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State of the Union Controversy Intensifies

Aired July 11, 2003 - 20:12   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the flap over the president's false claim in his State of the Union address took a dramatic turn today. George Tenet, the director of the CIA, said it was his agency that was responsible for letting the information into the president's speech. Reaction today from both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania avenue, we're going to go for that now.
But, before Tenet's admission, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA for -- quote -- "extremely sloppy handling." Just hours later, Tenet made his admission in a statement that said -- and I quote -- The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound. Those words should never have been included in the text. I am responsible for the approval process in my agency" -- end quote.

Susan Malveaux is in Uganda. She says the president also spoke about those words today.


JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CIA director George Tenet's mea culpa came hours after the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee placed the blame squarely on Tenet for allowing false information to get into the president's State of the Union...



SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Bush insisted he did not intentionally mislead the American people in making his case for going to war.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services. And it was a speech that detailed to the American people the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime. And my government took the appropriate response to those dangers.

MALVEAUX: Throughout his Africa trip, the president has been dogged by claims he made in his State of the Union address that Iraq tried to get uranium from Africa, an argument used to support the case that Saddam Hussein was trying to develop a nuclear weapons program, justifying the U.S. going to war.

Intelligence officials have since admitted that at least one report that Iraq was trying to get uranium from Niger was false. But Mr. Bush stands by his speech. Earlier, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, traveling with the president, said the CIA cleared the address and that the administration followed the CIA's recommendations to take out the specific reference to Niger.

The administration replaced with the broader claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. Dr. Rice said that line was approved. And she added, "The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety. If the director of Central Intelligence had said, 'Take this out of the speech,' then it would have been done." But Secretary of State Colin Powell, seven days after the president's address, did not include the Iraq uranium claim in his presentation before the United Nations because the State Department's own intelligence arm found it dubious.

But Thursday, Powell played down the difference.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: You have to make judgments. And at the time of the president's State of the Union address, a judgment was made that that was an appropriate statement for the president to make. There was no effort or attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in the administration to mislead or to deceive the American people.

MALVEAUX (on camera): The Bush administration insists that it's confident in the intelligence it receives, but a senior administration official did acknowledge that the vetting process, determining what gets in the State of the Union, has to be tightened.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Entebbe, Uganda.


COOPER: Want to apologize just for the audio problem we had. We mixed two reports together at the beginning of that. Hope you stuck with us, though, for Susan Malveaux's report.

Now, earlier today, some senior Democrats were calling for an investigation into this matter. And the list of names might ring kind of familiar to you. Howard Dean, along with Senators Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Bob Graham, John Edwards, all say they want to know who knew what and when, all of them, of course, Democratic presidential candidates.

Jonathan Karl is on Capitol Hill now with the latest.


KARL (voice-over): CIA director George Tenet's mea culpa came hours after the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee placed the blame squarely on Tenet for allowing false information to get into the president's State of the Union address.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), KANSAS: 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. KARL: Tenet's attempt to take the blame is not likely to satisfy Democrats who say the buck stops with the president.

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is beginning to sound a little like Watergate. They start throwing people over the side, but the deeper you go, the more interesting it will be. It's very clear that it may be George Tenet's responsibility, but that information also existed in the State Department. It also existed in the vice president's office. So they will not get away with simply throwing George Tenet over the side.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In the end, the president is responsible for the information that is put out to the American people, wherever he got it from.

KARL: In closed hearings, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been investigating prewar intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. It is now clear, there will be public hearings as well and that the false information in the president's speech will be a part of the investigation.

ROBERTS: I think, in September, we'll have public hearings. And we will get to the bottom of this. And we will let the chips fall where they may.


KARL: The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, put out a statement saying that, even if the CIA approved the president's speech and that allegation about uranium in Africa as factually inaccurate -- quote -- "The speech was still blatantly misleading and a lot of senior officials in the administration and the Intelligence Committee knew it."

So, clearly, Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, is not satisfied. He, along with the other members of that committee, will get a chance to question Tenet directly. He is scheduled to testify before their committee in closed session next week.

Anderson, it is a previously scheduled appearance. But you can imagine this latest news will certainly dominate the hearing.

COOPER: Yes, it certainly will, Jonathan. Any talk of Tenet stepping down? Any calls for that?

KARL: There has been no call directly up here for Tenet the resign. But several have said that whoever is responsible should resign.

Now, they made those statements before Tenet came out and took this responsibility. We have not heard any other further reaction yet. But, clearly, he is the one that has been bearing much of the heat on this one, especially since the president and Condoleezza Rice came out and pointed the finger at him today.

COOPER: All right, Jonathan Karl, thanks very much from Capitol Hill.

I want to talk to two Washington insiders now about all this. And I'm joined by Frank Gaffney, who was assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, and President Clinton's senior speechwriter, Paul Glastris.

Welcome to both of you. Appreciate you joining us.

Paul, you obviously heard Tenet's statement. Is it enough?

PAUL GLASTRIS, FORMER CLINTON SPEECHWRITER: Well, it is the first chip. He's admitted that he made a mistake in not pushing harder to get the lie or the gross inaccuracy out of the speech. And that may be a firing offense. The question is, who was pushing to get the lie into the speech? And that's what is going to need to be investigated.

COOPER: Frank Gaffney, how about for you? Do you accept Tenet's statement? Is it what you wanted to hear, needed to hear? Is it what the White House wanted to hear?

FRANK GAFFNEY, FORMER ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think, as far as it goes, it is fine. It is an admission by him that he should have done more to vet the speech and didn't.

But I must tell you, the hyperbole that we're hearing about lies and Watergate and so on makes this really laughable. What the president said is completely accurate. A foreign intelligence service, the British intelligence service specifically, had arrived at the conclusion that Saddam Hussein was -- as part of a very far- ranging and indisputably true pursuit of nuclear weapons, was shopping in Africa for yellow cake and this sort of uranium material.

I don't think there is anything wrong with telling the American people that that information was being made available by a foreign intelligence service. And it certainly isn't something that approaches the level of hyperbole that we're hearing from particularly people, let's face it, who are looking for a way to get their faces into the spotlight. And I think this cheapens the debate considerably, that they're doing so in such a manifestly partisan way.

COOPER: Well, Paul, let me put that to you. Frank is basically echoing what George Tenet said, which is, technically, what the president said was accurate, that the source was British intelligence for this information. Is it wrong, then, to have it in the speech?

GLASTRIS: Well, it depends what the definition of is, is.

Sure, they were able to divert the problem, to kind of bridge the problem with some fancy language that says, well, it is the British who are saying this, while American officials at very high levels had reason to know that the British documents were not -- were not accurate.

So this is -- look, this was not some small fact. It is not like in -- it is not -- like saying that the divinity of Christ is one small fact in Christianity. This was the fundamental argument for the war in Iraq, as put forth by the administration, was weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons were the mother of weapons of mass destruction. And now it turns out that the whole basis of that was built on bogus information.

GAFFNEY: Listen, just the truth squad here, that's rubbish.

It is certainly the case that we made a very strong -- and Secretary Powell among others made a very strong presentation at the U.N. and elsewhere that weapons of mass destruction programs were continuing in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the combination of his involvement with terrorism gave rise to a material threat to the United States. But let's not blow this out of proportion.

The yellow cake effort on Saddam Hussein's part to import uranium from wherever he could get it, and particularly in Africa, as the president said, was just one piece. It doesn't talk about the biological weapons program. It doesn't talk about the chemical weapons program. And it doesn't make reference to the other aspects of the nuclear weapons program that we know were continuing afoot.

And most of the Democrats who are now in such high dudgeon about this are people who have, at various points, accepted, on the basis of their own insights into Saddam Hussein's activities and intelligence briefings and so on, that in fact, as the U.N. said, there were covert weapons of mass destruction programs going on.


GAFFNEY: I think this is really much ado about not very much.

COOPER: Frank, very briefly, any concerns on your behalf about the vetting process for intelligence?

GAFFNEY: Well, look, I have concerns about George Tenet. I would like to have seen him dismissed when the administration changed hands.

So his quality control, his leadership of the agency -- and, for sure, vetting of intelligence is something that ought to be carefully examined. And that's being done now. But I would just say, with respect to this particular charge, it is being hyped for partisan purposes. I don't think that it will stand the test of time. And I think it is actually shameful.

GLASTRIS: I think that if it is investigated, it could bring down the presidency. This is huge. This is huge.

GAFFNEY: Oh, nonsense. Nonsense.

COOPER: All right, we're going to have to leave it there, obviously a difference of opinion.

Paul Glastris, Frank Gaffney, always good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

GAFFNEY: Thank you.

GLASTRIS: Thank you.


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