The controversy over false claims made by President Bush early this year about Iraq's alleged efforts to acquire uranium in Africa has taken a new twist. The president now says remarks he used to help justify the war in Iraq were cleared by the CIA even though the White House now admits they were based on faulty intelligence. The controversy is leading to new fingerpointing within the administration as well as calls from members of Congress for whoever was responsible for the error to be fired.
Whatever news President Bush wanted to make on his visit to Africa was overshadowed by the ongoing controversy here in Washington about a statement he made in January, later found to be unsubstantiated, that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium in Niger.
"The British government has learned that the Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said.
But in an exchange with reporters in Uganda, the president denied reports that the CIA had questioned the accuracy of the intelligence before he mentioned it in his State of the Union address. And he denied reports that the spy agency had advised against using it to bolster administration arguments that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.
"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," he said. "And my government took the appropriate response to those dangers and as a result the world is going to be more secure and more peaceful."
But the White House now admits what the president said was unsupported by intelligence.
"Everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else because it's an embarrassment," said Vince Cannistraro is a former head of counter-terrorism operations at the Central Intelligence Agency.
And, the controversy is raising new questions about how solid the administration's intelligence really was about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the war, given the fact that no banned chemical or biological weapons have since been found by coalition troops.
Congress is now holding hearings into the matter.
"What's at stake here is the credibility of the White House," said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, joining Republican John McCain in demanding whoever was responsible for the error be fired.
"If we find out that it's true, we have to go to the highest levels," added Senator Durbin. "Some one at the White House has to be dismissed and I believe we have to have a full explanation for the American people."
Despite the Bush administration's continuing belief that Iraq possessed banned weapons, critics are using the issue to charge the United States and Britain overstated the Iraqi threat.
"It is now clear that Iraq was not an immediate threat to the United States that the Bush administration portrayed," said Daryl Kimball, who heads the nonpartisan Arms Control Association. "We, along with an increasing number of others, believe that the administration made its case for going to war by misrepresenting intelligence findings as well as citing discredited intelligence information."
CIA Director George Tenet is expected to face questions about the matter before Congress next week.