WASHINGTON - Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush's deputy national security adviser, became yesterday the second senior administration official to admit fault in allowing a disputed claim about Iraq's quest for nuclear weapons material to be included this year in Bush's State of the Union speech.
Hadley's admission was triggered by the discovery of memos showing that the CIA twice cautioned the White House, about three months before the speech, against asserting that Iraq recently tried to buy uranium in Africa. The CIA said it had doubts about the evidence for that assertion.
Hadley ranks just below Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. But Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, absolved Rice of blame yesterday, calling Hadley "the most senior person in the White House in charge of vetting," or approving, the content of presidential speeches on national security.
In a rare on-the-record briefing, Hadley said he had "failed in that responsibility" and that "the high standards the president set were not met. He said he had apologized to Bush.
The Associated Press quoted unnamed officials as saying the president had turned down an offer by Hadley to resign.
Hadley's mea culpa came 10 days after CIA Director George J. Tenet took responsibility for failing to eliminate the passage in the State of the Union address, in which Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The passage served to bolster the administration's case that Iraq posed a dire threat.
Britain insists that it had its own intelligence sources and says it stands by the report. But the only public evidence to support the claim is a batch of documents shown by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be crude forgeries.
At yesterday's briefing, Hadley recalled a phone conversation with Tenet shortly before the president gave a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, in which Bush spelled out the administration's case against Iraq.
Tenet, Hadley said, "asked that any reference to Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium from sources from Africa ... be deleted from the speech," and he said the deletion was made.
On Monday morning, Hadley said, he found that the CIA's concerns about the claim had been put in writing, in an Oct. 5 memo to him and to Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson. The memo noted that CIA officials had told Congress that they had doubts about the evidence supporting the assertion about Iraq's efforts to buy uranium.
A second memo that Hadley said he learned of only yesterday "describes some weakness in the evidence" and states that on two issues, including the uranium claim, the CIA "differed with the British intelligence."
Hadley said the president "had every reason to believe that the text of the State of the Union presented to him was sound. But the fact is, that given the Oct. 5 and 6 CIA memorandum, and my telephone conversation with Tenet at roughly the same time, I should have recalled at the time of the State of the Union speech that there was controversy associated with the uranium issue."
Hadley's admission yesterday seems at odds with a comment made June 8 by his boss. On NBC's Meet the Press, Rice said of the doubts about the uranium claim: "Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery."
Hadley's remarks, the latest in a series of White House damage-control efforts, came on a day when it was certain to be overshadowed by other news: the killing of Saddam Hussein's sons, Odai and Qusai, and the return of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a former POW in Iraq, to her hometown in West Virginia.