July 11: 'A Big Deal in the Broader Context of What Happened to Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction'

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This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, July 11, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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TONY SNOW, GUEST HOST: As Wendell Goler (search) reported, the Bush administration said the CIA reviewed the president's State of the Union (search) speech and approved the line citing British intelligence suggestion that Saddam Hussein was trying to procure uranium from Africa. In fact, in the last couple of minute, we received a statement from George Tenet, the CIA director, and here it is.

He says, "Legitimate questions have arisen about how remarks on alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Africa made it into the president's State of the Union speech. Let me clear about several things right up front. First, CIA approved the president's State of the Union Address before it was delivered. Second, I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. And third, the president had many reasons to believe that the text presented to him was sound. These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."

And then it goes on and he offers a series of perspectives. What we're going do is let people sort through that because if I were to read the whole thing, we wouldn't have this segment. And instead, I want to talk to the Bill Gertz (search), national security reporter for The Washington Times and a FOX News contributor.

Bill, it appears here that the CIA is taking the full hit. Arguing that there was in fact a track record of Saddam trying to get uranium specifically Niger. As a matter of fact, there was reference to obtain raw uranium beyond the 550 metric tons already in Iraq, the letter says.

Why don't we first take a look at the history and then talk about how the mistakes might have crept into the State of the Union Address.

BILL GERTZ, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Well, what wasn't mention in the director's statement was the fact that this was in the National Intelligence Estimate, which is a flagship product of the U.S. intelligence community. And that was really the basis for including it in the president's speech. They said they had numerous intelligence reports, not just from Niger, but also from Somalia as well as the Congo indicating that Iraq was trying to purchase yellow cake or uranium ore for use.

Now, this is the last component that the Iraqis were looking for in developing a nuclear device. They had the scientists, they had the design, they need the fissionable material. So this was the last step. It was part of the question, is Iraq trying to develop nuclear weapons? And clearly this was one of the elements, which they felt was a key indicator that it was moving in that direct.

SNOW: Now, all the analysis appeared in something called the National Intelligence Estimate, a 90-page report, classified. Although, the administration did put together kind of a short summary of it; but clearly, there are at least some sections of this they simply messed up

GERTZ: Well, I think, you know all of these documents are heavily cavoted. In fact, often people say that they had used fights over whether to use the words "shall" or "may" in trying to describe what's going on. In this case, we also have the State Department Intelligence or INR, as it's known, adding its footnote saying that they weren't convinced with the information that was included.

The consensus is all of the big intelligence agencies, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the like. It's going to be interesting to see -- this is going to further fuel the political debate that's going on right now about Iraq's weapons program.

SNOW: There are a couple of things in the letter. One of the things that George Tenet says is that, "In the fall of 2002, my deputy and I briefed hundreds of members of Congress on Iraq. We did not brief the uranium acquisition story. "

Later on, you mentioned INR said that finally the claims of the Iraqi pursuit, natural uranium in Africa to are in INR's assessment, "highly dubious." So that was something that had been in circulation, and this of course, leads to the confession that this sentence should never have been in the State of the Union Address

GERTZ: Yes. Well, you know what? Maybe, I think they would have been better off if they said that Iraq was attempting to get ring magnets, which are used in centrifuges and was also attempting to obtain balancing equipment. You know these are all of the indicators that intelligence analysts look at when they make a decision as to whether or not somebody is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

SNOW: I want you to go back to a point you made a moment ago, which is intelligence estimates because people tend to think that if you got this intelligence report, it is this rock-solid evidence, eyewitnesses. But instead they're theoretical papers. It's almost like scientists trying to connect the dots about you know, pi mesons, or something. It's not something you see. You have theories that explain a widely diverse series of phenomenon.

GERTZ: Also very, very carefully worded. They have huge bureaucratic fights over the estimates to figure out how hard to say something and how soft to say. How much to caveat it. Whether or not it's a footnote. It gets very academic. Again, they try to portray a picture that can give policy makers a chance to say we believe Iraq is trying to do this or that with their weapons program.

SNOW: Let me read one final passage as we try to sort through just what happened in the last few minutes. George Tenet concludes his note by saying, "Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct, i.e., that the British government report said Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been a test for clearing a presidential address."

This is exactly what you're talking about. They were parsing it saying, well, OK, factually it's correct, unfortunately, the British intelligence is wrong.

GERTZ: Right. And the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice explains today, also explains that the ultimate assessment could be correct, that they were seeking this stuff, that they were seeking it from several countries. However, they did have a tainted document in there that undermined the entire credibility of the other reports.

SNOW: So in your estimation, you've been covering this for a long time. Is this a big deal or not?

GERTZ: Well, I think it's a big deal in the broader context of what happened to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This is one element of it. I think that they're looking very hard to try and figure this out. The British, by the way, are standing by their story on this. They still say they have additional sources that are supporting it. I think the jury is out but it's certainly going to fuel the political debate.

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