Bush Aides Seek to Put Out Credibility Firestorm
Sunday, July 13, 2003; 5:38 PM
By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top aides to President Bush insisted on Sunday he did not hype Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction as they sought to put out a political firestorm ignited by a disputed statement he made in his case for war.
But questions about Bush's credibility persisted, threatening to further erode public support for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and create more difficulty at home for U.S. ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Appearing on Sunday television shows, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated that it was a mistake for Bush to cite in his State of the Union address a British finding, which U.S. intelligence was unable to confirm, that former Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium from Africa for Iraq's nuclear program.
The White House first acknowledged the error last week. CIA Director George Tenet accepted responsibility, saying his agency should not have signed off on the one-sentence inclusion in the president's speech last January.
But Rice and Rumsfeld brushed off suggestions Bush had manipulated intelligence in making his case for war.
"The notion that the president of the United States took the country to war because he was concerned with one sentence about whether Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa is clearly ludicrous," Rice told CBS's "Face the Nation." "And this has gotten to that proportion."
"End of story," Rumsfeld declared on ABC's "This Week."
On CNN's "Late Edition" Rice also said Tenet should not step down. "Absolutely not. The president has confidence in George Tenet," she said.
Yet, with recent polls showing an erosion of support for the Iraqi operation, there was heavy criticism from Democrats, some of whom hope to replace Bush in the White House in 2004.
"This is not an issue of George Tenet. This is an issue of George Bush," Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a Democratic presidential hopeful, told NBC's "Meet the Press."
"There was a selective use of intelligence -- that is, that information which was consistent with the administration's policy was given front-row seat," said Graham, the former chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, said in a radio interview the panel may call Tenet to answer questions this week. But he criticized Rice for being "dishonorable" in letting Tenet take the blame and said she must have known about the suspect uranium report long before Bush's State of the Union address.
"The entire intelligence community has been very skeptical about this from the very beginning," Rockefeller told National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" program.
"And she (Rice) has her own director of intelligence, she has her own Iraq and Africa specialists, and it's just beyond me that she didn't know about this, and that she has decided to make George Tenet the fall person... I think it's dishonorable."
Rice went to lengths to state that the British intelligence was not inaccurate, just unproven by the United States. "We have never said that the British report was wrong," she said.
Blair arrives in Washington on Thursday for talks with Bush. Both leaders have been criticized for overplaying intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, one of the prime justifications cited in the attack on Iraq. Three months after Saddam's fall, no such weapons have been found.
© 2003 Reuters