The White House attempt to defuse criticism over President Bush's now-discredited claim of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Africa has produced shifting explanations of how the assertion landed in his State of the Union speech.
The White House on Wednesday defended its more than two-week-old, sometimes confusing effort to explain the events leading up to Mr. Bush's statement that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
"We've been very straightforward about this all along," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "When information came to our attention, we moved quickly to make sure that that information was shared."
But since the White House said intelligence experts' doubts should have kept the statement out of the address, top Bush aides have contradicted each other on several key points.
On July 7, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the statement was largely based on evidence of Iraqi activities in Niger that turned out to be forged.
By that weekend and later, aides said the line was based on a broader body of intelligence involving uranium shopping in several African countries and thus might be OK.
The White House, meanwhile, insisted it was unaware before the Jan. 28 speech that there were problems with the intelligence underlying the claim.
But Stephen Hadley, No. 2 on the president's national security team, disclosed Tuesday that two CIA memos and a call from CIA Director George Tenet had persuaded him to take a similar passage out of a presidential speech in October — and that he should have done likewise when it turned up again in State of the Union drafts.
Hadley said he had forgotten about those objections by the time the State of the Union speech was being crafted.
The October speech, in Cincinnati, was to have included a reference to Iraq seeking uranium from Niger.
Fleischer said on July 14 that it was not possible to compare the reference to that in the State of the Union because the latter was broader — referring to efforts to buy uranium in Africa, instead of any one country, and leaving out any mention of specific quantities.
And a senior White House aide briefing reporters last week repeatedly insisted that the CIA objected in October only because the statement then was based on "a single source, not because it was flawed."
But Hadley contradicted those accounts.
An unsigned CIA memo on Oct. 5 advised that "the CIA had reservations about the British reporting" on Iraq's alleged attempts in Niger, Hadley said. A second memo, sent on Oct. 6, elaborated on the CIA's doubts, describing "some weakness in the evidence," such as the fact that Iraq already had a large stock of uranium and probably wouldn't need more, Hadley said.
Then, in a phone call around the same time, Tenet "asked that any reference to Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium from sources from Africa to be deleted from the speech," Hadley said.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other aides pointed repeatedly to the fact that doubts about the intelligence appeared in a footnote, written by the State Department, buried deep in a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate.
That footnote was thus not read by the president, Rice or other top aides, said a White House official, on condition of anonymity.
However, newly declassified portions of the NIE, on which the speech was based, show that the very first paragraph of the report's "Key Judgments" had a prominent reference to an addendum containing the State Department's "alternate view" of intelligence on Iraq's nuclear pursuits. The White House official said Rice and others did read the "Key Judgments" section.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett said there was no debate between the White House and the CIA over the State of the Union line in question. The only discussion was over the intelligence agency's signoff on attributing the line to the British.
But Bartlett's statements contradict earlier accounts by Rice and Tenet, as well as a CIA official who testified before Congress.
On July 11, Rice said "some specifics about time and place were taken out" of a draft of the State of the Union after "discussion on that specific sentence" with the CIA. In a statement that day, Tenet said: "Officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed."
And last week, the CIA official involved in the discussions with the White House's National Security Council told a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee that there was "give and take" between the two agencies over the draft language, a U.S. official said.
Fleischer had said that Rice was referring to the changes made in the Cincinnati speech, even though that speech did not come up at all in that conversation with her. And the White House official said the CIA official's testimony was wrong — because the White House made only "stylistic" changes to the line to add the British sourcing.