RAY SUAREZ: For more on this story, we turn to Walter Pincus who has been covering it for the Washington Post. Walter, welcome. How long has this story been in circulation; stories of Iraq's uranium shopping in Africa?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, the original idea, the rumors and some reports started in late 2001 about Niger and the possibility that Iraq, which 20 years earlier or ten years earlier, had bought some uranium from Niger, and there were reports into early 2002.
RAY SUAREZ: And how old are the doubts about the story? Were the skeptics floating around early on?
WALTER PINCUS: As you said in the run in, Ambassador Wilson went to Niger in February of 2002, reported back in March, talked to some of the people that were supposed to have been involved in this attempt to buy uranium, the Iraqi attempt from the Niger side, and they denied it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well this week, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said the CIA had signed off on this reference in the bush speech. And you've reported that as early as last fall, that same agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, was pressuring the British to back off that same idea in a report. Can both things be true? Are they mutually contradictory?
WALTER PINCUS: No, in fact, they both can be true because if you read closely what Condoleezza Rice said today she said the CIA signed off after changes were made that the CIA had asked for.
RAY SUAREZ: And what might those changes have been? A reference to a specific country, for example?
WALTER PINCUS: The reference to Niger was taken out, also a reference to the so-called amount that they were looking to buy. Also added, although it wasn't attributed to the agency people, was that the information was attributed to the British, and not to the U.S. Although, within the same speech there are eight other references to intelligence, and they're all referred to as U.S. intelligence.
RAY SUAREZ: As of today, the British are standing by their original story.
WALTER PINCUS: The British are standing by their original story. I heard today that in fact Prime Minister Blair said their information is about Niger, but it comes from a different source.
RAY SUAREZ: So what has your reporting turned up about how this ended up in the speech after all, when there were so many questions about it beforehand?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, it's been coming up in different places, at different times. It actually turned up on the State Department Web site in their fact sheet about Niger on the 19th of December. But the next day, when the cable went out with the same fact sheet, Niger was gone and Africa was replaced-- replaced it. And it was done really because the intelligence branch of State Department and the CIA, Which had been asked to clear the original document, both had objected to it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the reference did make it into the president's speech, and was heard around the world. But there's a long time between early July and late January. As doubts built about the Iraqi shopping expedition for uranium, why did it take so long for the administration to finally concede that this might have been false?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, we don't know the answer to that. Somebody in the White House, in the preliminary discussions to putting that speech together, brought Niger up again with the CIA and in those discussions, the CIA made it clear of its doubts. But the doubts are also in the national intelligence estimate that was done in October because it's that particular transaction is not included in the judgments that led the intelligence community to believe that Saddam Hussein has reconstituted his nuclear program.
RAY SUAREZ: Just in the past few moments, it's moved on the wires that CIA Director Tenet has now said publicly, his agency made a mistake in letting President Bush make the allegation. What do you read into that statement publicly from the CIA Director?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, I think he is coming to grips with what's been said, which is although the agency had its doubts about the information in the final judgment, they allowed it to go through attributed to the British, and they should have forcefully tried to get it taken out.
RAY SUAREZ: Walter Pincus, thanks for being with us.
WALTER PINCUS: You're welcome.
RAY SUAREZ: Shields and Brooks take it from there. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard.
RAY SUAREZ: There are people around Washington, Mark, trying to describe this as a tempest in a teapot. One sentence in one speech? How important is this?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, it was not one sentence in one speech obviously. I mean, it was relied upon by Condi Rice in her op-ed page piece that same week in the state of the union, in the "New York Times" why we know Iraq was lying was the title of it. It was used by Donald Rumsfeld in his press conference the same week with General Myers. So it was the most serious charge that the administration made that the nuclear capability as far as nuclear potential as far as Saddam Hussein. So it was a serious charge.
And I think, Ray, what has hurt the administration most of all this week is that George W. Bush Bush's reputation and strength politically relies not upon his mastery of policy detail or his command of facts and information or even his eloquence, his ability to galvanize a nation. It's been that he is a straight shooter and a strong leader. Strong leader grew out directly after his performance after September 11. This is a guy that says what he means, means what he says, may not always be grammatical but you know what he is talking about and there is no parsing of words like his predecessor was accused.
And I think this hurts because it doesn't appear to be, up to now, any assertiveness on the president's part, no sense of anger or irritation or outrage that he was misled or that he misled the American people in any way. He's unnaturally uncurious about how this all happened and not eager, apparently, to assess accountability about it. And I think that's, for the first time, this iron disciplined administration, which has always spoken with one voice, is very heavily into finger pointing and blame shifting.
RAY SUAREZ: David.
DAVID BROOKS: What happened today was a volley, was tossed by the White House to the CIA. Condoleezza Rice and the president said we vetted this speech. The CIA said it was okay. There was no deceit involved. We made a mistake, we made a mistake but there was no deceit involved. We didn't, you know, try to trick anybody.
Then the question for me all day was how does the CIA respond to this? Does George Tenet resign? The statement you just referred to suggests he's not going to resign. If there are no leaks from the CIA in the next few days saying no, we did warn them, when the vetting process was going through, we did say something, if there are no leaks to that effect, then what we have here is an honest mistake and the American people, who have supported the president, continue by 70 percent to think he did the right thing, continue by 75 percent to think things are going reasonably well. Important to stay there, they'll stay with the president.
But if there are leaks, then we do have a scandal. Up to now, the democrats have gone rabid, the Democratic National Committee running an ad saying that the president intentionally deceived the American people. There is absolutely no evidence to support that.
RAY SUAREZ: And, just to reiterate, in your view George Tenet coming forward and saying it was our fault is a sign that he intends to stick it out, not that he is part of being set up to go.
DAVID BROOKS: It does not answer whether however unnamed agents or intelligence officers will then go to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and say something different.
MARK SHIELDS: I'd just add, first of all, I disagree with David's numbers. We've seen a precipitous drop in support for the president's policy. Now to the point where a plurality of Americans question whether the loss of American lives is worth it in Iraq. And so I mean the support has just dropped --
DAVID BROOKS: Gallup Poll, Pew Poll, 75 percent say Iraq is going fairly or very well. 70 percent say it is important to stay there. 67 percent say Bush did the right thing.
MARK SHIELDS: I can show you CNN-USA Today where there is a different result and the New York Times as well. I'd simply say this: The problem is, Ray, this is not isolated. This is I think what the administration has to be concerned about is there is a certain pattern here. You've got the Cheney task force stonewalling. You've got the 9/11 Commission being stonewalled by the administration, and non-partisan figures, John McCain raising that very question.
You have, in addition to that, the excess about weapons of mass destruction and whether in fact as Donald Rumsfeld said on April 30, we know where they are. We know exactly where they are in Iraq. So I think, you know, you've got a problem. And for them to, not admit this problem is a serious mistake.
RAY SUAREZ: A quick response.
DAVID BROOKS: There are sort of two crucial political issues, how is this judged? Is the debate in ' 04 were we right to remove Saddam Hussein or were we not? If that's the debate, then I think the administration is okay. If the debate is did they do it competently enough, then we're getting into a gray area, and there I do agree with you, that there have been signs that they didn't expect what's happened.
RAY SUAREZ: Stay with us. We'll talk to you later in the program. Thanks, Mark and David.
DAVID BROOKS: Will you miss us?