WASHINGTON – A second top Bush administration official on Tuesday stepped up and took partial blame for allowing a disputed intelligence claim on Iraq's weapons program into the president's State of the Union address.
Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley (search), in a rare on-the-record session with reporters, said that he had received two memos from the CIA and a phone call from agency Director George Tenet (search) last October raising objections to an allegation that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium ore from Africa to use in building nuclear weapons.
As a result, Hadley said the offending passage was excised from a speech on Iraq the president gave in Cincinnati last Oct. 7. But Hadley suggested that details from the memos and phone call had slipped from his attention as the State of the Union was being put together.'
Hadley's admission also seemed to exonerate Bush from accusations the president knowingly utilized false information when making the case for war with Iraq.
"The high standards the president set were not met," Hadley said. He said he apologized to the president in a private session on Monday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, aides said Hadley offered what amounted to his resignation, but Bush did not accept it.
Tenet previously issued a statement saying that he should have raised objections to the Iraq-Africa-uranium sentence when the CIA reviewed an advance copy of the president's State of the Union message.
Hadley is the top aide to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The controversial passage citing a British intelligence report "should have been taken out of the State of the Union," Hadley said. He said he was taking responsibility on behalf of the White House staff just as Tenet had for the CIA.
"There were a number of people who could have raised a hand" to have the passage removed from the draft of Bush's Jan. 28 address, Hadley said. "And no one raised a hand."
"The process failed," said White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett.
Still, Bartlett said that Bush, while perturbed by the developments, "has full confidence in his national security adviser, his deputy national security adviser and the director of central intelligence."
Hadley's statement came as the administration went into full damage-control mode, reaching out to its Republican allies in Congress in an effort to counter criticism of Bush's Iraq policy and his use of discredited intelligence to advance the case for toppling Saddam Hussein.
With Bush's job approval ratings slipping and U.S. casualties in Iraq climbing, the White House sought to move the debate away from the flap over Bush's 16-word assertion that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in Africa.
The White House presented Hadley's apology on a day when public attention on Iraq was focused on the killing of Saddam's sons Odai and Qusai.
Meanwhile, Democrats used the development to step up their criticism of the president. "First they blamed the Brits. Then CIA Director George Tenet walked the plank. Now the White House is dragging (Hadley) forward to take the fall for the president's bogus claim," said Tony Welch, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential hopeful, asserted in a statement that "I call on all who misled the president to resign immediately. ... The story line continues to change from day to day on this matter."
According to Hadley's account, an unsigned CIA memo was sent to him and to presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson in an Oct. 5 memorandum advising that "the CIA had reservations about the British reporting" on Iraq's alleged attempts to buy uranium from the west African country of Niger.
"These reservations were confirmed by the CIA" in a second memo on Oct. 6, a day before Bush's Cincinnati speech, Hadley said.
He said that Tenet delivered similar reservations in a phone call around the same time and asked him to delete the phrase from the speech -- which was done.
Hadley said the memos were lengthy and included other recommendations, and he noted that he has frequent phone conversations with Tenet. "As I sit here, I do not remember" details of the CIA reservations, Hadley said.
Still, he said, "I should have recalled (the issue) at the time of the State of the Union address. ... If I had done so, it would have avoided the entire current controversy."
The first CIA memo was discovered over the weekend by Gerson, the White House speechwriter.
Gerson did not attend the session with reporters. But, Bartlett said, "he had no recollection" of the controversy.
Separately the administration is pressing its GOP allies in Congress to do more to emphasize some of the upside to deposing Saddam.
Other aggressive efforts are expected by the administration in the days ahead to try to regain control of the message, including a possible speech on the issue by Vice President Dick Cheney, administration and congressional GOP aides said.
Bush himself has said the uranium phrase had been cleared by intelligence agencies. The president has sidestepped questions on whether he felt personally responsible for the tainted information.
The White House last week began an offensive to try to stem the criticism, including putting out newly declassified portions of an October 2002 intelligence report that reflected widespread concern that Iraq was in pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.