WASHINGTON The Bush administration is engaged in frantic finger-pointing as it tries to explain how its handling of faulty intelligence on allegations of Iraqi nuclear smuggling produced so few red flags.
CIA Director George Tenet tried to end the finger-pointing Friday night by pointing the finger at himself, taking responsibility for allowing into President Bush's State of the Union address an erroneous claim that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material in Africa.
''These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president,'' he said in a statement. ''This was a mistake.''
Earlier, Bush and his national security adviser had been unequivocal in blaming the CIA. ''I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services,'' Bush had told reporters in Uganda.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was blunter. ''The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety,'' she said. If Tenet had concerns about the information, ''these doubts were not communicated to the president.''
Republicans in Congress also were directing heat at Tenet.
''The director of central intelligence is the principal adviser to the president on intelligence matters,'' Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN's ''Inside Politics.''
''He should have told the president. He failed. He failed to do so,'' Roberts said.
The State Department and CIA both had information as early as March 2002 casting doubt on British claims that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.
Yet the White House says neither Tenet nor Secretary of State Colin Powell stopped Bush from using the intelligence as a justification for the war.
The CIA raised only one objection, to a reference to the kind of uranium Iraq was said to be seeking, but it did not insist the reference be deleted, Rice told reporters on a flight with Bush from South Africa to Uganda.
As for Powell, she said he did not discuss his misgivings with her or any member of her staff between Bush's State of the Union speech in January and his presentation to the U.N. Security Council a week later.
A former diplomat hired by the CIA to check into the merits of the allegations has added his own twist. He says Vice President Dick Cheney's office knew in 2002 that the diplomat was unable to substantiate the intelligence.
Whatever the case, the allegation made it into the State of the Union, then was abruptly dropped a month later when it was learned the information came from forged documents.
Now Congress and a host of Democrats want to know who knew what and when.
''The continued finger-pointing, charge-countercharge and bureaucratic warfare within the administration do nothing to make this country safer and will simply further erode the confidence of the American public and our allies around the world,'' said John Kerry, one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls trying to capitalize on the dispute.
''Everyone is trying to evade responsibility,'' Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a telephone interview from Detroit. ''There is to me very disturbing evidence of deception somewhere. Where the deception is we don't know, but there is an inquiry going on.''
Retracing the intelligence reveals that both the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department's intelligence and research bureau had questioned the accuracy of a British intelligence report that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. Those doubts rose nearly a year before the United States went to war with Iraq.
Working independently, and somewhat at cross-purposes, the CIA did not share with the State Department the finding of Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Gabon, that the report could not be substantiated.
The intelligence bureau at the State Department circulated in early March 2002 a memorandum that described the British report as dubious, a former U.S. intelligence officer said Friday. That report went to Powell, among other department officials, the official said.
Powell also was given comprehensive findings by the bureau that Iraq had not reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Powell did not use the uranium allegation in making the U.S. case to the United Nations last February that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
But his own department, despite its doubts, did include the allegations in a statement it released in December that responded to Iraq's declaration it did not possess any weapons of mass destruction.
Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, both said Iraq had tried to obtain the uranium, Rice in a Jan. 23 article in The New York Times and Rumsfeld on CNN Jan. 29, Levin said.
One of the mysteries congressional investigators seem intent to explore is how much Cheney knew. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said Monday that Cheney was not informed nor aware of the CIA report casting doubt on the British allegations.
But Wilson, the former envoy who helped the CIA write the report, said in an NBC-TV interview last Sunday that Cheney's office requested and received from the CIA a report on Wilson's mission.
Barry Schweid has covered diplomatic affairs for The Associated Press for 30 years.
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