CIA Chief: Text Was My Fault

WASHINGTON -- The CIA wrongly allowed U.S. President George W. Bush to tell the American people that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa, despite analysts' doubts about the information, the agency's director, George Tenet, acknowledged Friday.

"These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president," Tenet said, referring to a section of January's State of the Union address in which Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The agency vetted the speech and raised some concerns with earlier versions of the text, but ultimately let the statement stand, Tenet said. "This was a mistake."

Tenet's contrite statement capped a day in which mounting criticism of the administration's prewar claims erupted in an extraordinary round of high-level finger-pointing.

Earlier in the day, Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice put the blame squarely on the CIA for a controversy that has called the president's credibility into question and threatens to follow Bush into next year's presidential election.

Pressed by reporters traveling with the president in Uganda to explain why that statement was included, Bush replied: "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services."

Rice spoke more bluntly, taking direct aim at Tenet. She said the uranium language in the speech had been specifically vetted by the CIA, and that if Tenet had objections to the inclusion of the uranium claim, "he did not make them known."

Forcefully defending Bush, Rice said: "The president did not knowingly, before the American people, say something that we thought to be false."

Their remarks represented rare, direct, on-the-record criticism of the CIA by the White House. And Tenet's highly unusual statement was clearly aimed at defusing a conflict that had built during the week through a series of damaging disclosures and leaks to the press.

Asked whether Tenet has offered to resign or would consider doing so, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, "I've heard no discussions whatsoever along those lines."

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," Tenet said. "This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address," he concluded. "This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed."

Rice said Sunday that Bush's statement about Iraq seeking uranium was accurate and is supported by other British and U.S. information, The Associated Press reported.

Rice, however, said the statement should not have been in the Jan. 20 speech, in which Bush laid out reasons for military action against Iraq. "We have a higher standard for presidential speeches" than raw intelligence, she said.

"The statement that he made was indeed accurate. The British government did say that. Not only was the statement accurate, there were statements of this kind in the National Intelligence Estimate," a classified document compiled by U.S. agencies, she said.

"The British stand by their statement," Rice said. "They have told us that despite the fact that we had apparently some concerns about that report, that they had other sources, and that they stand by the statement."