ENTEBBE, Uganda - US President George W. Bush refused to take the blame for using flawed data on Iraq's nuclear program in his State of the Union speech, saying the CIA cleared it before it was delivered.
Questions over the drama sparked by claims that Iraq sought uranium in Africa, again pursued Bush on his tour of the continent, as he jetted into Uganda for a four-hour stay devoted to the battle against AIDS.
THE BUCK STOPS WITH THE CIA
The White House pointed the finger at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency on July 11, 2003 over a false accusation that Iraq tried to buy African uranium. President Bush said his charge Iraq tried to buy nuclear material from Africa was approved by his 'intelligence services,' and U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the specific wording was approved by the CIA . Bush is shown during the State of the Union address, with Vice President Dick Cheney , Jan. 28. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
As aides struggled to contain a growing political storm, Bush said the CIA cleared the speech delivered to Congress in late January as the administration laid down the rationale for war to disarm Saddam Hussein.
"I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by intelligence services. It was a speech that detailed to the American people the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime," Bush said.
"My government took the appropriate response to the dangers, and as a result the world is more secure and more peaceful," Bush said after talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
As a reporter tried to ask Bush a follow-up question, Museveni hurriedly waved the press away.
The US charge against Iraq stemmed from forged documents alleging that the former Baghdad regime had sought uranium yellowcake from Niger, and from separate information that Saddam also sought the radioactive material from other African nations.
Bush's national Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the address was sent to CIA Director George Tenet for approval.
"Now I can tell you, if the CIA, the Director of Central Intelligence, had said, take this out of the speech, it would have been gone, without question," she told reporters on Air Force One.
Senior administration officials said that before Rice spoke with the press, she phoned Tenet in Washington.
In an apparent bid to contain the damage to the administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday firmly denied that Bush had deceived Americans during the speech.
Speaking in Pretoria, he called the drama over the flawed data "overdrawn, overblown, overwrought," and denied that the administration was guilty of "cooking the books" by hyping intelligence to justify the war.
Powell admitted, however, that by the time he gave a key presentation to the UN Security Council only a week after Bush's address, the Africa uranium connection was regarded as unreliable.
In revelations further fanning the crisis, the Washington Post reported on Friday that the CIA believed as far back as last September that there were problems with the claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa.
The paper said the CIA had tried to persuade the British government -- which is also facing the heat over allegations it "sexed-up" a report on Iraqi weapons -- drop the claim from an official intelligence paper.
"We consulted about the paper and recommended against using that material," the newspaper quoted a senior administration official familiar with the intelligence program as saying.
But the British government rejected the US suggestion, saying it had separate intelligence unavailable to the United States, according to the report.
The Post said that at that time, the CIA was completing its own classified national intelligence estimate on Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Although the CIA report mentioned alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from three African countries, it warned that State Department analysts were questioning its accuracy when it came to Niger and that CIA personnel considered reports on other African countries to be "sketchy," the paper said.
The White House admitted formally for the first time this week, that the claim included in the State of the Union address overstated Iraq's nuclear program.
Copyright 2003 AFP