WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Were those infamous 16 words correct after all?
It has been a year and a half since President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, in which he suggested in a single sentence that Iraq might have been trying to acquire uranium in Africa for its nuclear weapons program.
And it has been a year since the White House and the CIA acknowledged that the evidence behind that assertion was flawed, opening Bush to a torrent of criticism about the credibility and reliability of the intelligence he used to justify toppling Saddam Hussein.
But two new reports have reopened the question of whether Bush may indeed have been correct when, on Jan. 28 last year, he told the nation and the world: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
One of the reports was released Wednesday by a British commission reviewing the intelligence used by Prime Minister Tony Blair in making the case for war. The report stood by the British intelligence assessments that were the foundation for Bush's statement. Though it did not explain in any detail how or why it judged the intelligence to be sound, the report concluded that the assertions by Bush and Blair about Iraq's attempts to acquire uranium were "well founded."
The other report came from the Senate Intelligence Committee. It generally found extensive problems with the prewar intelligence assessments about Iraq's weapons programs, and it documented a long chain of problems in the way the intelligence agencies dealt with suspicions about Iraq's interest in acquiring uranium.
But it also contained information that tended to bolster the view that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Niger and possibly one or two other African nations. It noted a statement by a French official to the State Department in late 2002 that France, which managed Niger's two uranium mines and at the time was resisting Bush's efforts to make an urgent case for war, "believed the reporting was true that Iraq had made a procurement attempt for uranium from Niger."
Neither report, however, found evidence that Iraq had actually bought any uranium from Niger.
The new reports also raised questions about one of the White House's chief critics over the issue, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq had tried to buy uranium there. Among other things, the report pointed out that Wilson's official account to the CIA noted that a former prime minister of Niger had told him that he had been approached in 1999 about meeting with an Iraqi delegation interested in "expanding commercial relations" between Niger and Iraq. The former prime minister told Wilson that he interpreted the approach to mean the Iraqis were interested in acquiring a form of uranium.
The White House response to the reports has been muted. "I think those reports speak for themselves on that issue," said Scott McClellan, Bush's spokesman.