CIA Director George Tenet told members of Congress a White House official argued with the CIA and insisted that President Bush's State of the Union speech contain the now-discredited claim about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Africa, according to a Democratic senator.
The White House quickly dismissed the charge by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., calling it "nonsense" and "ridiculous.
The charges claim as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key ally in the war who is also under fire over allegations of Iraqi weapons that have not been found, prepared to address Congress and meet Mr. Bush.
Durbin, who was present for a 4½-hour appearance by Tenet behind closed doors with Intelligence Committee members Wednesday, said Tenet named the official. But Durbin said the name could not be revealed because of the confidentiality of the proceedings.
White House Spokesman Scott McClellan said it's "not surprising" the charge came from a member of a small minority in Congress that didn't support the president's action in Iraq, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller.
"If the CIA had said take it out, we would have taken it out," said McClellan.
Durbin told ABC that Tenet "certainly told us who the person was who was insistent on putting this language in which the CIA knew to be incredible, this language about the uranium shipment from Africa."
"And there was this negotiation between the White House and the CIA about just how far you could go and be close to the truth and unfortunately those sixteen words were included in the most important speech the president delivers in any given year," Durbin added.
Countered McClellan: "The whole idea that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was not real was something that was never under debate previously. This is an attempt to continue to rewrite history."
Tenet — described as "very contrite" — told the Senate panel he was responsible for bad intelligence finding its way into Mr. Bush's Jan. 28 speech to Congress and the nation. In that address, the president cited the accusation about an African connection as part of his justification for going to war to oust Saddam.
"The more important question is who is it in the White House who was hell-bent on misleading the American people and why are they still there?" Durbin said Thursday.
"Being a member of the Intelligence Committee I can't disclose that but I trust that it will come out," he said. "But it should come out from the president. The president should be outraged that he was misled and that he then misled the American people."
Durbin promised to offer an amendment later Thursday to a pending defense-spending bill "calling on the president to report to Congress as to exactly how intelligence was used by his White House. Was he given good information, or people in his White House given good information, which was then hyped or spun or exaggerated to try to create this sentiment in favor of war. That's a very important question."
The claim that Saddam sought uranium from Africa was supported by British intelligence but rejected by U.S. officials. It was based, at least in part, on a series of forged documents.
It emerged Thursday that the CIA did not possess those documents until February 2003, after the State of the Union, according to U.S. officials quoted by The Associated Press. Britain said its Africa claim was based on evidence other than the forged documents. The CIA says there was other evidence of possible attempts to buy uranium in Africa, but that it was not solid.
Mr. Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, blamed Tenet for failing to seek the removal of the statement from the January speech. Tenet issued a statement Friday accepting responsibility.
In that statement, Tenet said that when CIA analysts reviewed the president's speech, "officials … raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct - i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa."
After Wednesday's hearing, Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., described Tenet as "very contrite. He was very candid, very forthcoming. He accepted full responsibility."
Roberts said it was clear "there were mistakes made up and down the chain." He said the hearing reaffirmed his belief that "the handling of this was sloppy."
Roberts also said he expected to hold open hearings on the Iraq intelligence, probably in September.
Responding to a question, Roberts said White House officials may be called before the panel to discuss the handling of the intelligence.
Both the Senate and House intelligence committees are holding inquiries on whether prewar intelligence was inaccurate or mishandled to help Mr. Bush make the case for war. Democrats have stepped up demands for a formal investigation after the White House acknowledged that the uranium claim should not have been in the State of the Union speech.
A proposal by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., for an independent investigation of the prewar intelligence was defeated Wednesday in the Senate on a 51-45 vote. Corzine sought to include the amendment as part of a $386.6 billion defense-spending bill.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, described the proposal as "an attempt to smear the president of the United States."