WASHINGTON – The White House declassified portions of an October 2002 intelligence report to demonstrate that President Bush had ample reason to believe Iraq was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program.
But the material also reflects divisions and uncertainties among intelligence agencies as to Saddam Hussein's activities.
The State Department (search), for instance, expressed deep skepticism over claims that Saddam was shopping for uranium ore (search) in Africa to use in making atomic bombs — an allegation that wound up in Bush's Jan. 28 State of the Union address (search) but which administration officials have since repudiated.
"Claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are ... highly dubious," said a State Department addendum included among the declassified material.
The administration released the documents — a sanitized version of the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the president — on Friday as it sought to shield Bush from rising criticism that he misled the public in making his case for war with Iraq.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, kept up his party's drumbeat on the issue in the Democrats' weekly radio address Saturday.
"The statement that Iraq was attempting to acquire African uranium was not an inadvertent mistake," Levin, D-Mich., said. "It was negotiated between CIA and National Security Council officials, and it was highly misleading."
Levin went on to say that the uranium issue isn't just about "16 words in a speech. It is about whether administration officials made a conscious and very troubling decision to create a false impression about the gravity and imminence of the threat that Iraq posed to America."
Administration aides suggested that the eight pages of excerpts, out of 90 in the document, demonstrate the notion that Saddam was trying to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program permeated the U.S. intelligence community — and was not just based on a suspect British report that relied in part on forged documents.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the documents show "the clear and compelling case we had for confronting the threat that Saddam Hussein posed."
McClellan and other administration officials emphasized the report's assertion of "compelling evidence" that Iraq was seeking to rebuild its nuclear-weapons program.
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the anti-nuclear Arms Control Association, suggested the release of the declassified documents showed the exact opposite. "It further undermines the White House case that the Iraqi nuclear program was active and that it posed an immediate threat," he said.
Kimball said the State Department's reservations — included both in the footnote and on the front page of the excerpts released by the White House — were particularly damaging to the administration's case. "Those are fighting words," he said.
In the declassified documents, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded: "The activities we have detected do not ... add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing ... an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."
In his State of the Union address, Bush asserted, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Secretary of State Colin Powell had voiced skepticism about such allegations. For that reason, he told reporters recently, he did not include the material in his lengthy presentation to the U.N. Security Council in early February.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by the Africa claim during a visit to Washington on Thursday, although U.S. officials, including CIA Director George Tenet, have recently challenged it.
Tenet has said he should have insisted the offending sentence be removed from a draft of Bush's speech sent to his agency for review.
Bush has only said that the speech was cleared by intelligence agencies. White House officials vowed to do a better job to prevent questionable material from winding up in his speeches.
Democrats and other administration critics have suggested that the Iraq-Africa assertion was an attempt to exaggerate the rationale for overthrowing the Saddam regime without broad international support.
The overall findings of last October's intelligence "estimate" served as the foundation for many of the general assertions made by Bush and other administration officials in the run-up to the war: that Saddam was making chemical and biological weapons, was rebuilding his nuclear-weapons program and had illegal long-range missiles that could reach as far as Israel.
None of those assertions has been validated by postwar findings in Iraq.