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RAY SUAREZ: Now, the reasons for war. On Monday, White House aides said the president’s state of the union message in January should not have contained this sentence: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The intelligence underlying that claim has been discredited. That issue dominated Secretary of State Powell’s news conference today in Pretoria, South Africa. He defended the manner in which the administration presented intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Here are some excerpts.
JOHN COCHRAN, ABC: Mr. Secretary, regarding that erroneous report last January that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Niger, does the administration owe Americans and, in fact, the world an apology for making that statement? And should the administration beat congress to the punch by making a detailed investigation and a detailed explanation of how something so important and so wrong got into a presidential address?
COLIN POWELL: I think this is very overwrought and overblown and overdrawn. Intelligence reports flow in from all over. Sometimes they are your… result of your own intelligence agencies at work; sometimes you get information from very capable foreign intelligence services. And you get the information, you analyze it. Sometimes it holds up. Sometimes it does not hold up. It’s a moving train. And you keep trying to establish what is right and what is wrong. Very often it never comes out quite that clean. You have to make judgments.
And at the time of the president’s state of the union address, a judgment was made that that was an appropriate statement for the president to make. It was no effort or attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in the administration to mislead or to deceive the American people. The president was presenting what seemed to be a reasonable statement at that time, and it didn’t talk to Niger; it talked specifically about efforts to acquire uranium from nations that had it in Africa.
Subsequently, when we looked at it more thoroughly and when– I think it’s, oh, a week or two later– when I made my presentation to the United Nations, and we really went through every single thing we knew about all of the various issues with respect to weapons of mass destruction, we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore. It was not standing the test of time. And so I didn’t use it, and we haven’t used it since. But to think that somehow we went out of our way to insert this single sentence into the state of union address for the purpose of deceiving and misleading the American people is an overdrawn, overblown, overwrought conclusion.
REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, I believe you mentioned that the president, in the state of the union, didn’t mention Niger; he mentioned Africa.
COLIN POWELL: Correct.
REPORTER: Do you think the other intelligence that was involved, has it stood the test of time? The Niger didn’t. Did the other intelligence that went into that, did it stand?
COLIN POWELL: I think so. The definitive presentation of our intelligence case, frankly, was the presentation I made on the 5th of February. I spent an enormous amount of time with many of my colleagues and with a large part of the top leadership of the CIA, as well as a lot of the working- level analysts of the CIA, closeted in Langley– in CIA headquarters– for four days and three nights, or it might be four weeks and three months. It felt like it. And we were there well into the night, until midnight, 1:00, every morning, going over everything. We had lots and lots of information. The challenge was to get it down to that which was absolutely supportable and we were confident of. There were a lot of items of information that I could have used if I’d had three hours or three days. And there were other items of information that were pretty good, but maybe we didn’t have a second, third, fourth source on, so let’s not lead with that.
And the case I put down on the 5th of February, for an hour and 20 minutes, roughly, on terrorism, on weapons of mass destruction, and on the human rights case, a short section at the end, we stand behind. And the credibility of the United States was at stake when that presentation was put forward. And so it stood the test of time. It stood the test of time a couple of weeks ago when– if you’ll go back to the presentation on nuclear capability and weapons– I said that they had the brainpower. I said they had the infrastructure, and they’ve never lost the intention, and they have hidden components of their program. And so I think as you let the team that’s out there looking at the stuff continue to look, continue to interview people, continue to pore through all the documents that we have, I think the case will no longer be in doubt.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN: Let’s say the American people assume that the administration was not intending to mislead or misinform. Why doesn’t the administration see it as an issue of credibility when it comes to the president’s state of the union address? I mean, this is a statement of record. The president used this. He used the facts to make the case that Saddam Hussein was trying to build up his nuclear weapons arsenal and making a case for war to the American people. Why is this not an issue of credibility when it comes to the president delivering the state of the union address and using that misinformation?
COLIN POWELL: I think the president in the state of the union address had this sentence in there, and it talked about efforts on the part of Iraq to obtain uranium from sources in Africa. There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used. It’s that once we used the statement, and after further analysis, and looking at other estimates we had, and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn’t hold up, and we said so, and we’ve acknowledged it, and we’ve moved on.
REPORTER: Is there any concern, any…
COLIN POWELL: I’m not… I’m not troubled… I’m not troubled by this. I think the American people will put this in context, in perspective, and understand perfectly why the president felt it was necessary to undertake this military operation with a willing coalition in order to remove this tyrant from office, to make sure there are no more questions about weapons of mass destruction, because the regime that was determined to have them is gone. And we now have to focus on the future, and that is to build a better Iraq for the Iraqi people, and help them put in place a representative form of government that will make sure that there are never any more weapons of mass destruction in this country, and that it’s a country that will live in peace with its neighbors. And we can chew on this sentence in the state of the union address forever, but I don’t think it undercuts the president’s credibility.
RAY SUAREZ: The secretary also said he was confident inspectors will eventually find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.