The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board has concluded that the White House made a questionable claim in January's State of the Union address about Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain nuclear materials because of its desperation to show that Hussein had an active program to develop nuclear weapons, according to a well-placed source familiar with the board's findings.
In the speech Jan. 28, President Bush cited British intelligence in asserting that Hussein had tried to buy uranium from an unnamed country in Africa. The White House later said the claim should not have been made because of doubt in the U.S. intelligence community that it was true.
After reviewing the matter for several months, the intelligence board -- chaired by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft -- has determined that there was "no deliberate effort to fabricate" a story, the source said. Instead, the source said, the board believes the White House was so anxious "to grab onto something affirmative" about Hussein's nuclear ambitions that it disregarded warnings from the intelligence community that the claim was questionable.
The source said that at the time of the State of the Union speech, there was no organized system at the White House to vet intelligence, and the informal system that was followed did not work in the case of that speech. The White House has since established procedures for handling intelligence in presidential speeches by including a CIA officer in the speechwriting process.
White House, CIA 'should share blame'
The board shared its findings with Bush earlier this month. It is the first government body to complete its inquiry into an episode that buttressed criticism by lawmakers and others that the administration exaggerated intelligence to make the case for war. Word of its findings has also circulated within the White House and on Capitol Hill. The White House declined to comment on the board's findings.
The findings of the advisory board do not appear to add many new details about the uranium episode, but they make it clear that the White House should share blame with the CIA for allowing the questionable material into the speech. CIA Director George J. Tenet and deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley have accepted responsibility for allowing the assertion into the address.
In May, Bush asked Scowcroft to look into how the alleged Iraqi attempt to buy uranium in Africa -- the claim concerned Niger -- made it into the presidential speech. The intelligence board, made up of 16 members, including former California governor Pete Wilson, former Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale and retired Adm. David E. Jeremiah, traditionally provides the president private advice on intelligence questions. Scowcroft served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, among others.
That request came at the same time that members of the Senate intelligence panel asked the inspectors general of the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department to investigate the matter. The House and Senate intelligence committees are looking into the episode as well.
Although the president's intelligence board keeps its findings secret, the Senate panel plans to make public details of its inquiry in a report, which is being drafted and is expected to be released next spring, according to congressional sources.
"The whole Niger case will be disclosed and the entire story told because it is not classified," one senior congressional aide familiar with the committee inquiry said yesterday.
At the time of the president's speech, the allegation about Hussein's uranium purchase in Africa was already part of the administration's campaign to win domestic and international support for invading Iraq. Although at the request of Tenet a reference to Niger had been removed from a speech by Bush the previous October, the White House subsequently wanted to "find something affirmative" for the January speech, one source said.
That month, the allegations had already been included in two official documents sent out by the White House and in speeches and writings by Bush's four most senior national security officials.
The CIA and the State Department had doubts about the purported Niger information because they knew that Hussein already had a stockpile of the same type of uranium that he was supposed to be seeking. In addition, the CIA had sent former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to Niger in February 2002, and he reported that officials in that country had denied the report.
More recently, the Iraq Survey Group looking into weapons activities in that country under the direction of David Kay reported in October that it found no support for the report that Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa. In fact, Kay said, the group found that the Iraqis had turned down an offer of uranium from a still-unidentified country.
One enduring mystery is which White House official was responsible for promoting the material in question. Senate hearings have indicated there was a disagreement between a CIA analyst and the White House National Security Council staff member about how the material was handled. "One side did not coordinate with the other," said the source familiar with the advisory board's inquiry.
The Senate probe has been slowed by disputes between Republicans and Democrats. It will not probe how other intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was used in public statements by administration officials in the run-up to the war, one congressional official said.
"But how that intelligence was portrayed [by policymakers] is a subjective thing and not something a committee could agree on," he said. "What was said publicly is available publicly," he added, saying each senator could make his own judgment.
It probably will be at least two to three months before the committee releases its report and hold public hearings on the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs, according to congressional sources. The first drafts are not expected before February, when they will first be reviewed by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the intelligence panel, and its vice chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). Then other senators get to read it and make suggestions, a process that could take weeks.
Meanwhile, Roberts has tentatively set March for a closed hearing to update the work of Kay's survey group. At that time, or perhaps even before, Kay is expected to resign his position for personal reasons -- although the work in Iraq is expected to continue for at least another year, according to administration sources.