WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he had "no doubt" going to war against Iraq was the right action but sidestepped a question about using evidence that turned out to be bogus to bolster his case for toppling Saddam Hussein.
Speaking in Pretoria, South Africa, Bush took the offensive against growing criticism that the administration made exaggerated claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq, saying, "There's going to be a lot of attempts to rewrite history." Ultimately, he said, "the facts will show the world the truth."
The White House acknowledged Monday night that a key allegation about Hussein's nuclear weapons program in Bush's State of the Union speech Jan. 28 was based on documents that were later proved by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency to be crude forgeries.
In that speech, Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The White House said yesterday that the evidence about Hussein's alleged efforts to buy uranium was insufficient to justify using this charge in the speech.
"This information should not have risen to the level of a presidential speech," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in Pretoria.
The American and British governments relied largely on the same documents. They purportedly showed an Iraqi purchase of uranium oxide, which can be made into nuclear weapons fuel, from the West African state of Niger. Officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on viewing the documents, quickly concluded that they contained such obvious errors that they could not be authentic.
On the second full day of his five-day trip to Africa, Bush was asked during a brief news conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki whether he regretted that his speech had fueled charges of misleading the public.
Bush avoided a direct answer. "Look, there is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace," he replied. "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.
"I am confident that Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program. In 1991, I will remind you, we underestimated how close he was to having a nuclear weapon. Imagine a world in which this tyrant had a nuclear weapon."
Discoveries made after the Persian Gulf war of 1991 showed that Iraq had duped international inspectors about its progress in developing nuclear weapons.
Democrats seize issue
Democrats have seized on the White House acknowledgment of the error in Bush's speech to demand a broad investigation into whether he and members of his administration manipulated intelligence to justify invading Iraq.
The chairman of the Democratic National Committee accused the administration yesterday of continuing "a campaign of deception" and demanded an explanation about how the Niger uranium charge came to be included in the State of the Union speech.
"Someone in the White House knew it was bogus, yet President Bush used it anyway," DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended the intelligence assessments made before the war, saying, "I don't think the fact that there's 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 not."
But he acknowledged in a statement submitted to the committee that the decision to go to war against Iraq was not made because of new information about Hussein's weapons programs so much as heightened concern about the threats facing the United States.
"The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of WMD [chemical, biological and nuclear weapons]; we acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on 9/11," Rumsfeld said.
A White House official, who declined to be identified, said yesterday that the administration had solid grounds for believing Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program even without strong evidence of uranium procurement.
"You take away that line, and we still have an incredibly strong case," the official said. He noted that the White House has refused to back away from its contention that Iraq sought to buy aluminum tubes to help produce nuclear-weapons fuel, even though the Energy Department and the State Department's intelligence bureau have raised doubts.
Congressional critics showed no sign of letting up on the question of how an intelligence report based on phony documents found its way into a major presidential speech.
Deepening the mystery, a retired U.S. ambassador, Joseph Wilson, disclosed over the weekend that the CIA had dispatched him to Niger in February 2002, a year before the Bush speech, to check out the allegation. After conducting interviews there, Wilson concluded it was "highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place" and so informed the CIA and State Department.
In a letter made public this week by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the IAEA - whose inspectors were searching for evidence of nuclear weapons in Iraq before the war - told the California Democrat that it asked the administration for the Niger documents in December. That request was triggered by a State Department fact sheet that included the allegation about the attempted uranium procurement.
But IAEA officials said they had to wait until early February - after Bush's speech - to get the documents. The administration had said it was cooperating with the IAEA throughout the prewar inspection period and supplying inspectors with intelligence.
In another letter released by Waxman, the State Department told the congressman that when it turned over the Niger documents to the IAEA, it did so with a caveat: "We cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims."