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CIA Director George Tenet Admits Reponsibility for Mistake in State of the Union Address

Aired July 11, 2003 - 19:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news on the other side of the country tops our story. After a day of back and forth about who's to blame for the mistake in the president's State of the Union Address, minutes ago someone finally took responsibility, but it is not the White House. Jamie McIntyre has more now.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, in an exceptional statement from CIA Director George Tenet, he accepts responsibility for the 16 words being put in the Presidential Address, that made the assertion that British intelligence said that Iraq was actively seeking uranium from countries in Africa.

The statement issued by Tenet, just about an hour ago, says that the CIA, in fact, did approve the president's address, that George Tenet was the person responsible for that approval process, and the president had every expectation that the intelligence used to back up his speech was sound. But he also said that those 16 words should never have been in the presidential text. It was, he said, a mistake.

A mistake, but the CIA is still not saying that the intelligence was wrong. In fact, at the very end of his statement, Tenet says, quote, from what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct, that is, that the British government report that said Iraq sought uranium from Africa was correct, but it should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address. That is, it was technically correct, but it was misleading because U.S. intelligence suggested that there was only inconclusive evidence.

In the end, Tenet said the CIA should have insured that those words were removed from the Presidential Address. Now, that said Anderson, a CIA spokesman told CNN tonight George Tenet has no intention to or resign or step down nor, the spokesman says, has anyone in the administration made that suggestion -- Anderson.

COOPER: Jamie, let's be very clear. He's saying, Tenet in the statement, basically saying it was technically correct because they cited British intelligence as the source for this. He is not at this point saying that the claim itself is correct? I mean it's basically accepted that the intelligence was flawed but technically the statement was correct because it cited the British intelligence?

MCINTYRE:: Well the flaw was that the intelligence was inconclusive. Now in the two-page statement it recounts the history of various suspicious activities that would seem to suggest Iraq was seeking uranium from either Niger or other African countries. But none of that intelligence rose to the level where the U.S. felt it could make a definitive statement or claim.

Given that, they say it's not -- it's probably not proper to then go find another source and cite British intelligence to make the same claim that you're not comfortable making yourself. And that's where they say the mistake was. There's still a lot of dots here that suggest that Iraq was trying to obtain intelligence, but intelligence by its nature is often inconclusive and it's the responsibility of the intelligence agency to make clear what they know, what they think, what they suspect, and what the difference is between those two. That's where the fail your came here.

I just want to make it clear that the CIA is not giving Iraq a clean bill of health in this episode. In fact, it cites a lot of evidence suggesting that Iraq was at some level attempting to find uranium.

COOPER: Obviously as you know, Jamie, there has been a chorus of calls for investigations, largely from a lot of Democrats, particularly the Democratic presidential candidates also earlier today the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, sort of joined that chorus. Want it play some of what he had to say. Let's listen.


PAT ROBERTS, (R-KA) CHAIRMAN, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: If the CIA had changed its position, it was incumbent on the director of central intelligence to correct that record. And certainly bring it to the immediate attention of the president. It appears that he did not. The director of central intelligence is the principal adviser to the president on intelligence matters. He should have told the president. He failed. He failed to do so.


COOPER: Jamie, at this point, I mean, does this take the pressure off George Tenet or has the story not ended here?

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, I think we're going to have to see how this plays out. Clearly there are some people calling for George Tenet's head, People, in particular, who want to deflect criticism from the White House. But there were two parties to this, it's true that the CIA is now is accepting responsibility for not trying hard enough to get this information out of the president's speech, but there's also the responsibility of the people in the White House who sought another source of attribution after the CIA said they weren't comfortable supporting that statement and decided, well, they'll just use the British intelligence attribution. They bear responsibility, too, for making that decision.

Again, the speech was technically, factually correct, but misleading in the weight that was put behind that intelligence.

COOPER: All right. Jamie McIntyre thanks for the breaking news. Thanks for the report. CNN's senior political analyst joins us to talk about the fallout. Bill Schneider joins me from Washington. Bill thanks for being with us. Do you thing this takes the heat off Tenet, off the White House or did the fire get a little hotter?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it got hotter. I don't think it takes the heat off Tenet because what Tenet is saying is, I bear the responsibility for having vetting that report, misleading or at least information got into the State of the Union speech, the most important statement the president makes the entire year, the State of the Union speech which he makes to the country, the Congress, to the entire world, the information in there was not properly vetted and that's my responsibility. Now, Tenet clearly bears that responsibility and he assumes it. The heat is going to be on him. There are going to be a lot of calls for him to resign. Now the question is does the heat go on to the president?

What he said in the report in the statement was, quote, the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound. Well, a lot of people are going to say he should have checked it out further. There are other sources of intelligence. Just sourcing this report to the British was really not enough. It simply should not have gotten into the State of the Union speech and a lot of critics, Democrats and some Republicans, are going to say the words came out of the president's mouth. It was up to the White House to verify everything in it. The CIA failed to do that. There must have been other ways in which it could have been verified because it was a very important allegation.

COOPER: Does it take, though, heat off President Bush? I mean there are those who have been calling for investigations, those who have been saying that perhaps the president was trying to mislead the American public? This would certainly seem to be George Tenet, taking responsibility at this point.

SCHNEIDER: Well, the very least you could argue that there's no indication here that president was intentionally, deliberately trying to mislead anyone. Because what Tenet said was, the president had every reason to believe that text of the speech presented to him was sound. He should have been -- he, the president, people around him in the White House, should have been far more vigorous, more skeptical, more assertive in checking this out. There's no indication here the president intentionally tried to mislead anyone.

The question is, whether the process of vetting this speech was adequate.

COOPER: Well let's finally talk about politics. How does this play into the hands of the Democrats who have been very on message in calling for greater scrutiny of this whole subject?

SCHNEIDER: I think the Democrats are going to be -- first of all they're going to criticize the entire intelligence process. They're going to say that people if the White House were far too eager to accent the evidence without giving it careful scrutiny and to believe it perhaps without due skepticism. Again without making any allegations, it would be foolish to say the president was deliberately intending to mislead. There's no evidence of that.

And there is a bigger implication here. Look, this White House has promoted the doctrine of preemptive action. Preemptive action, that we are going to act against those who threaten the United States, even before they do anything to act on those threats, that kind of doctrine depends on flawless intelligence. We're going to have Democrats beginning to say if that's going to be the Bush doctrine, then the intelligence process has got to be greatly improved from what it is now because without perfect intelligence, the doctrine of preemptive action falls apart.

COOPER: All right. Senior political analyst Bill Schneider thanks very much.

So the claim that's causing President Bush so much heart burn apparently originated with British intelligence as we've been talking about. Richard Wolf of "Newsweek" has been looking into that angle of the story. He joins us from Washington. Richard thanks for being with us.

First of all, what do you make of George Tenet's statement from just about an hour ago?

RICHARD WOLF, "NEWSWEEK": Well it is an extraordinary insight into how these speeches get put together. But I have to tell you the finger pointing has been going on inside the administration for some time over the intelligence, how it was drawn up and, in particular, how this kind of faulty intelligence made its way right to the top of the tree, right to the White House and beyond in terms of reaching the American public.

So there's a lot of kind of questioning going on inside the administration about who's to blame and how it happened.

COOPER: Well as tenet made very clear to point out in his statement that this material originated with British intelligence. Let's talk about British intelligence a little bit. How are they playing this off at this point? Do they still stand by this intelligence?

WOLF: Pretty much. They say that they never mentioned the word Niger, this African country where some of this uranium was supposed to have come from or at least attempts were made to get it from there. They said they have multiple sources in Africa for the procurement efforts of Saddam Hussein, but I have to say, in recent weeks and months as the heat has really increased on the British government, that people have been backing off. They have been saying, well maybe some of these claims were not so strong and we shouldn't have made them. There's a lot of second guessing in London as well.

COOPER: Well if London wasn't saying this is intelligence came from Niger where did Niger enter the picture?

WOLF: Niger was first cited by actually the Bush administration in response to, if you remember, the 12,000 word declaration by Saddam Hussein where he denied having any weapons of mass destruction. And it was just a written statement. People before that and the Prime Minister Tony Blair among other people merely mentioned Africa, that the source was African. But frankly, people are backing off this story so quickly, it's just not clear whether the sourcing was any good.

COOPER: There's a lot of finger pointing to both President Bush, also Prime Minister Tony Blair's under enormous pressure right now. How is this affecting relations between the two?

WOLF: Well, there are a whole lot of questions going back and forth, not just about this but about the way the reconstruction is being handled, security situations in Iraq. There's also tensions over the handling of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. So this really adds to it. I think you're seeing a lot of domestic political pressure really bringing out some undiplomatic comments from both sides, and people are looking after themselves here.

COOPER: All right. Understood that. Richard Wolf, appreciate you joining us. Thank you very much.

We are going to continue to cover this breaking story over the next several hours, following it very closely for any other statements that may be made over the coming evenings and over the next several days as well. Obviously, this story is not going away any time soon.


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