WASHINGTON - The White House tried yesterday to draw attention away from a furor over President Bush's assertion that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium in Africa, saying newly declassified CIA documents support Bush's broader conclusion that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons.
The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a document compiled by the CIA based on findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, claims "compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program."
White House aides released excerpts of the 90-page document, much of which remains classified, in response to accusations that flawed intelligence was used to support Bush's assertion in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. Presidential advisers in Washington tried to calm the controversy as Bush began a four-day stay at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The president, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters, regrets the flap over the use of the intelligence. But the official said Bush remains convinced that, whether or not Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa, the U.S.-led invasion was necessary to stop a dangerous dictator.
"Did it change his judgment on the case, not only broadly, but specifically on the nuclear reconstitution? And to this day, it has not," the official said.
Questions surround 16 words in the January State of the Union address in which Bush asserted: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Bush made that claim, along with numerous others about Iraq's banned weapons programs, to strengthen his point that Hussein posed an urgent threat and had to be removed.
The White House has acknowledged that the uranium assertion should not have been used in the speech because the CIA had doubts about the evidence. Administration officials blamed CIA Director George J. Tenet, who has accepted responsibility for his agency's approval of the text but said he had not personally taken part in the vetting process.
Still, Democrats and some Republicans remain unsatisfied and are calling for further investigation into, among other things, what role any senior White House officials might have played in including the uranium charge in the president's speech. The senior official signaled that the White House would resist efforts to have Bush's advisers testify on Capitol Hill.
Yesterday, the senior official who briefed reporters at the White House said that Robert Joseph, the director for nonproliferation at the White House National Security Council, had approached the CIA before Bush's speech to approve the text and that the agency did so.
But this official's account differs from one that Alan Foley, a CIA expert on weapons of mass destruction, gave in closed-door testimony Wednesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to news accounts.
Foley reportedly told senators that Joseph had asked him whether the speech could refer to Iraq's pursuit of uranium in the African nation of Niger. Foley said he told Joseph that the CIA found the evidence on Niger inconclusive and that the assertion should not be used.
Foley said Joseph then tried to negotiate a way to insert the line, asking whether it would be accurate to say that Britain had reported that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. Foley said he eventually agreed.
Yesterday, the senior administration official took issue with this account. He said no such "negotiation" had taken place between Joseph and the CIA. The agency, he said, simply approved the reference to the British report on Iraq and Africa for Bush's speech.
Seeking to reconcile exactly how the sentence ended up in the speech, the official denied that anyone on the White House staff told speechwriters to insert the line. Rather, the official said, speechwriters, whom he refused to identify, read the National Intelligence Estimate and decided to include the uranium assertion, among others.
Among the questions left unanswered is whether U.S. intelligence agencies possessed any independent evidence that Hussein was recently seeking uranium in Niger, or whether British intelligence was the only source of that information.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has said he stands by his nation's intelligence. But the CIA says that it cannot substantiate the uranium charge and that the British report was based, in part, on forgeries. The senior official said that in the editing of the State of the Union speech, Bush's advisers decided to cite the source of the evidence for the uranium charge.
They decided to note in the speech that evidence that Hussein sought uranium in Africa was from a British intelligence report because the British report was public. The National Intelligence Estimate, the official said, also included evidence about Africa that could have been inserted in the speech, but the official said that information was "highly classified."
The small portion of the intelligence estimate released yesterday states that "reports indicate Iraq also sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo."
These unclassified portions of the estimate, though, do not say such efforts by Iraq were "recent." That contrasts with the British report noted in Bush's speech. That report, which the CIA could not verify, said Iraq had "recently" sought uranium in Africa.
While the assessment includes conclusions reached jointly by the nation's intelligence agencies, some of the agencies offered dissents about Iraq's nuclear program.
In several bluntly worded "alternative views" given by the State Department in the intelligence estimate, intelligence officials in that agency said they did not see "persuasive evidence" that Baghdad was trying to reconstitute its nuclear program. State Department officials also said "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium from Africa are ... highly dubious."
According to the White House, Bush's advisers were satisfied that the CIA had taken the State Department's views into account when it produced its conclusion that Iraq was likely reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.
The senior administration official said that before Bush gave his State of the Union address, neither the president nor Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, had read the State Department's expression of doubt about Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium in Africa.
"They did not read footnotes in a 90-page document," the official said. He added: "The president of the United States is not a fact-checker."