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Background: Reasons for the War with Iraq

July 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Today concluded a second week of controversy over the administration’s pre-war intelligence and claims about Iraq’s weapons program. The controversy centers on 16 now-famous words in President Bush’s January 28th state of the union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Last week, the White House conceded the sentence was based on dubious intelligence, and should have been deleted from the speech. CIA Director George Tenet took responsibility for that failure. On Wednesday, Tenet was called before the Senate intelligence committee to answer questions about it. Late this week, the White House mounted a counter-offensive. The president and British prime minister, Tony Blair, reappeared together yesterday, to reassert their conviction that Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

And today at a off-camera briefing, the White House released previously classified intelligence findings buttressing that point. We take a two part look at all this, beginning with New York Times reporter David Sanger, who’s with the president in Texas.

Welcome, David. Before we get into the details of this, tell us, what is a national intelligence estimate?

DAVID SANGER: Margaret, a national intelligence estimate is a consensus document that puts together the views of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department’s intelligence arm. It is an effort to try to bring together often competing and conflicting views.

MARGARET WARNER: So in the intelligence estimate released today from last October, we read a couple of the votes. You read the whole document. How certain were U.S. Intelligence agencies then that Iraq was still pursuing a nuclear weapons program?

DAVID SANGER: There was division of opinion. The CIA clearly believed they were. The State Department has a long and fairly eloquent dissent from that viewpoint saying that when they added up all the different pieces, they were not at all certain that since 1998 when the inspectors left, the international inspectors left, that in fact Saddam Hussein had been able to do very much.

MARGARET WARNER: And how about the question that has been front and center of this whole controversy about Iraq’s purport add tempt to buy uranium in Africa. What was the foundation of those assertions and how firm were that?

DAVID SANGER: Well, we now know that the assertion that is in the national intelligence estimate was based on a single source. And the assertion went to the direction that there was an effort to obtain uranium from Niger, from perhaps Somalia and the Congo. But an intelligence report concedes they were uncertain whether or not they had obtained any of this and again there was a dissenting view from the State Department backed up by some other analysts.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now this came out, as I understand it, in early October. And a week later, Tenet called the White House to make sure it was not included in a presidential speech. Is that right?

DAVID SANGER: This is truly fascinating because this report comes out on October 1 and went to senior members of the administration. Although it is unclear who, including the president, actually read it. And it went to members of congress. Four or five days later, Mr. Tenet called Steven Hadley, the deputy national security advisor and suggested that Niger and the amount of uranium that they may have been seeking be deleted from the speech. The reason was that there was only a single source. It raises a question, Margaret, if it wasn’t solid enough for a presidential speech, why was it solid enough to put in the sort of gold standard document for American intelligence, and the document from which Congress was asked to make the vote, to take the vote on the authorization to go to war?

MARGARET WARNER: The other question everyone is asking, if it wasn’t good enough to put in a president’s speech in Cincinnati in October, how did it end up three months later in the state of the union address? What did you learn from your reporting this week and what the White House briefer said today on background about how that happened?

DAVID SANGER: Margaret, the White House and the CIA each tell different stories on this. It all centers on a telephone conversation between two non-proliferation experts, one at the NSC, Bob Joseph, another Alan Foley at the CIA. The White House version of events is that they went to use this British report that you cited because it was unclassified, and therefore it was very uncontroversial. The CIA version of events is that they had reservations about the intelligence. And therefore, they both didn’t want a classified document cited but we also know because of the conversation with Mr. Tenet, that they were still nervous about the underlying predicate. The president’s comments in the state of the union were more general. They didn’t refer to Niger. They referred to Africa. But the fundamentals of this are still quite mushy.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying that between the CIA expert and the NSC expert, there is a different about whether pressure was applied or whether the NSC person wanted this in the speech.

DAVID SANGER: The CIA official said to the committee in their closed session, at least as far as we could determine, that he didn’t feel any pressure. It is a question of whether or not they felt the quality of the data was good enough. Now the White House also maintains that another CIA official four days before the state of the union sent over some language very similar to what we see in the national intelligence estimate but without the caveats or without the cautions about using it. What is fascinating about this is that two weeks into this, we can get not get the same story out of the CIA and out of the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: David Sanger, thank you very much for joining us.

DAVID SANGER: Thank you, Margaret.