Tenet Says He Didn't Know About Claim
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2003; Page A01
CIA Director George J. Tenet told the Senate intelligence committee yesterday that his staff did not bring to his attention a questionable statement about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address.
But Tenet told the senators during a nearly five-hour session behind closed doors that he takes responsibility for the now-famous 16-word sentence in the speech because an agency official had approved it after negotiations with the White House, according to congressional and administration sources who attended the session.
"Members were stunned," one Democratic senator in the meeting said, "because he said he basically wasn't aware of the sentence until recently."
At issue was Bush's claim in the Jan. 28 State of the Union address that the British government had learned that Saddam Hussein "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The claim was subsequently determined to be based largely on forged documents, sparking a new furor over the uses of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war. The White House now says the claim should not have been made in the speech.
Yesterday, the Democratic senator said Tenet was repeatedly asked why the CIA permitted the allegation in the address, especially since Tenet had interceded with the White House to remove a more detailed reference to the claim from a Bush speech on Oct. 7.
"There was mixed reaction to his answers as to why they compromised after he told us how dubious and incredible the intelligence was," said the senator, who insisted on anonymity.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee chairman, told reporters afterward that allowing the president to refer to Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium in Africa shows "the process was broken" and illustrates "sloppy coordination between [the] State [Department] and CIA and the NSC [National Security Council] and the White House."
Roberts also said the inquiry into Iraq intelligence and the president's speeches would continue, and the panel "would follow the trail wherever it leads." Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), ranking Democrat on the panel, hinted that other witnesses would probably include White House personnel.
Rockefeller told reporters that while Tenet took the blame for his agency, "it remains to be seen whether that is where it stops. I think others in the administration knew about it." He said the committee would look into whether the Niger reference "was an isolated incident or part of a pattern of misleading by the administration."
Another Democrat on the committee said, "The real question is why someone was so insistent that they wanted this information in."
Before the hearing, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said he wanted to know why nobody had come forward since January "if in fact the information was not correct." Asked if others would be called, Chambliss said on CNN that the issue started "in the intelligence gathering community" but "if it's necessary to bring [Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld or [national security adviser] Condoleezza Rice up, then we will."
Yesterday's session was originally scheduled to permit Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) to pursue with the CIA director whether the agency had supplied U.N. weapons inspectors adequate information about possible weapons sites in Iraq; those questions took up nearly one hour of the meeting, congressional sources said. Levin has said that the number of key sites listed in CIA documents far exceeded the number given to chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, though Tenet has publicly testified that all the major ones had been given.
Some Republicans have privately said that Bush should replace Tenet. Asked after yesterday's session whether Tenet should resign, Roberts said, "That's not my call."
Democrats were not so reticent. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), appearing in South Carolina as part of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, said: "If I was president and I was put in a position to make a statement in a State of the Union to the American people that was not truthful, and the CIA director came forward and accepted responsibility, I'd ask him to leave."
Lieberman also said Bush should accept some responsibility, adding, "This president seems to be saying, 'The buck never stops here.' "
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, another Democratic presidential contender, said in an interview that Tenet was not the most serious problem under scrutiny but that he should resign because he helped cover up for the White House. "He knew very well that the intelligence was false," Dean said, "and for him to take the blame means he was participating in an attempt to avoid finding out what really happened."
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the former chairman of the Senate intelligence panel and also a presidential candidate, said, "We do not have a George Tenet problem; we have a George Bush problem." He said current congressional investigations should be independent and focus not only on the intelligence that led to the Iraq war, but also on what "Rice and the White House did with information and what kind of pressure was put on intelligence analysts during this process."
At the White House, Scott McClellan, Bush's new press secretary, said, "I recognize there are a number of Democratic candidates trying to gain an advantage in an election. But the bottom line is, America is safer, more secure and better prepared than we were on September 11, 2001."
On Tuesday, the two senior members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence spoke in support of Tenet. Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the panel and a former CIA case officer, said at a news conference, "I have complete confidence in [Tenet's] ability to lead the agency and run the intelligence community." Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat, said Tenet had "restored morale in an agency that was badly shattered," and although he serves at the president's pleasure, she agreed with Goss's view.
Staff writers Dan Balz and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.