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State of the Union Controversy Intensifies

Aired July 14, 2003 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush is trying again to put out the political firestorm over 16 words in his State of the Union speech. Those words contain his now disputed claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapons program. Well, the president says his speech was cleared by the CIA, adding he gets -- quote -- "darn good intelligence."
Joining us now from San Francisco is former CIA Director James Woolsey.

Always good to see you, sir. Thanks for spending a little time with us this evening.


ZAHN: Mr. Woolsey, do you believe the Bush administration stretched the truth to help build public support for this war against Iraq?

WOOLSEY: Well, in literal terms, no.

What those 16 words say is that the British have reported that the Iraqis were trying to get yellow cake or uranium oxide from Africa. And, apparently, that is still true. The British are standing by their report. And they, according to press, refuse to share their source with us. So this is a little more complex, I think, than that the Bush administration made a specific claim that something was true. That's not exactly what they said.

ZAHN: Well, let me ask you this. If you had been running the CIA and you had these sources in a report from the British that you couldn't tap or couldn't otherwise verify, would you have been comfortable giving it to the Bush administration to use in a speech?

WOOLSEY: Well, probably not. And I think that's why George Tenet issued his statement. But it is a very precise statement, and I think correctly so.

This all apparently has to do with a conversation between a senior National Security Council staffer, Mr. Joseph, and a senior CIA staffer about whether or not this phrase should go in, given the fact that they had to rely on a British report which they didn't have a source for. Somehow, out of that conversation, the phrase went into the president's speech, even though something very similar had been knocked out in October, according to the press, at George Tenet's instigation. And it was also not put in Colin Powell's speech of a few days later. So it is curious. And we wonder why it found its way into the president's statement. But it doesn't, to me, look like a hanging offense. This was not the centerpiece of their case for going into Iraq.

ZAHN: So, if that's true and you had been running the CIA, would you have taken the fall, like George Tenet? Do you think that was the appropriate thing to have happened?

WOOLSEY: I think it's fair. Sure, I think it is fair. You take responsibility for what goes on in your agency. And this was a slip- up. But I would not put it at the -- like I said, I wouldn't make it a hanging offense.

I think George is a fine public servant. And I think he took responsibility that this went into the president's speech, even though the CIA didn't know what the source of the British was. They were essentially quoting another government. It's a government we rely on very heavily for a lot of intelligence. But they were quoting another government's statement. And it was potentially susceptible to misunderstanding. And I think George, rightly, said that: Anything that happens in my organization, I take responsibility for.

ZAHN: When you say the U.S. relies heavily on the Brits for intelligence, did you have 100 percent degree level of comfort with intelligence you saw coming from the British information services?

WOOLSEY: With the Brits, one comes about as close as one can. We give them a lot of intelligence and they give us a lot. And it has been a wonderful cooperation over the years. And they have very fine intelligence services and work very hard.

Intelligence is never perfect. It is a matter of inferences. Sometimes, you have 10 percent of the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle and you're making judgments about 90 percent. Sometimes, you have 90 percent of the pieces and you're making judgments about the blank spaces of 10 percent. But you're almost always make something kind of judgment. And not everybody is always right in those cases.

ZAHN: Well, Mr. Woolsey, we appreciate your perspective this evening. Thank you very much, again, for dropping by.

WOOLSEY: Good to be with you.

ZAHN: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice calls the State of the Union controversy enormously overblown. No surprise, the Democratic presidential candidates see it quite differently. What about the American public?

Joining me now from Washington to talk about whether we're at the beginning, middle or end of this controversy is "TIME" magazine's James Carney.


JAMES CARNEY, "TIME": Thank you. ZAHN: So, do you want to try answering that question? Where are we in this trip?

CARNEY: Well, the American public has begun to show signs of wondering whether or not the case the president made, the case that his direct surrogates made for war, was hyped.

Some polls now show that upwards of 50 percent believe that the case about weapons of mass destruction was exaggerated. And more troubling for the president, polls show, at the same time, more and more concern about the situation on the ground in Iraq. And, really, those two stories, because they exist together, become bigger. Separately, each story is a problem, but not a huge problem. And, in fact, the issue of whether or not the president oversold the case for war against Iraq probably wouldn't be a story at all of any particular significance if it weren't for the fact that the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to look bad and maybe even deteriorate.

With American soldiers dying every couple of days, Americans are unhappy about that and more likely to ask questions about why we got into this in the first place.

ZAHN: You wrote a very lengthy piece in this week's "TIME" magazine about this. Is there any evidence that -- at this juncture of your reporting of a cover-up here?

CARNEY: Well, of a cover-up -- and those are big words. As we know, in Washington scandals, the cover-up is always bigger than the crime itself.

A cover-up, no, but -- not in that sense -- but, certainly, the White House, for the past several months, since the U.N. body the IAEA first divulged the facts that the letters that were the supporting evidence for this allegation about uranium sales were crude forgeries, the White House insisted periodically to reporters that, first, they stood by their statement. Then they said, well, it was still true even though these forgeries were there, or maybe they were talking about other African countries, as opposed to Niger. So there was an effort to sort of shovel this under -- brush this under the carpet.

Now, to the extent that there is a cover-up of any kind, the question we don't have answered and the reason why this case isn't closed yet is, we don't know why somebody within the White House or within the administration kept pushing to get this information out. Somebody put it in the president's speech in October. George Tenet, the CIA director, personally intervened to get it pulled out.

Somebody put it back in January. And a week before the president's State of the Union, someone stuck it in Condoleezza Rice's op-ed in "The New York Times." So somebody -- there was an element within the administration who, despite all the reservations the intelligence services had about this reporting, still wanted it out there as part of the case for war. And I think the reason for that is that, when it comes down to it, the true weapon of mass destruction is a nuclear bomb. Chemical and biological weapons are scary, but they're not as frightening as nuclear weapons. And when you're making a case for war, there is nothing quite as scary as saying Saddam Hussein may have a nuclear bomb.

ZAHN: James, we only have about 15 seconds left.

You talk a little bit about the vice president in this article. Do you think we'll ever understand the full extent to which he might have been involved in this issue?

CARNEY: Well, I doubt we'll understand the full extent, because the vice president, within a secretive administration, is the most secretive of all.

And they are not very open with information, the vice president's office. We know that he instigated, through his interest in the Niger allegation -- got the CIA, because of his interest, to send an envoy to check out the story, who came back and said, it looked bogus. We don't know, internally, whether he or his office was pushing this allegation, although the vice president did, several times on television, talk about Saddam reconstituting his nuclear program. Whether or not he's more involved in this, we may never know.

ZAHN: Jay Carney, as always, good to see you.

CARNEY: Thank you.

ZAHN: Interesting piece in this week's "TIME" magazine.


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