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Tenet Book Blames White House for "16 Words"

Tenet Book Blames White House for "16 Words"

By Jason Leopold and Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report

Sunday 29 April 2007

Ex-CIA chief says he was "in bed, asleep" during Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech when the president claimed Iraq was attempting to obtain uranium from Niger.

George Tenet told former Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in October 2002 that allegations about Iraq's attempt to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger should immediately be removed from a speech President Bush was to give in Cincinnati. Tenet told Hadley that the intelligence was unreliable.

"Steve, take it out," the ex-CIA director writes in a new book, "At the Center of the Storm," about a conversation he had with Hadley on October 5, 2002, about the 16 words that alleged Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Niger. As deputy national security adviser, Hadley was also in charge of the clearance process for speeches given by White House officials. "The facts, I told him, were too much in doubt."

The 16 words in question, "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," were cited by Bush in a January 28, 2003 State of the Union address and were widely seen as the single most important element that helped convince Congress and the public to back an invasion of Iraq. However, the intelligence was wholly unreliable and based on forged documents. Tenet says that White House officials knew that and used the language anyway.

Following his conversation with Hadley, one of Tenet's aides sent a follow-up letter to then Deputy National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Hadley, and Bush's speechwriter Mike Gerson highlighting additional reasons the language about Iraq's purported attempts to obtain uranium from the African country of Niger should not be used to try to convince Congress and the public that Iraq was an imminent threat, Tenet wrote in the book.

"More on why we recommend removing the sentence about [Saddam's] procuring uranium oxide from Africa," Tenet wrote in the book, apparently quoting from a memo sent to the White House. "Three points: (1) The evidence is weak. One of the two mines cited by the source as the location of the uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine cited by the source is under the control of French authorities; (2) the procurement is not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions; and (3) we have shared points one and two with Congress, telling them the Africa story is overblown and telling them this was one of two issues where we differed with the British."

The revelation about the behind-the-scenes jockeying, as portrayed by Tenet, related to the so-called 16 words has not been previously reported. A copy of Tenet's book was purchased by a Truthout reporter at a bookstore Saturday afternoon. The book officially goes on sale Monday. Tenet received a $4 million advance for "At the Center of the Storm," according to news reports.

In the book, Tenet did not say whether he or his staff briefed a particular member of Congress, a Congressional committee, or the full Congress about the 16 words. Still, no one in Congress has stepped up over the past five years to say they were informed about the flawed Niger intelligence, and if so why they allowed the story to be peddled as fact for the past five years. To the contrary, Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has sparked renewed interest in the issue.

Waxman subpoenaed Rice to compel her to testify about her role in the 16 words controversy. Specifically, Waxman wants Rice to testify about whether she knew in advance that the intelligence was false. Rice said she would not honor the subpoena. For more than four years, Rice has said she could not recall receiving any oral or written warnings from the CIA about Iraq's interest in uranium from Niger as being unreliable. And despite previous warnings Tenet said Rice was given, she penned an op-ed January 23, 2003, claiming Iraq was actively trying "to get uranium from abroad."

Waxman has asked Tenet to testify about the Niger allegations, but the congressman has not yet received a reply. Neither Tenet nor his spokesman was available for comment.

Still, the written and verbal warnings Tenet had made to various members of the administration in October 2002 and thereafter about citing intelligence claiming Iraq was actively trying to obtain uranium from Niger apparently fell on deaf ears. On January 28, 2003 Bush cited the 16 words in the State of the Union address. Tenet said he had no idea what the president said that evening because he "was at home, in bed, asleep."

"You won't find many Washington officials who will admit to not watching the most important political speech of the year, but I was exhausted from fifteen months of nonstop work and worry since the tragedy of 9/11," Tenet writes in the chapter "16 words." "We had warned the White House against using the Niger uranium reports previously but had not done so with the State of the Union," Tenet wrote.

According to Tenet's book and previously published news reports, Robert Joseph is the official who suggested that the 16 words about Iraq's supposed attempts to acquire uranium from Niger be included in the State of the Union address. Joseph, formerly the director of nonproliferation at the National Security Council, is now the under secretary of state for arms control - a position once held by John Bolton. Bolton is the former United States ambassador to the United Nations.

Joseph fought to have the language included despite a telephone call he received from Alan Foley, director of the CIA's nonproliferation, intelligence and arms control center, demanding the 16 words be taken out of Bush's speech. Joseph has said he did not recall receiving a phone call from Foley, according to Tenet's book and a July 18, 2003 story in the Washington Post.

Foley had revealed the details of his conversation with Joseph during a closed-door hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence back in July 2003 - just two weeks after Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times documenting his role investigating whether Iraq tried to acquire uranium from Niger, according to the Post story and Tenet's "At the Center of the Storm."

The Senate committee held hearings during this time to try to find out how the administration came to rely on the Niger intelligence at a time when numerous intelligence agencies had warned top officials in the Bush administration that it was unreliable.

According to the report in the Washington Post, Foley said he had spoken to Joseph a day or two before President Bush's January 28, 2003 State of the Union address and told Joseph that detailed references to Iraq and Niger should be excluded from the final draft. Foley told committee members that Joseph had agreed to water down the language and would instead, he told Foley, attribute the intelligence to the British, which is exactly how Bush's speech was worded.

Tenet wrote that he believes the administration was excited about the prospect of removing Saddam Hussein from power and ignored his previous warnings about the bogus intelligence in order to win support for the war.

"The vision of a despot like Saddam getting his hands on nuclear weapons was galvanizing" and "provided an irresistible image for speechwriters, spokesmen, and politicians to seize on," Tenet wrote.

Still, Tenet says when the furor surrounding the 16 words reached a boiling point in July 2003 he "decided to stand up and take the hit."

"Obviously, the process for vetting the speech at the Agency had broken down," Tenet wrote. "We had warned the White House about the lack of reliability of the assertion when we had gotten them to remove similar language from the president's October [2002] Cincinnati speech and we should have gotten that language out of the [State of the Union address] as well."

Tenet wrote in his book that when it came time to issue a mea culpa for allowing Bush to use the 16 words in the State of the Union address, White House officials held a background briefing for the media and placed most of the blame for the intelligence gaffe on the CIA. At that time, July 18, 2003, one of the officials at the briefing, later identified as I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was recently convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, released a portion of the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate which attempted to provide further credibility to the uranium claims - even though the intelligence it was based upon was proven to be forged.

The briefing was sparked by an op-ed written by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson two weeks prior in which he had accused the administration of twisting the Niger intelligence to build a case for war. Wilson had been the special envoy who traveled to Niger in February 2002 at the behest of the CIA to investigate the uranium claims. He reported back to the CIA that the allegations were baseless.

Tenet wrote that the intent of the White House's background briefing "was obvious.... They wanted to demonstrate that the intelligence community had given the administration and Congress every reason to believe that Saddam had a robust WMD program that was growing in seriousness every day. The briefers were questioned about press accounts saying that the White House had taken references to Niger out of the Cincinnati speech at the CIA's request. Why then did they insert them again in the State of the Union address?"

Tenet wrote that the White House officials had told the media that the language pertaining to Niger omitted from the Cincinnati speech was dramatically different from the Niger claims that ended up in the State of the Union address.

"That simply wasn't so," Tenet wrote. "It was clear that the entire briefing was intended to convince the press corps that the White House staff was an innocent victim of bad work by the intelligence community."


Matt Renner is a reporter for Truthout.

Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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