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Bush says he has faith in CIA director Tenet

Sunday, July 13, 2003

ABUJA, Nigeria -- President Bush said Saturday he still has faith in his intelligence chief after CIA director George Tenet accepted blame for Bush's erroneous claim about Iraqi weapons.

Asked in Nigeria whether he continued to trust Tenet, Bush said, "Yes, I do. Absolutely."

"I've got confidence in George Tenet," he added.

Fueled by members of Congress and Democratic presidential hopefuls, the 16-word miscue in Bush's Jan. 28 State of the Union speech has turned into a firestorm of skepticism challenging the credibility of one of the president's primary justifications for the war -- that Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program.

The issue dogged Bush throughout his five-day trip to Africa, leading the White House to execute a well-scripted, two-day mea culpa seeking to quell the political uproar.

Pointing fingers

First up was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said on Thursday that the president's claim that Iraq had sought nuclear materials from Africa, based on a British intelligence report, was never meant to mislead or deceive the American public. Powell said the intelligence did not stand "the test of time," and that he chose not to repeat the president's allegation during his own speech just days later to the U.N. Security Council.

On Friday, both Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice pointed the finger at the CIA.

After calling Tenet to give him a heads-up, Rice spent nearly an hour aboard Air Force One telling reporters that if Tenet had concerns about the information in Bush's speech, he should have conveyed them to the president. A couple hours later, on the ground in Uganda, Bush said: "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services."

Heaping more criticism on the CIA, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee issued a statement Friday afternoon accusing the agency of being "sloppy."

Roberts charged that unnamed intelligence officials were telling the press that the CIA warned the White House that the information about Iraq trying to obtain uranium from Africa was unfounded. But as late as 10 days before the State of the Union speech, Roberts said the CIA was still saying that Iraq was trying to get uranium from Africa.

"If the CIA had changed its position, it was incumbent on the Director of Central Intelligence to correct the record and bring it to the immediate attention of the president," Roberts said. "It appears that he did not."

Later Friday evening, Tenet himself shouldered the blame.

"First, CIA approved the president's State of the Union address before it was delivered," Tenet said in a statement. "Second, I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. And third, the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound."

While the Bush administration worked to quiet the controversy, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended Britain's publication of the disputed charge, saying the CIA expressed doubts about the allegation but did not say why.

In a letter to a House of Commons committee that was released Saturday, Straw said the charge was based in part on intelligence information it did not share with the U.S.

Administration officials said they did not expect Tenet to resign over the matter. He is the lone holdover from the Clinton administration and, while distrusted by some conservatives, has enjoyed Bush's confidence.

"I've heard no discussion along those lines," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said Friday night.

Asked Saturday in Nigeria whether he considered the matter closed, Bush replied: "I do."

Not so fast, says Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Tenet is simply the White House's scapegoat, he told NBC's "Today Weekend Edition" show on Saturday.

"I think the hasty taking of blame by George Tenet is an attempt, really, on the part of a loyal person to the president, to try to deflect the problem," Dean said.

"We've got a lot more information that needs to be disclosed by this administration about why we went to war in Iraq," he said. "... The question is what other information did they (White House officials) then use that was not true to send us to war."

Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, one of Dean's rivals for the Democratic nomination, criticized Bush for allowing Tenet to take the blame for the unsubstantiated statement.

"The president is responsible for what's in the State of the Union speech," Gephardt said. "It also points out the need for a joint bipartisan open inquiry."

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, another Democratic candidate, said: "The president and the White House staff are ultimately responsible for what the president says. The White House needs to provide a full accounting of how that misleading information found its way into the president's State of the Union Address and who was aware of it."

Still another Democratic presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, said he thought the president himself should take responsibility for any and all misleading statements made in the run-up to the war. "It is also time for Congress to step forward and hold full and public hearings on these matters," said Kucinich, ranking member of the Government Reform Committee's panel on national security. "The American public deserves no less."

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