Defending Claims: Background
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to who knew what and when about Iraq’s potential weapons of mass destruction. We start with some background from Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: This was the week President Bush was supposed to be focused on Africa. Instead, he and other top administration officials have spent a lot of time defending the accuracy of statements they used to help justify war in Iraq. On Monday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged that this statement in the president’s state of the union speech claiming Iraq sought nuclear material in Africa was incorrect.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
KWAME HOLMAN: But five weeks later, the head of the united nation’s nuclear watchdog agency disputed that claim.
MOHAMED ElBARADEI: There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday of this week, the New York Times quoted White House officials as confirming the information about Iraq “might in fact be wrong.” Two days earlier, the Times published an account on its opinion page the man sent to Africa by the CIA to investigate the possibility Iraq sought weapons material from the nation of Niger. Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to another African nation, wrote that some of the intelligence was, “twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Of the suspected uranium purchase by Iraq, Wilson wrote: “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had taken place” On Wednesday, at a press conference with south African President Thabo Mbeki, Mr. Bush was asked if he regretted his January statement.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power. And there’s no doubt in my mind, when it’s all said and done, the facts will show the world the truth. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind. And so there’s going to be a lot of attempts to try to rewrite history, and I can understand that. But I am absolutely confident in the decision I made.
KWAME HOLMAN: That same day, during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld closely about the intelligence.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: I’m just curious as to whether or not you’ve determined, as a policymaker, how the facts of falsity of that claim of a uranium sale to Iraq from Africa remained in the bowels of the agency for nine months, after you made your statement on the 29th. Did somebody come to you, the intelligence community come to you and say, “my gosh, we got facts that show that just simply is inaccurate?”
DONALD RUMSFELD: The fact that the facts change from time to time with respect to specifics does not surprise me or shock me at all; it’s to be expected. It’s part of the intelligence world that we live with, is uncertainty and less than perfect knowledge. I must say, however, that as we’ve gone through this period, I think the intelligence has been quite good, and I don’t think that the fact that there is an instance where something was inaccurate ought to in any way paint a broad brush on the intelligence that we get and suggest that that’s a pattern or something; it’s just not.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats on the committee have called for a formal investigation of prewar intelligence about Iraq’s weapons. Yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell revealed that he had dropped a reference to Iraq’s quest for uranium from his presentation to the United Nations Security Council, which came a week after the president’s speech. Speaking in South Africa, Powell gave an explanation of how the erroneous statement got into the president’s address.
COLIN POWELL: At the time it was put into the state of the union, my best understanding of this is that it had been seen by the intelligence community and vetted. But on subsequent examination, it didn’t hold up, and we have acknowledged that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters aboard Air Force One that: “the CIA cleared the president’s speech in its entirety.” The controversy has provided fodder this week for several of the Democratic presidential candidates.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: We now know that the state of the union message, well after the vote on the Iraq resolution, contained information that was wrong, and at least some in the administration knew it.
HOWARD DEAN: This is a serious credibility problem for the U.S. And needs to be resolved publicly and now.
KWAME HOLMAN: But in Uganda today, President Bush again repeated his assertion that the Iraq war was more than justified.