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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

WMD: The Burden of Proof

Aired July 13, 2003 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: The CIA and the future of Director George Tenet. Questions over how wrong intelligence information made it into the president's State of the Union address. The president returns to the White House facing tough new questions on Iraq and whether information was twisted to justify invading Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president of the United States did not go to war because of a question of whether or not Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Fighting back on the controversy involving WMD, the State of the Union, and going to war.

SOPHIA CHOI, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Sophia Choi, and this is a special report, WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: BURDEN OF PROOF. In the next half hour we will take an in-depth look at the furor over 16 words spoken by President Bush in the State of the Union dress. The now debunked claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa is raising questions about intelligence failures. CIA Director George Tenet is taking the blame, but will that be enough, and will there be a political fallout for President Bush? All questions we will try to answer for you.

And let's begin with a look at the damage control. The White House admitted last week U. S. intelligence said Iraq was trying to buy nuclear material in Africa was not solid enough to support a line in the president's State of the Union address, a line Mr. Bush used as part of his case for war with Iraq with attribution to British intelligence.

The controversy followed the president through his five-day trip to Africa, and today White House officials tried to go from defense to offense. CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash joins now with a look at their comments. Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Sophia. Well, White House officials today clearly tried to take a back control of this story calling it blown out of proportion. But Democrats showed no signs of letting it go.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): A little more than 12 hours after the president's Saturday night return from Africa, his top advisers hit the airwaves, attempting damage control over these 16 words.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

BASH: The focus, say Bush officials, on one dubious line in the State of the Union misses the big picture. The war was justified.

RICE: It is 16 words, and it has become an enormously overblown issue. The president of the United States did not go to war because of a question of whether or not Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa. He took the American people and the American forces to war because this was a bloody tyrant who, for 12 years had defied the international community.

BASH: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice denies intelligence was manipulated, standing by the claim Saddam Hussein was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program. Democrats and some Republicans say that's beside the point. Despite CIA director George Tenet's mea culpa, they are still demanding answers from the White House.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: Well, as far as the 16 words, we all know words have meaning.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: The 16 words are deeply, deeply troubling to me, and the way in which the administration has responded in the last few days raises more questions than it answers.

BASH: With some 80 U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the president declared major combat over and polls showing Americans increasingly impatient about the post-war effort, Democrats, especially those who want Mr. Bush's job, are not letting this go, calling it a credibility issue.

SEN. BOB GRAHAM (D), FLORIDA: If the facts show that was not true, either because of bad intelligence or intelligence that was politicized, that will be a serious combination of the United States to the world and to the American people.

BASH: But top Bush officials point out that while U.S. intelligence may not be able to back the claim, the British still are.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The British still that's accurate. It may be. There's no one that's demonstrated that it is inaccurate. The only thing we know is that it didn't rise to the level of a presidential speech.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And as much as Bush officials want to call this matter case closed, it's almost sure to remain open this week as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who's already under fire in his own country for prewar intelligence, visits the White House -- Sophia.

CHOI: Dana, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who is running for president on the Democratic ticket, likens this to Watergate. That's pretty controversial to say. Any reaction from the White House on that?

BASH: Well, it's interesting. White House officials are less concerned about comments from people like Howard Dean, who was opposed to the war from the beginning, than comments from Dick Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, and John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts, and even Joe Lieberman, the senator from -- Democratic senator from Connecticut, who all supported war in Iraq and voted for the war in Iraq and are seeing an opening here, a political opening here, and are going after the White House for this issue. So, this is something that concerns them more. It's the Democrats who have been in with the White House and has supported the White House on the war who are attacking them, and that is something that is going to be something to watch as far as the White House is concerned in the weeks and months to come.

CHOI: CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash, our thanks to you.

And let's continue with a timeline of how this controversial claim made it into the State of the Union address. CNN national correspondent Bob Franken joins us from Washington with that part of the story. Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Sophia, there's a perception that perhaps the argument started around the State of the Union over the uranium purchase allegations concerning Iraq and Africa, but actually, it happened a long time before that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN (voice-over): Almost a year before the State of the Union speech in February of 2002, former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson returns from a CIA mission to Niger, reporting the claim Iraq was trying to buy uranium was probably bogus.

JOE WILSON, U.S. ENVOY: It seemed that this information was inaccurate. That view was shared by the ambassador out there, largely shared in Washington, even before I went out there.

FRANKEN: Half a year later, ignoring CIA advice, the British put out a so-called white paper, which they continue to insist is accurate.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful.

FRANKEN: But on October 7, after the CIA waived the president off the uranium Africa specifics, his Cincinnati speech was vague.

BUSH: The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

RICE: The Cincinnati speech was on October 7, originally had a reference to a very specific -- a very specific reference to uranium in a specific amount on a single source. That was taken out at Director Tenet's urging.

FRANKEN: As the usually agonizing fact checking went on leading up to January's State of the Union speech, the CIA once again expressed concern to the White House. This time, the uranium claim stayed in, citing the British government as the source.

BUSH: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that that was cleared by the intelligence services.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used.

FRANKEN: Totally outrageous? Apparently the secretary of state had second thoughts. Eight days after the State of the Union message, he did not include that in his United Nations presentation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: And six months later the questions remain, Sophia. Who knew the information was suspect and who should have known? Sophia?

CHOI: Bob Franken in Washington, thanks.

Amid the controversy swirling around President Bush's State of the Union comments, another voice weighs in. Former chief U. N. weapons inspector Hans Blix points to another claim based on British intelligence that he says wasn't true. In an interview with "The Independent" newspaper, Blix comments on the British government's claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. Blix says, quote, "I think that was a fundamental. I don't know exactly how they calculated this figure of 45 minutes in the dossier of September of last year. That seems pretty far off the mark to me."

And across the pond, as they say, in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing similar criticism for his justification for invading Iraq. Mr. Blair is under increasing pressure now to release details of British intelligence reports about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium. CNN's Diana Muriel says how he handles it could determine his political future.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DIANA MURIEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Where are they, those weapons of mass destruction? That's the question on everyone's lips here in Britain, and it's a question that Prime Minister Tony Blair is finding increasingly hard to answer. His popularity has not been this low in the six years since he took office.

There are several government investigations going on into what was said and done in the run-up to the conflict. Although asked, Tony Blair refused to appear before one of those committees, although his director of communications, Alistair Campbell, was grilled by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee over allegations by the BBC he had sexed up, to use a phrase that's current here, inclusion of intelligence material to make the case for war more convincing.

There is a growing call for an independent inquiry on this side of the Atlantic, but in the meantime, the British public is rapidly reaching the conclusion that either their prime minister was simply ignorant on what was going on in Iraq before the conflict there or he misled them.

Diana Muriel, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHOI: With the weapons of mass destruction issue still not resolved in Iraq, what kind of fallout could it have on the president's popularity rating and down the road on his re-election campaign? For more on this, let's bring in our senior political analyst Bill Schneider in New York. Bill, what kind of political fallout are you seeing from this?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Sophia, it's not the same as in Britain, I'll tell you. The majority of Americans say they do not believe the president quote, "purposely misled the American people."

Thirty-eight percent of Americans think he did. It's an interesting figure because that's the percentage who said they would vote for a Democrat over Mr. Bush next year, which means at this point, the sentiment critical of Mr. Bush for purposely misleading them, if that's what they believe he did, is mostly partisan.

Now, here's why the political traction of this issue is limited. Sixty-nine percent of Americans, in a "Newsweek" poll that was just released, say they think Iraq did possess banned weapons right before the war started in March. And that number has hardly changed. It was 72 percent at the end of May. For most Americans Iraq's reluctance to cooperate with the inspection process is evidence that it probably did have those weapons.

When the president said last week in Africa that he believes -- he has no doubt, in fact, that the United States and its allies did the right thing in bringing down Saddam Hussein, most Americans agree. I think the basic principle here is they don't quarrel with success.

CHOI: But in light of all of this, Bill, are Americans having doubts now about the war in Iraq?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there is a real political danger here down the road for the president, and that is, the growing numbers of Americans who say they're not convinced that the war was entirely a success. Not a majority yet, but the number who say that it was not worth going to war with Iraq has been growing. This has been happening for a while. As you can see here, the number who say that it was not worth going to war in Iraq grew from 19 percent at the end of war in April to 42 percent at the end of June. Why? Well, the main reason is the number of Americans who have been killed in Iraq. Losses nearly doubled between the time of the end of the war and the end of June, which means roughly one American killed every day since the war supposedly ended.

The issue that's gaining traction, Sophia, in this country, is not what -- why was the intelligence flawed or misleading, it is why are so many Americans still getting killed over there?

CHOI: And so how big of a problem do you see this becoming for the president in his re-election campaign?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I said Americans don't like to quarrel with success, but they will quarrel if they believe that the policy is no longer a success. If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, then a lot of Americans are going to start to ask, how did we get into this mess in the first place? And then the controversy over flawed intelligence will begin to have some traction. Sophia?

CHOI: Bill Schneider, thanks so much for putting this all into perspective for us.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

CHOI: The embattled director of the CIA. Can George Tenet survive the firestorm of criticism over faulty intelligence? Coming up, in depth on the man in the crossfire and the heat generated over the intelligence failure.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: The president's statement was accurate when he said the British intelligence says this, which is what he said. They still -- the British still think that's accurate. It may be. There's no one that's demonstrated that it's inaccurate. The only thing we know is that it didn't rise to the level of a presidential speech and, therefore, it should not have been in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHOI: Welcome back to our CNN special, WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: BURDEN OF PROOF. CIA Director George Tenet says he's responsible for allowing bogus intelligence to make it into the State of the Union address. Will that be enough to calm the storm? Here again is CNN national correspondent, Bob Franken.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN (voice-over): Now that CIA director volunteered to take the heat, that should be that, right? SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: No. The case is not closed. I don't believe that George Tenet saying something about responsibility ends the question of ultimate responsibility, nor does it answer the question or questions about what really happened.

FRANKEN: The presidential campaign is under way, and the Democrats, after all, are not running against the CIA director.

GRAHAM: This is not a problem of George Tenet. It's a problem of George Bush.

FRANKEN: Tenet was originally appointed by President Clinton, and some Republicans point to other intelligence controversies and want him out.

SHELBY: There have been more failures of intelligence on the watch of George Tenet than anybody in recent history as director of the CIA.

FRANKEN: But here he was taking the fall for President Bush.

RUMSFELD: George Tenet is a wonderful public servant, and the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence community does a good job.

RICE: George Tenet is a fine director of central intelligence. He has fought the war on terrorism well.

FRANKEN: What about Condoleezza Rice then? Her staff negotiated the language in the president's speech with the CIA where the British became the source.

LEVIN: She doesn't yet acknowledge what is so obvious it seems to me, that you cannot make a statement, which you believe is untrue, by saying somebody else has learned that something has happened creating an impression that it is true, a false impression.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: Now, this is a town that thrives on finger pointing, but the point is much larger than politics. The question, Sophia, of what went into the decisions that led to the still precarious situation in Iraq and who is really responsible for them? Sophia.

CHOI: So, Bob, what's the next step? Where do we go from here?

FRANKEN: Well, as far as this controversy is concerned, we really heard nothing new today. We heard the positions expressed in all the Sunday talk shows that we would have expected to hear. I think we have to find out if there is any new disclosure. We're hearing that Tenet is supposed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. That could produce some new development, but at the moment, the story seems stuck where it's been for the last day or so.

CHOI: All right. Bob Franken, thanks for that. Well, how does the Bush administration typically handle intelligence information, and is the CIA normally called when the president's State of the Union dress is being drafted? James Steinberg knows a lot about the inner workings White House. He was the deputy national security adviser for the Clinton administration. Thanks for joining us this evening.

JAMES STEINBERG, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Pleasure to be here, Sophia.

CHOI: So, let me ask you, you have heard what George Tenet has said. He's taking the blame for the erroneous information that made it into the president's State of the Union address. Your reaction to all of this?

STEINBERG: I think clearly there was a procedural failure at the CIA. The CIA knew that there was problems with this intelligence, and they didn't tell the White House that they simply had to take it out.

But I think the real problem is in the White House. There was clearly knowledge that there was problems here. The sentence was negotiated in great detail. They were obviously desperate to keep it in, and I think it reflects a lawyering attitude to try to get a technically accurate statement, as Secretary Rumsfeld has argued, but not something that conveys the truth to the American people. And our credibility is very important on these issues, especially when the president is talking.

CHOI: Well, is it normal for the CIA to get involved before a State of the Union address to kind of be consulted?

STEINBERG: Absolutely. It would be unthinkable that the president would go out there, talk about what we know without consulting with the intelligence agencies and getting their best judgment about what the intelligence does and doesn't support. As standard practice, it clearly happened to some degree in this case, although it appears that George Tenet himself was not directly involved, and I think that may have been part of the problem here.

CHOI: All right. Well, today we've been soliciting viewer e- mails on this, and we've got one here. "The vice president's office asked the CIA to investigate claims that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium from an Africa country. The CIA reported back to the vice president's office. The vice president obviously reviewed and OK the State of the Union address. Why hasn't the vice president been questioned about his approval?" And that comes to us from Antioch, California, Ernie Matlock.

STEINBERG: Well, I think the question is a very good one, and the whole role of the vice president and the vice president's office is one that needs to be looked into. There are reports that the vice president personally went to the CIA, pushed for the CIA to be more forthcoming on intelligence. There was certainly a deep involvement by the vice president's staff in this. They clearly didn't trust the judgment of the CIA, and I think that the whole question about whether there was pressure on the intelligence community to push beyond what the facts supported is one that does deserve investigation.

CHOI: All right. Rich in Fresno e-mails us, "Why is it that the U. N. weapons inspectors were only given a limited amount of time to find WMDs, but our troops/intelligence services don't have the same time constraints?"

STEINBERG: I don't think the question is whether the inspectors had enough time to do it. I think we should let the troops do what they need to do. The question is not whether we, in fact, are going to find the weapons of mass destruction or not. The question is whether the president and the administration gave an accurate assessment about what they knew and what they didn't know. I believe that there was a basis for taking action here. I think the president was justified.

But when he goes beyond the facts, when he pushes the intelligence beyond what it supports, it hurts ours credibility, not only at home, but abroad. If we want to get the support of others in the future, we need them to believe us when the president says, this is the way it is..

CHOI: So, what does this come down to, a matter of faulty intelligence or a matter of how you interpreted that intelligence?

STEINBERG: I don't think there's any question about the faultiness of the intelligence. It's very clear that there was not intelligence to support this, that there was no adequate basis for making a claim about African uranium. So, it's a question of how intelligence is being used by policymakers, up to and including the president, that's really at issue here.

CHOI: So does this end with Tenet, or do you see more fallout for the Bush administration from all of this?

STEINBERG: I think there are important questions that the White House needs to answer. I think it needs to be willing to admit that this was not an appropriate use, that they need to be really much more honest about how they use intelligence and try to support these claims than to recognize this isn't a question of trying to spin the American people or to try to give impressions about facts that don't exist, but really that there's a much higher standard that has to be applied here.

CHOI: So how do you see this playing out nationally and internationally, perhaps more importantly?

STEINBERG: I think the international repercussions are very serious. I think if the president and White House don't really acknowledge the problem here, then they're going to just further damage American credibility, which is already seriously in question. We've seen questions not only about claims of WMD, but questions concerning the administration's claims about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and every time those judgments are asserted by the United States and not backed up by the facts, we make it harder and harder for others to believe us and to support us. And we're going need their support as we go forward in Iraq. CHOI: Do you see George Tenet just playing the fall guy here? Do you think he was pressured to come forward?

STEINBERG: I think that there was a problem with the CIA. Clearly the CIA should have been more categorical about telling the White House that this simply shouldn't have been in the speech, but I do think that the problems are largely procedural at the CIA. They clearly had alerted the White House, as Bob Franken made clear, as early as October that there was a problem with this intelligence.

So, I think what needs to be looked as is how the White House and the people there were responding to these warning flags that they had been getting from the CIA.

CHOI: James Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser under President Clinton. We thank you so much for your insight.

STEINBERG: Thank you for having me.

CHOI: A chance for viewers to weigh in on WMD, BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll look at some of your e-mails on the topic and on today's program.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHOI: Welcome back. Time now for your comments. Eric Ferguson (ph) of San Diego writes, "I believe the president knew that the African-Iraqi uranium connection was very weak at best. My gut reaction is that he knew it was false, but he was under so much pressure to justify the war that he used it anyway."

Kevin from Albany, New York, writes, "There was every reason in the world to believe that Iraq possessed a variety of weapons of mass destruction. I say good riddance to him and his regime."

Jean Abel (ph) writes, "The only reason for the United States to have gone to war with Iraq is if they were a threat to this nation. If they did not have WMD, they were not a threat. The fact that their leader was a tyrant is not justification for America to use its military force in a preemptive way. If we use the standard that tyrannical dictators should be removed from power, we have a long list of wars to fight."

And Bruce from Mullin, Texas, writes, "What's the big deal? I only have one question. Is the world better off when Saddam Hussein is out of power? The answer is yes, yes, yes."

And that's it for our special, but we still have a lot more for you ahead. The day's headlines are coming up followed by "CNN SUNDAY".

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