defend Bush's use of those '16 words.'

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House is insisting the U.S. president did not manipulate intelligence over Iraq during his now controversial State of the Union address.

CIA Director George Tenet has taken responsibility for allowing a claim that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa to be included in the January speech.

Tenet now says the allegation based on British intelligence sources should not have been included.

Some opposition Democrats, however, are accusing President George W. Bush of deliberately misleading the country in order to justify war. (Bush's 16 words)

The administration's explanation of how questionable intelligence made it into the speech leaves numerous questions unanswered, two Democratic presidential candidates said Sunday.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said that Tenet's statement of responsibility leaves "a host of questions" unanswered.

"Making him the fall guy does not resolve the question or make go away the questions about the overall intelligence," Kerry said.

"That is only going to be answered by the White House."

The uranium claim was part of a "pattern of deception" by the Bush administration, another Democratic candidate, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during last year's debate about Iraq, said.

"This is not a problem of George Tenet, it's a problem of George Bush," Graham said.

"Throughout his administration ... this has been a pattern of selective use of intelligence, of deception, of overstatement," Graham said.

In March, the International Atomic Energy Agency said intelligence that Iraq had tried to buy 500 tons of uranium oxide, or yellowcake, from Niger was based on forged documents. (Full story)

The White House later admitted the reference should not have been included in the speech, though Britain stands behind the allegation. (Full story)

"The president of the United States did not go to war because of a question of whether or not Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.

"He took the American people and American forces to war because this was a bloody tyrant who for 12 years defied the international community."

At the time the speech was delivered, Tenet said, the line was factually correct because British intelligence did indeed believe it had evidence of such activity.

But he said the CIA's own investigation of those same allegations was that the evidence was inconclusive.

Tenet had a similar claim stricken from a speech about Iraq that Bush delivered in October in Cincinnati, Ohio, Rice told CNN. But she said that statement dealt with a particular transaction, and other information emerged later about other African countries.

She said the dispute "has been blown out of proportion.

"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," Rice said.

The administration still has confidence in Tenet, whom she called "a fine director of central intelligence," she said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has insisted the information is still "technically correct."

"The British today still believe they're accurate," he said Sunday.

Kerry said the issue will hurt confidence in U.S. intelligence during a future crisis.

"The question is, what about the future? What happens when they come to us and tell us, 'Well, now, this is what our intelligence tells us about Iran,' or 'This is what our intelligence tells us about Syria or North Korea'?" Kerry asked.

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