We're glad that someone in Washington has finally taken responsibility for letting President Bush make a false accusation about Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program in the State of the Union address last January, but the matter will not end there. George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, stepped up to the issue yesterday when he said the C.I.A. had approved Mr. Bush's speech and failed to advise him to drop the mistaken charge that Iraq had recently tried to import significant quantities of uranium from an African nation, later identified as Niger. Now the American people need to know how the accusation got into the speech in the first place, and whether it was put there with an intent to deceive the nation. The White House has a lot of explaining to do.
So far, the administration's handling of this important — and politically explosive — issue has mostly involved a great deal of finger-pointing instead of an exacting reconstruction of events and an acceptance of blame by all those responsible. Mr. Bush himself engaged in the free-for-all yesterday while traveling in Africa when he said his speech had been "cleared by the intelligence services." That led within a few hours to Mr. Tenet's mea culpa.
It is clear, however, that much more went into this affair than the failure of the C.I.A. to pounce on the offending 16 words in Mr. Bush's speech. A good deal of information already points to a willful effort by the war camp in the administration to pump up an accusation that seemed shaky from the outset and that was pretty well discredited long before Mr. Bush stepped into the well of the House of Representatives last January. Doubts about the accusation were raised in March 2002 by Joseph Wilson 4th, a former American diplomat, after he was dispatched to Niger by the C.I.A. to look into the issue.
Mr. Wilson has said he is confident that his concerns were circulated not only within the agency but also at the State Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Tenet, in his statement yesterday, confirmed that the Wilson findings had been given wide distribution, although he reported that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and other high officials had not been directly informed about them by the C.I.A. The uranium charge should never have found its way into Mr. Bush's speech. Determining how it got there is essential to understanding whether the administration engaged in a deliberate effort to mislead the nation about the Iraqi threat.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company