While making a case for going to war with Iraq, President Bush said in his 2002 State of the Union Address, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” That claim, which the British government still stands by, was later called into doubt by critics of the war against Iraq. They charged the White House with exaggerating the case for war or even manipulating intelligence data. U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said it was unfortunate the questionable statement was not removed from the President’s address. “Knowing what we know now,” she admitted, “we would not have put it in the President’s speech.”
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency George Tenet said his organization was responsible for approving the claim. During a congressional hearing, he stated President Bush had every reason to believe the information was true. Some members of the administration, like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, insisted that the sentence was technically correct, because it quoted British sources.
John Dean, former legal counsel to the late President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, believes that all that looks like a little bit of the old bureaucratic two-step. In his view, the controversy shows there are some deep problems with the evidence used by the Bush administration to justify war in Iraq. He also contrasts what he sees as President Bush’s stance on the issue with Ronald Reagan’s more open approach during the Iran-contra affair.
In 1986, some members of the Reagan White House staff were accused of violating a congressional act by secretly selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to finance the anti-government guerrillas in Nicaragua. To avoid potential serious consequences, says Mr. Dean, Ronald Reagan “literally flooded the Congress with information.” Tim Walsh, White House correspondent for the weekly magazine US News and World Report believes the Bush team was taken by surprise by the intensity of the storm and is handling the problem “in an uncharacteristically uncertain way.”
However, the British insist that the information about uranium from Africa was absolutely correct and supported by solid evidence, while U.S. intelligence agencies announced they had found no evidence to support the claim.
Daniel Benjamin, former aide to President Clinton, and now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it is most unusual for such a piece of information to be used in an important address by the President of the United States. “The State of the Union speech is the most thoroughly scrutinized, aggressively scrubbed speech of the year, and it would go through 15, 20, 30 drafts,” he says.
Members of the U.S. administration, and many congressional Republicans, say the controversy has been vastly overblown for political reasons. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stressed that the evidence that Iraq was seeking to restart its nuclear program was much more extensive than the claim about attempted uranium purchases in Africa. The administration declassified parts of its October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which stated that if unchecked, Iraq might produce a nuclear weapon during this decade. The document also claims that Iraq had an active chemical and biological weapons program.
Commenting on what he called a consensus in the U.S. intelligence community, Vice President Richard Cheney stressed “these judgments were not lightly arrived at, and all who were aware of them bore a heavy responsibility for the security of America.” He added that President Bush acted, because he was not willing to place the future of America’s security and the lives of Americans at the mercy of Saddam Hussein.
But the controversy over the State of the Union address raises questions of how much the U.S. government knew about the Iraqi threat, and how it used the information. The White House denies that there was any pressure on the intelligence community to stretch the facts in order to supply arguments for immediate military action. But Joe Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says intelligence agencies always run the risk of becoming embroiled in political controversies. In his view, there is always political pressure on the intelligence community, but it most cases the pressure is balanced against the integrity of the system itself. Intelligence community leaders know, he adds, that unless they can provide objective, reliable intelligence to policy makers, they are not doing their job. In Mr. Cirincione’s view, what we see now is “the most politicized intelligence process I’ve ever seen.”
President Bush's deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, told reporters he should have deleted the uranium reference from the president's State of the Union address in January. He admitted he had been notified last October by CIA officials who raised objections to the uranium allegations, noting the passage was then removed from a speech the president gave that month in Ohio. The White House maintains that it considers the issue closed.
But John Dean, former legal counsel in Richard Nixon’s White House, believes that the president may have made the wrong case for war in Iraq because of the controversial statement. “I don’t think there is any question,” he says, “that Mr. Bush could have gone to the country and made a very persuasive case on humanitarian grounds, that something needed to be done in Iraq. That isn’t the case he made, however. He went out and sold this on the fact that there was an imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction being given to terrorists.” The White House and other supporters of the president counter that the president’s policies in Iraq were not solely based on the statement in the State of the Union message and many experts believe there is still truth to Saddam Hussein’s seeking uranium in Africa and elsewhere.
Domestic political analysts are not sure if this flap will develop into a political crisis and a major issue during the presidential election of 2004. That will depend, they say, on the situation inside Iraq. Tim Walsh US News and World Report, believes that if U.S. forces manage to capture or kill Saddam Hussein, or find evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the issue of the African uranium will soon become irrelevant.
However, if the situation in Iraq remains unclear, unstable and dangerous, the controversy will bolster all other doubts about the Iraqi intervention. Mr. Walsh says that if the debate continues, it may also threaten President Bush’s chief political assets - his reputation for honesty and candor, and his reputation for being a strong leader.
In the meantime, congressional Democrats continue to press for an independent inquiry into the controversy. Some Republicans oppose the investigation, saying Mr. Bush’s opponents are trying to politicize the issue. Democrats deny that political motives are driving the controversy. Many politicians from both parties agree that the administration needs to clarify the issue in order to reassure Americans that the president’s Iraqi policy is on track.