WASHINGTON – It was one of the first signs that the intelligence used to go to war in Iraq was wrong: White House repudiation of 16 words in last year's State of the Union speech that had suggested Saddam Hussein (search) tried to buy uranium (search) in Africa.
Yet even as two recent reports sharply criticized prewar intelligence, they also suggested President Bush's claim may not have been totally off-base.
A British report concluded that Bush's statement and a similar one by Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) were "well-founded." In his speech, Bush had attributed the uranium claim to the British government.
A Senate Intelligence Committee report found inadequate evidence that deposed Iraqi President Saddam had been rebuilding his nuclear weapons program. It cited various reports, however, that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. Thus, although Bush cited only British evidence that was determined to have been inconclusive, other intelligence files clearly contained other inconclusive evidence of the truth of the claim.
The committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (search), said he believed last year that the White House was correct in repudiating the uranium claim. "Now I don't know whether it's accurate or not. That's the whole question," Roberts, R-Kan., said in an interview.
The White House's repudiation came after The New York Times published an op-ed column by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (search), who was sent by the CIA to Niger (search) to determine if Iraq had been acquiring uranium. Wilson said it was unlikely any uranium transaction had taken place and the administration appeared to have been manipulating the intelligence.
Republicans said Wilson was trying to boost John Kerry's presidential campaign and looked to discredit him and his mission.
Columnist Robert Novak, citing two unidentified Bush administration officials, wrote that Wilson's wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, had recommended Wilson for the trip. That has led to a criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity.
The Senate report challenges Wilson's denial that his wife had a role in the selection and questions his account of the intelligence available at the time of his trip. It also said that his trip, rather than discrediting the Iraq-Niger link, actually bolstered the views of some analysts who suspected Saddam was seeking uranium.
In an addendum to the report, Roberts and two other Republicans accused Wilson of providing "inaccurate, unsubstantiated and misleading" information. In a letter to committee leaders Thursday, Wilson said a thorough reading of the report supports his public comments.
He said in a televised interview that he wants committee members to reinterview a CIA officer whose testimony, Wilson said, had muddled the record about his mission.
Earlier Sunday, the CIA's acting director, John E. McLaughlin, told "Fox News Sunday," "I think there's some debate about what his report said or didn't say. I just don't want to take a position on it."
Bush, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, used the uranium intelligence to help make the case that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said.
That claim came under scrutiny after the International Atomic Energy Agency determined that documents purportedly showing Iraq buying uranium from Niger were fake. After Wilson's op-ed appeared, the White House said including the 16 words in the State of the Union was a mistake because the assertion was not well enough corroborated to merit mention in a State of the Union speech. The British have maintain consistently that their intelligence was not based on the forged documents.
But the Senate committee disclosed other intelligence suggesting that Iraq was pursuing uranium.
The committee cited separate reports received from foreign intelligence services on Oct. 15, 2001, and Feb. 5, 2002, and March 25, 2002. The State Department doubted the accuracy of the reports, but the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had more confidence in them.
Though Wilson reported to U.S. officials there was "nothing to the story" that Niger sold uranium to Iraq, the CIA and DIA were intrigued by one element of his trip. Wilson had said a former prime minister of Niger, Ibrahim Mayaki, mentioned a visit from an Iraqi delegation in 1999 that expressed interest in expanding commercial ties with Niger, the world's third largest producer of mined uranium. Mayaki believed this meant they were interested in buying uranium.
The British inquiry said it was generally accepted that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999, and there was intelligence from several sources that the visit was to acquire uranium. "Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger's exports, the intelligence was credible," the report said.
The Senate committee also described various reports about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from French, British and unidentified foreign governments.
But how much credibility these reports had was not clear. The Senate committee criticized the CIA for "inconsistent and at times contradictory" reports to policy-makers on the uranium issue.
An internal CIA memo from June 17, 2003, said, "We no longer believe there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."
But beyond internal correspondence, "to date, the intelligence community has not published an assessment to clarify or correct its position on whether or not Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from Africa," the Senate committee said.