Since last month, presidential aides have said a questionable allegation, that Iraq had tried to buy African uranium for nuclear weapons, made it into President Bush's State of the Union address because of miscommunication between the CIA and Bush's staff.
But by the time the president gave the speech, on Jan. 28, that same allegation was already part of an administration campaign to win domestic and international support for invading Iraq. In January alone, it was included in two official documents sent out by the White House and in speeches and writings by the president's four most senior national security officials.
The White House has acknowledged that it was a mistake to have included the uranium allegation in the State of the Union address. But an examination of how it originated, how it was repeated in January and by whom suggests that the administration was determined to keep the idea before the public as it built its case for war, even though the claim had been excised from a presidential speech the previous October through the direct intervention of CIA Director George J. Tenet.
Dan Bartlett, White House director of communications, said yesterday that the inclusion of the allegation in the president's State of the Union address "made people below feel comfortable using it as well." He said that there was "strategic coordination" and that "we talk broadly about what points to make," but he added: "I don't know of any specific talking points to say that this is supposed to be used."
The allegation appeared in a draft of a speech Bush was to give Oct. 7 to outline the threat that he said Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. In that draft, an unnamed White House speechwriter wrote, "The [Iraqi] regime has been caught attempting to purchase substantial amounts of uranium oxide from sources in Africa."
The statement the Iraqis "had been caught" was described as "over the top" by a senior administration official familiar with the sketchy intelligence on which the statement had been based. Tenet succeeded in having it stricken the day the speech was given on the grounds that intelligence did not support it.
The CIA arranged to have a similar allegation deleted from a speech that John D. Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was to give Dec. 20 before the U.N. Security Council.
Yet in the days before and after the president's State of the Union address, the allegation was repeated by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and in at least two documents sent out by the White House.
The first of those documents was a legislatively required report to Congress on Jan. 20 on matters "relevant to the authorization for use of military force against Iraq." It referred to Iraq as having failed to report to the United Nations "attempts to acquire uranium and the means to enrich it." The second document, a report distributed to the public Jan. 23 covering Iraq's weapons concealment activities, highlighted Baghdad's failure to explain "efforts to procure uranium from abroad for its nuclear weapons program."
The same day, the op-ed page of the New York Times included a piece by Rice that said Iraq's Dec. 7 declaration of its weapons of mass destruction to the U.N. Security Council "fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad." In a speech that same day before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wolfowitz said: "There is no mention [in the declaration] of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad."
Three days later, Powell, in a speech before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, asked: "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?"
And the day after the State of the Union address, Rumsfeld opened a news conference by saying of Hussein: "His regime has the design for a nuclear weapon; it was working on several different methods of enriching uranium, and recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
When it came to the State of the Union speech, the White House has said that it was an unnamed speechwriter who reviewed a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq and perhaps a British intelligence dossier and came up with the 16-word sentence that Bush delivered: "The British government has learned Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The NIE, dated Oct. 2, 2002, carried only four paragraphs on the subject, on page 25 of the 90-page document, according to unclassified excerpts released last month.
The first of those paragraphs said: "Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake." Support for that characterization was an item saying "a foreign government service reported" that Niger was planning to send several tons of "pure uranium" to Iraq and that, as of early 2001, the two countries "reportedly were still working out arrangements" for as much as 500 tons. A second item said: "Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo."
According to the intelligence official, the "vigorously" language was "quoted verbatim out of a [Defense Intelligence Agency] paper," along with other paragraphs relating to Niger, Somalia and Congo.
The CIA, which had its doubts about the intelligence, did not include the uranium item in the NIE's "key judgments," nor even as one of six elements supporting the key judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, Tenet said in written answers to questions posed by The Washington Post. He added that the four paragraphs, which had originated from the Defense Intelligence Agency, were kept in the NIE for "completeness."
Tenet, in a statement July 11, described the CIA as having only "fragmentary intelligence" related to what he termed "allegations" of Hussein's efforts to obtain additional raw uranium from Africa.
The British dossier, published Sept. 24, said in its executive summary: "We judge that Iraq . . . sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power program that could require it." It did not say the British had "learned" anything about Iraq and uranium. Support for that judgment was the single statement, "There is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The CIA suggested that the judgment be removed, but the British maintained then, as they do today, that they have their own source, which has not been disclosed.
Two congressional committees, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the inspectors general of the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon are all investigating how the material got into the president's speech.
There is one congressional query into how other administration officials came to repeat the allegation.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing July 9, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) asked Rumsfeld to supply information for the committee record on why he, on Jan. 29, and the president, the day earlier, had made this "very significant statement" at the same time "the intelligence community knew in the depths of their agency that this was not true."
Nothing had been supplied as of Wednesday, a committee aide said.