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Rice: 16 words dispute 'enormously overblown'

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice:
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice: "We're talking about a sentence, a data point."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Criticism grew last week over the White House's acknowledgment that President Bush included a 16-word statement in his State of the Union address that was based on false intelligence. The statement was part of Bush's argument to declare war on Iraq. (Bush's 16 words)

On Friday, CIA Director George Tenet took responsibility for allowing the statement to remain in Bush's address.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on Sunday's "Late Edition."

BLITZER: Let's talk about the uproar that has happened over these past several days as a result of these 16 words. Listen to this.


BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.


BLITZER: All right, the key question: How did that get into the president's State of the Union address, arguably the most important speech he gives every year? How did it get in, if that wasn't necessarily meeting the standards that you think should have been met?

RICE: Wolf, let me just start by saying, 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 the question of whether or not Saddam Hussein sought the uranium in Africa. He took the American people and American forces to war because this was a bloody tyrant, who for 12 years had defied the international community, who had weapons of mass destruction, who had used them in the past, who was threatening his neighbors, and who threatened our efforts to make the Middle East a place in which you would have stability and therefore not people with ideologies of hatred driving airplanes into the World Trade Center. That's why we went to war.

This 16 words came into the State of the Union from a whole host of sources. We used unclassified sources, like the British [white] paper. There were references to this in the National Intelligence Estimate. And the State of the Union was constructed on the basis of several different documents, all of which talked about efforts to acquire uranium in Africa. Now ...

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment, because three months earlier, in October, the president was going to give a speech in Cincinnati, [Ohio,] and supposedly George Tenet personally intervened and said, "don't get involved in the uranium Africa issue," and took that out of the speech.

RICE: What I understand is that at the time of the Cincinnati speech, there was a single report of a particular transaction, a particular arrangement, and that there were questions about that. And it was taken out of the Cincinnati speech like that. No questions asked, simply taken out.

When we got to the State of the Union, there were -- first of all, a lot of time had passed, several months. There were reports in the [National Intelligence Estimate] about other African countries. There was the British report that talked about the efforts to get uranium in Africa.

The British, by the way, still stand by their report to this very day in its accuracy, because they tell us that they had sources that were not compromised in any way by later -- in March or April -- later reports that there were some forgeries.

Now, we have said very clearly that the information went in on the basis of a number of sources, but we have a different standard for presidential speeches, which is that we don't just put in things that are in intelligence sources. We put in things that we believe the intelligence agency has high confidence in, and that's why we have a clearance process.

BLITZER: They didn't have high confidence in this ... That's why we had to pin it on British intelligence, as opposed to U.S. intelligence.

RICE: The British intelligence report, as far as we knew, was a report that was underpinned by reporting that was solid. We sent it out to the agency for clearance, said, "Can you stand by this?" They said, apparently, that's inconsistent. I'm understanding now that the sentence is accurate.

As George Tenet has said, accuracy is not the standard. Of course, the sentence was accurate. But we were asking about confidence. And George Tenet rightly says that the agency cleared the speech, it should not have been cleared with that sentence in.

And I can tell you that had there been a request to take that out in its entirety, it would have been followed immediately.

BLITZER: Should George Tenet resign?

RICE: Absolutely not. The president has confidence in George Tenet. This was a mistake.

The State of the Union process is a big process. We're checking lots and dozens and dozens of facts. It goes out for clearance. And in this case, the agency did not react to a statement that they now believe should not have been there.

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

And let's, again, put this in context. We're talking about a sentence, a data point, not the president's case about reconstitution of weapons of mass destruction, or of nuclear weapons in Iraq. That's based on key judgments in the National Intelligence Estimate that deal with [Saddam's] procurement network, with his training of scientists, with the fact that in 1991, he was pursuing multiple routes to a nuclear weapon.

So yes, it is unfortunate that this one sentence, this 16 words, remained in the State of the Union. But this in no way has any effect on the president's larger case about Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the nuclear program, and, most importantly, and the bigger picture, of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.

BLITZER: So you have no doubt that Saddam Hussein was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program?

RICE: I think we had a lot of evidence going in that a procurement network, efforts to re-establish scientists, groups of scientists who had worked on the programs before, the fact that he still had the designs, the fact that he clearly had sought weapons of mass -- nuclear weapons -- in the past, that all of those things made a compelling case for nuclear reconstitution.

Now, I think now that we're in Iraq and we are interviewing scientists and we are looking at the documents and we are finding, for instance, that he had somebody bury centrifuge parts in their yard ...

BLITZER: Before the [1991] gulf war.

RICE: Before the first gulf war -- well, in 1991. We're going to learn how far along he might have been in his reconstitution efforts, what was missing from it, where was he. But you have to remember that, as a policymaker, you always have to look at what is the threat. And to allow this bloody dictator, who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, who had an active effort to acquire the technologies and the means to make weapons of mass destruction, with $3 billion in illegal revenues, sitting in the most volatile region in the world, the president of the United States had to act.

Wolf, I think it has to be remembered that, back in his speech on September 20 of 2001, after the September 11th events, the president said, and said subsequently, we're going to have to fight this war on the offense, the war on terrorism.

My colleagues [Homeland Security Director] Tom Ridge and [deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism] John Gordon spend every day trying to harden this country against threats. But the fact is, we have to meet terrorism on its own ground, and Iraq is a part of that larger picture of the creation of a different Middle East.

BLITZER: George Tenet is getting hammered, he's getting criticized for allowing these words to be in the State of the Union address. But you're also now being criticized because you're the national security adviser to the president; your job is to protect him.

Listen to what Maureen Dowd writes today in "The New York Times":

"It was Ms. Rice's responsibility to vet the intelligence facts in the president's speech and take note of the red alert that tentative Tenet was raising. Ms. Rice did not throw out the line even though the CIA had warned her office that it was sketchy. Clearly, a higher power wanted it in."

RICE: First of all, no higher power wanted anything in. We wanted into the president's State of the Union what could be defended by the intelligence agencies at the highest levels.

I rely on the clearance process. I send the material out, the draft out, to the agencies. I also send it directly to the principals.

Look, Wolf, of course, anybody involved in this process at this point would have to say there was a mistake here, something went wrong. And we will all go back and redouble our efforts to see that something like this doesn't happen again.

We're talking about a single sentence, the consequence of which was not to send America to war. The consequence of which was to state in the State of the Union something that, while accurate, did not meet the standard that we use for the president.

BLITZER: But 11 months earlier, you, the Bush administration, had sent Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Niger, to find out whether it was true. He came back, reported to the CIA, reported to the State Department, it wasn't true, it was bogus. The whole issue was bogus. And supposedly you never got word of his report.

RICE: Well, first of all, I didn't know Joe Wilson was going to Niger. And if you look at Tenet's statement, it says that counterproliferation experts on their own initiative sent Joe Wilson, so I don't know ...

BLITZER: Who sent him?

RICE: Well, it was certainly not a level that had anything to do with the White House, and I do not believe at a level that had anything to do with the leadership of the CIA.

BLITZER: Supposedly, it came at the request of the vice president.

RICE: No, this is simply not true, and this is something that's been perpetuated that we simply have to straighten out.

The vice president did not ask that Joe Wilson go to Niger. The vice president did not know. I don't think he knew who Joe Wilson was, and he certainly didn't know that he was going.

The first that I heard of Joe Wilson's mission was when I was doing a Sunday talk show and heard about it.

The other thing is that the reporting, at least, of what Ambassador Wilson told the CIA debriefers says that, yes, Niger denied that there had been such a deal made, that they had sold uranium to the Iraqis.

It also apparently says, according to this report, ... that one of the people who was meeting with the Iraqis thought that they might, in fact, be trying to use commercial activity to talk about [the uranium].

So what the director says in his statement is that they believed, when they looked at what was reported about the Wilson trip, that it was inconclusive. They therefore did not brief it to the president, the vice president or any senior officials.

So no, Wilson was not sent by anyone at a high level. [His trip] wasn't briefed to anyone at a high level. And it appears to have been inconclusive in what it found.

BLITZER: Did George Tenet know about the Joe Wilson trip to Africa?

RICE: I am not aware that George Tenet was aware that this happened before it happened.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what Joe Wilson wrote in "The New York Times" in that op-ed piece on July 6.

"I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

RICE: Well, Joe Wilson, or anyone else, has to recognize that the president relied, in what he said about Iraq's ability and desire to reconstitute, on a host of intelligence sources. There has been a lot of focus this week on 16 words. The president at the State of the Union, before that in Cincinnati, before that at the United Nations, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell in his presentation to the United Nations, laid out an entire case about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, a case that goes back to 1991, ... when we learned that [Saddam] was closer to the development of nuclear weapons than anybody thought; that the [International Atomic Energy Agency] had been wrong about his level of development; when we learned that he was pursuing five different routes to a nuclear weapon; when we learned that he had a clandestine biological [weapons] program that didn't come to light until his brother-in-law defected; in 1998, when [the United Nations] talked about all of the unaccounted-for weapons of mass destruction agent that he had. So we're talking about a very long history here, and the president relied on that history.

[These] 16 words [have] been taken out of context. [They've] been blown out of proportion. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency has said -- the director of central intelligence has said -- that it should not have gotten in because it didn't have the level of confidence that we require for presidential speeches. I could not agree more.

But this was a mistake on 16 words, not on the president's discussion and the president's case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

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