ENTEBBE, Uganda – President Bush on Friday put responsibility squarely on the CIA (search) for his erroneous claim that Iraq tried to acquire nuclear material from Africa, prompting the director of intelligence to publicly accept full blame for the miscue.
"I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services," Bush told reporters in Uganda.
Hours later, CIA Director George Tenet (search) issued a statement, saying the 16 words in Bush's State of the Union address concerning a purported uranium deal should never have been uttered by the president.
"This was a mistake," Tenet said. "This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed."
The controversy over Bush's claim in his State of the Union address (search) in January had undermined the administration's efforts to quiet rising doubts about Bush's justifications for going to war. The United States said military action was justified, in part, because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but no such weapons have been found.
Friday's episode clearly weakened the credibility that Tenet — the only holdover from the Clinton administration and a former staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee (search) — has with Congress as key lawmakers called for accountability.
"It was incumbent on the director of intelligence to correct the record and bring it to the immediate attention of the president," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
After Tenet's mea culpa, CIA officials said they did not expect the director to resign. White House officials declined to speculate. "I think the statement speaks for itself," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Anxious to dispense with the flap, which has dogged the president on his Africa trip and stole attention from his message about AIDS, trade and terrorism, the White House took unusual steps Friday to let Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, speak out on the issue. Both put responsibility for the error squarely on the CIA.
Rice spent nearly an hour going over allegations with reporters on Air Force One. And Bush responded to a reporter's shouted question at a picture-taking session even after his Ugandan host said no questions would be allowed.
"I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services," Bush said. "And it was a speech that detailed to the American people the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime. And my government took the appropriate response to those dangers. And as a result, the world is going to be more secure and more peaceful."
Rice was more direct, saying, "The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety."
If the CIA director had concerns about the information, "these doubts were not communicated to the president," Rice said.
Rice said Tenet "absolutely" had the president's confidence.
Still, she expressed dismay that information on alleged attempts by Saddam Hussein to buy uranium "yellowcake" from Niger — intelligence that turned out to be based on forged documents — had found its way into a major presidential speech after being vetted by the CIA. Yellowcake is a lightly processed form of uranium which requires further enrichment before it can be used in nuclear weapons."
"If the director of central intelligence had said, `Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone — without question," Rice said.
Rice talked with Tenet by phone shortly before meeting with reporters to tell him what she planned to say, according to several administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. These officials said Tenet was sent a final version of the speech before it was delivered.
Tenet's tenure had seemed shaky at the outset of the Bush administration, but by all accounts he ingratiated himself to the president through loyalty, hard work, and by personally giving the president daily intelligence briefings.
Bush, in his State of the Union address, had cited a British intelligence report as the basis for the information. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who plans to meet with Bush at the White House on Thursday, also has faced intense questioning for his claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
American intelligence officials told British officials their doubts about the purported Africa-Iraq uranium connection cited by Bush in his speech, some U.S. officials said. But Rice said the CIA itself, as part of its regular classified National Intelligence Estimate to Bush, asserted that Iraq was "seeking yellowcake in Africa."
When the text of the speech was sent to the CIA for vetting, Rice said the agency raised only one objection to the sentence involving the Africa-Iraq-uranium allegation. "Some specifics about amount and place were taken out," Rice said, adding that "with the changes in that sentence, the speech was cleared."
On Capitol Hill, Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, chastised the CIA, saying he was disturbed by what appeared to be "extremely sloppy handling of the issue" by the agency.
He said unidentified intelligence sources are claiming they told the White House that the information was unfounded, yet he said he's been told that the CIA was still asserting about 10 days before Bush's speech that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Africa.
"I have seen no documentation that indicates that the CIA had reversed itself after Jan. 17 and prior to the State of the Union," he said. "If the CIA had changed its position, it was incumbent on the director of intelligence to correct the record and bring it to the immediate attention of the president."
As the controversy continued this week, Democratic candidates for president have maintained a steady drumbeat questioning Bush's veracity.
On Friday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the controversy only strengthens the case for a full, honest accounting of any intelligence failures.
"The continued finger-pointing, charge-countercharge, and bureaucratic warfare within the administration do nothing to make this country safer and will simply further erode the confidence of the American public and our allies around the world," he said.