White House: Iraq Weapons Assessment Was 'Compelling'
Friday, July 18, 2003
WASHINGTON — In an attempt to counter criticism about prewar intelligence used to justify going into Iraq, the White House released eight pages of unclassified documents Friday that analysts called "compelling evidence" that Saddam Hussein was trying to build nuclear weapons.
The material was part of the National Intelligence Estimate (search) put out in October 2002, and is a collection of information and analysis from six U.S. intelligence agencies titled "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction."
The full 90-page report, used by aides to help shape President Bush's January State of the Union (search) address, details Saddam Hussein's history of pursuing nuclear weapons. The portion released says that Baghdad, "if left unchecked ... probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
The report does not conclude that Saddam had nuclear weapons, or "sufficient material" to make any, but that Saddam "remains intent on acquiring them."
During the State of the Union speech, Bush asserted: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The truthfulness of the president's assertion has now been challenged because intelligence analysts later learned that some of the documents on which the claim was based were forged.
The NIE cites unsubstantiated reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from three African countries: Niger, Somalia and "possibly" Congo. However, the citations are not one of six key judgments made in the NIE, which incidentally was never read by the president.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) said Thursday that he stands by the information given to the United States, but CIA Director George Tenet (search) last week admitted that the intelligence should not have been included in the president's speech to the nation.
The senior administration official who distributed the unclassified documents on Friday said the president's advisers would "redouble" efforts in the future to make sure that questionable material is excluded from presidential speeches.
"The president of the United States is not a fact-checker," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"Of course, we would not put information in the president's speech that we knew was deliberately forged," the official said.
Officials acknowledge that the U.S. intelligence agencies should have vetted the information before the president used it to bolster the case for going to war against Iraq.
The report, presented by the CIA (search), cites "high confidence" within the intelligence community that "Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material."
The report states with "moderate confidence" that Iraq doesn't have the material to make a nuclear weapon, but if the regime were to acquire the material, it "is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009."
The material released by the White House also includes a "footnote" by the State Department (search) saying "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are ... highly dubious."
The officials said that neither the president nor his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) were aware of the State Department's reservation about the British intelligence.
The State Department has previously been at odds with the intelligence community over the handling of the documents. Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) omitted the Iraq-Africa connection from his report to the United Nations Security Council one week after the president's address.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and Molly Henneberg and the Associated Press contributed to this report.