WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush was told in August that Iran's nuclear weapons program "may be suspended," the White House said Wednesday, which seemingly contradicts the account of the meeting given by Bush Tuesday.
President Bush wasn't given specifics in the August meeting, his press secretary says.
Adm. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told Bush the new information might cause intelligence officials to change their assessment of the Iranian program, but said analysts needed to review the new data before making a final judgment, White House press secretary Dana Perino said late Wednesday.
"Director McConnell said that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time, and it wouldn't be right to speculate until they had time to examine and analyze the new data," Perino said in a statement issued by the White House.
The new account from Perino seems to contradict the president's version of his August conversation with McConnell and raised new questions about why Bush continued to warn the American public about a threat from Iran two months after being told a new assessment was in the works.
But Perino said there was no conflict between her statement and Bush's Tuesday account of the meeting, when he said McConnell "didn't tell me what the information was."
"The president wasn't given the specific details" of the revised intelligence estimate, which was released Monday, Perino said. Nor did Bush mislead Americans in October, when he warned of a third world war triggered by Iran's development of nuclear technology, she said.
"The president didn't say we're going to cause World War III," Perino said. "He was saying he wanted to avoid World War III."
In October, the president told reporters, "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." The apparent gap between what U.S. intelligence officials knew in August and Bush's later warnings drew sharp criticism from Sen. Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, who called Bush's explanation unbelievable.
"I refuse to believe that," Biden said Tuesday. "If that's true, he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history, and he's one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history."
But Perino said there was no need for Bush to pull back on any of his public statements after the August meeting, because McConnell stressed to the president that intelligence officials still had to do "due diligence" to make sure the new information was correct.
"The director advised that there were many streams of information that had the potential to be in conflict, and it would take more time to vet it all to determine validity, and that's why they were not able to meet the deadline," she said in the prepared statement.
Perino said her account came from a conversation that McConnell had Wednesday with another White House official. Earlier, Perino's deputy, Tony Fratto, had refused to provide reporters with further details about the August meeting between Bush and McConnell.
The Bush administration has spent years warning that Iran's development of nuclear power plants and enriched uranium masked an effort to produce an atomic bomb. But in a reversal of a 2005 report, the National Intelligence Estimate released Monday concluded that Iran suspended nuclear weapons work in late 2003 and was unlikely to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb until at least 2010.
Instead of focusing on that reversal, Bush has continued to stress that the report confirms long-standing suspicions that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the first place. He said Wednesday that Tehran "has more to explain about its nuclear intentions and past actions," including a weapons program "which the Iranian regime has yet to acknowledge."
But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the report was "a declaration of victory" for Iran in the face of international pressure to suspend his country's production of nuclear fuel.
"Iran is a peaceful nuclear country now, and they have all accepted Iran as a nuclear country and have announced they will stand a nuclear Iran," Ahmadinejad said Wednesday.
But Bush said Tuesday the report "doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world." And Perino called Ahmadinejad a "liar" Wednesday, because the new NIE shows that Tehran did have a clandestine nuclear weapons program at one time.
"If anyone wants to call the president a liar, they are misreading the situation for their own political purposes," Perino said. "The liar is Ahmadinejad, and he has a lot of explaining to do."
In the August meeting, the White House said, McConnell told Bush "that the intelligence community would not be able to meet a congressionally imposed deadline requiring a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran because new information had been obtained."
Perino said this information showed the White House was correct in believing that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, which it halted only because of Bush's policies.
"The international pressure -- and the president's approach -- has worked," she said. E-mail to a friend
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