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White House Calls Iraq-Africa Uranium Controversy Overblown - 2003-07-14


Bush administration officials are defending their handling of intelligence information prior to the war in Iraq, denying accusations they used questionable evidence regarding suspected weapons of mass destruction to win public support for action against Saddam Hussein. White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice spoke out on the controversy in a series of interviews on American television.

The current controversy concerns one sentence in the president's January 28th State of the Union speech.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Mr. Bush said.

His national security advisor now says the president's statement was accurate, but should not have been included in the address.

"Knowing what we know now, we would not have put it in the president's speech," Ms. Rice said.

During an appearance on CBS television's "Face the Nation," Condoleezza Rice said the evidence was not strong enough to put the allegation in the nationally broadcast address.

"We don't believe that it rises to the quality of intelligence reporting that we use in presidential speeches," she said.

But Ms. Rice went to great lengths to stress the president did not mislead the nation, as he made the case for military action on Iraq. She said the British continue to believe their information is accurate, despite revelations that some documents were forgeries.

She told the "Fox News Sunday" program the Central Intelligence Agency had also raised concerns about Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons.

"Not only was the (British)statement accurate, but there were statements of this kind in the National Intelligence Estimate. And the British themselves stand by that statement to this very day, saying they had sources other than sources that have now been called into question to back up that claim. We have no reason not to believe them," Ms. Rice said.

Her comments came as The Washington Post reported that CIA Director George Tenet removed similar assertions concerning Iraq from a speech delivered by the president in Cincinnati, Ohio, three months before the State of the Union address.

Ms. Rice said that was true, but added the allegation removed from the Cincinnati speech was based on a specific incident and a specific source.

"The State of the Union was then constructed with language that was broader than a single incident and a single place and a particular quantity," she said.

Administration officials say George Tenet did not urge the White House to remove the reference to Iraq's efforts to buy uranium from the State of the Union -- a far more important address.

On Friday, he took responsibility for the inclusion of the controversial language in the president's annual address to Congress and the nation.

The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee says that is not enough. Michigan's Carl Levin told CNN's "Late Edition" that a congressional investigation is needed that looks at all the intelligence cited by the president in the run-up to war with Iraq.

Mr. Levin said the inquiry should look at possible White House pressure on the Central Intelligence Agency to put aside doubts about questionable information regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

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