Saturday :: Jul 12, 2003

So Much For Letting Tenet Take the Fall

by Steve

Well, so much for Bush’s attempts to bury the Niger uranium story with Tenet’s mea culpa yesterday. Some “senior administration officials” just gave the Washington Post a Page One story Sunday with enough ammunition to undo what Tenet did yesterday, and point the fingers at possibly Condi Rice’s NSC and Dick Cheney. The knives are out amongst this crew, and someone is not content to let Tenet take the fall.

The Page One story in Sunday’s Post is written by Mike Allen of the White House beat, Walter Pincus (who is close to the CIA), and Dana Milbank who was traveling back from Africa with the Bushies when someone spilled the beans to undue Tenet’s act. Keep this in mind.

CIA Director George J. Tenet successfully intervened with White House officials to have a reference to Iraq seeking uranium from Niger removed from a presidential speech last October, three months before a less specific reference to the same intelligence appeared in the State of the Union address, according to senior administration officials.

Tenet argued personally to White House officials, including deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, that the allegation should not be used because it came from only a single source, according to one senior official. Another senior official with knowledge of the intelligence said the CIA had doubts about the accuracy of the documents underlying the allegation, which months later turned out to be forged.

So “one senior official” amongst “senior administration officials” comes forward today to the Post to say that Tenet already got the Niger crap out of a Bush speech once, in October by personally going to Rice’s deputy Stephen Hadley, because the evidence was based solely on a single source that possibly Ambassador Wilson had already debunked. Wilson’s brief went to “all God’s children” including specifically State, the CIA, the VP’s office, and the NSC. But Tenet, according to this source today, had to go to Hadley personally to get it out of the October speech, so does that mean that the source for today’s revelation came from State? And “another senior official with knowledge of the intelligence” is mentioned as having said that the CIA “had doubts” about the Niger documents, which was already known. So this statement could have come again from someone other than the NSC, since Hadley had to be lobbied to take it out of the October speech.

The new disclosure suggests how eager the White House was in January to make Iraq's nuclear program a part of its case against Saddam Hussein even in the face of earlier objections by its own CIA director. It also appears to raise questions about the administration's explanation of how the faulty allegations were included in the State of the Union speech.

In other words, someone on the inside today is trying to steer the Post to a conclusion that what Tenet had to do yesterday was bogus.

It is unclear why Tenet failed to intervene in January to prevent the questionable intelligence from appearing in the president's address to Congress when Tenet had intervened three months earlier in a much less symbolic speech. That failure may underlie his action Friday in taking responsibility for not stepping in again to question the reference. "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency," he said in Friday's statement.

Administration sources said White House officials, particularly those in the office of Vice President Cheney, insisted on including Hussein's quest for a nuclear weapon as a prominent part of their public case for war in Iraq. Cheney had made the potential threat of Hussein having a nuclear weapon a central theme of his August 2002 speeches that began the public buildup toward war with Baghdad.

“Administration sources” who aren’t “White House officials” in this context sounds like State to me, especially since the sources fingered specifically Cheney’s office today with these remarks. Again, “White House officials” would include the NSC as well, so it is possible here that State (Powell) today fingered Cheney and Rice. And Powell is traveling back from Africa, so Milbank (whom the White House dislikes for his guts to take them on) could have gotten this from State.

In the Oct. 7 Cincinnati speech, the president for the first time outlined in detail the threat Hussein posed to the United States on the eve of a congressional vote authorizing war. Bush talked in part about "evidence" indicating that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. The president listed Hussein's "numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists," satellite photographs showing former nuclear facilities were being rebuilt, and Iraq's attempts to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes for use in enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.

There was, however, no mention of Niger or even attempts to purchase uranium from other African countries, which was contained in the NIE and also included in a British intelligence dossier that had been published a month earlier.

There was no mention because Tenet personally got the NSC to take it out, according to today’s sources.

By January, when conversations took place with CIA personnel over what could be in the president's State of the Union speech, White House officials again sought to use the Niger reference since it still was in the NIE.

"We followed the NIE and hoped there was more intelligence to support it," a senior administration official said yesterday. When told there was nothing new, White House officials backed off, and as a result "seeking uranium from Niger was never in drafts," he said.

A “senior administration official” (senior White House staff or Cabinet rank?), possibly travelling with Bush (that includes Rice and Powell) affirmed that “White House officials again sought to use the Niger reference” in January. Given what the Post says above about Cheney’s push on nuclear weapons, the “White House officials” appear to be Cheney and his staff. But since there was no new evidence to support it since the October 2002 NIE and since the Brits hadn’t shared what they claimed to have since, it is now being said that the White House “officials” backed off putting it in the drafts?

Then who put the more nebulous claim that Saddam was trying to get uranium from “Africa” into the speech, and then had the NSC force Tenet’s CIA subordinates to go along with a “British” reference? Given who was pushing the nuclear angle, this has Cheney’s fingerprints all over it.

There is still much that remains unclear about who specifically wanted the information inserted in the State of the Union speech, or why repeated concerns about the allegations were ignored.

"The information was available within the system that should have caught this kind of big mistake," a former Bush administration official said. "The question is how the management of the system, and the process that supported it, allowed this kind of misinformation to be used and embarrass the president."

That “former Bush Administration official” who is upset that the poor management of the intelligence information system “allowed this kind of misinformation to be used and embarrass the president” sounds to me like something Karen Hughes would protectively say. And given who is supposed to be in charge of gathering information of this type inside the White House, to me it appears that Hughes is fingering Condi Rice.

Then there is this:

A senior administration official said Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, does not remember who wrote the line that has wound up causing the White House so much grief.

Officials said three speechwriters were at the core of the State of the Union team, and that they worked from evidence against Iraq provided by the National Security Council. NSC officials dealt with the CIA both in gathering material for the speech and later in vetting the drafts.

So someone still inside the Administration (“a senior administration official”-who could have been traveling with Bush back from Africa today given Milbank’s involvement) said the chief speechwriter is not at fault, but current “officials” said two other speechwriters got their Iraq dirt from Condi’s NSC.

I think the “senior administration official” who took the opportunity to try and undo the damage to Tenet one day after Tenet took one for the team is Powell. I think this person is pissed that Condi put the word out that if Tenet had protested, the sentence would have been removed from the SOTU, especially when Tenet had done just that to Rice’s staff three months before. And this same person is saying, like a loyal soldier, that Bush’s chief speechwriter (and hopefully to this loyal soldier Bush himself) is blameless as he cannot remember who put the sentence in there to begin with. Remember that Tenet and Powell are close.

I do not think that Rummy is the “senior administration official” since any damage to Tenet benefits him, given their past fights over intelligence and turf. Again, I think that Cheney and/or his staff are the “White House officials” who pushed to first get the Niger story into the SOTU, and then used the NSC to get the CIA to approve the more nebulous British government-sourced Africa uranium story inserted instead. And I think that Karen Hughes, who sees the damage this is doing to Bush’s chances in 2004, is seething at Condi Rice’s inability to manage the information, keep the boys in line, and protect Bush from this.

Your alternate theories on this game of “Clue” are welcome. But I also refer you to the Maureen Dowd column in the Times tomorrow.

Also, two quick thoughts: if the Deputy National Security Advisor was told in October that the Niger story was bogus, so much so that Tenet demanded it be taken out of a presidential address, is that not proof that Condi Rice lied to Tim Russert that she did not know until recently about this problem, but someone down in the bowels of the bureaucracy did? How far down into the bureaucracy is her Number Two anyway?

Secondly. since Bush admits that he talks to Tenet every day and knows him well, if Tenet told the Deputy NSA that the Niger story was bogus in October, so much so that it affected a Bush speech, does that also not mean that Bush has known since October that it was bogus? So any claim by Bush that he too did not know until recently would be a lie, right?

The Post, cleverly using its CIA reporter and contacts, its best bulldog reporter travelling with the Africa entourage, and smartly playing to the anger of Karen Hughes, has just undone whatever Karl, Cheney, and Condi wanted to accomplish with Tenet’s mea culpa yesterday. And as a result, the Post may have its next Watergate and can ensure that this story won’t be going away anytime soon.

Steve :: 10:23 PM :: Comments (11) :: Digg It!