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U.S.: CIA Takes The Blame For Dubious Intelligence On Iraq

The Bush administration has launched a media blitz in a bid to douse a firestorm of negative publicity over its use of dubious intelligence reports to help justify the Iraq war. But doubts about President George W. Bush's credibility persist, threatening to erode the American public's support for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Prague, 14 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, the White House admitted that in a speech last January, President George W. Bush mistakenly cited a British intelligence report about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa.

That report, the White House said, was later found to be based on forged documents and should not have been included in Bush's annual State of the Union speech.

But just as Bush's critics began to question his use of questionable intelligence to justify the war on Iraq, his administration found a way out -- at least for now -- of its potentially explosive credibility problem.

They passed responsibility on to the Central Intelligence Agency and its director, George Tenet.

"I've got confidence in George Tenet," Bush said. "I've got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA and I continue to look forward to working with them as we win the war on terror."

That's Bush speaking in Nigeria on 12 July, a day after his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, announced that the CIA had approved the entirety of Bush's State of the Union speech, including the controversial passage.

Tenet later accepted responsibility for the CIA's failure to excise the passage, saying his agency should not have signed off on an unsubstantiated report that Iraq sought materials in Africa for building nuclear weapons.

But some observers, suggesting a possible political payback, express skepticism about Bush laying full responsibility on Tenet. Bush held on to Tenet despite numerous calls for the CIA chief to be sacked after the intelligence failures that led to the 11 September attacks.

Michael Cox is with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He tells RFE/RL he thinks it's unlikely the Bush administration will be able to orchestrate a happy ending to this story, despite its current media blitz.

"People are beginning to look for scapegoats. And in a situation where people are looking for scapegoats, that tells you that there really is a political crisis of much greater proportions looming."

With recent polls showing an erosion of support for the Iraqi occupation, the White House was forced to fend off heavy criticism from Democrats this weekend, sending Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld out on national television on 13 July.

Both of them brushed off suggestions Bush manipulated intelligence in making his case for war. Rice said that it is "clearly ludicrous" to believe that Bush based his case for war on "one sentence" about Baghdad seeking African uranium.

Rumsfeld insisted that the line in Bush's speech was technically accurate, since it was attributed to British intelligence.

"There is no one who has demonstrated that it is inaccurate. The only thing that we know is that it didn't rise to the level of a presidential speech."

Both Rumsfeld and Rice also said the allegation that Baghdad sought uranium in Africa was based on further intelligence uncovered after the initial documents were proved to be forgeries.

Clearly expressing White House hopes, Bush concluded that it was now "end of story" as far as the Iraq-Africa episode goes.

Democrats, however, beg to disagree.

Florida Senator Bob Graham, a Democratic presidential hopeful and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believes Bush made "selective use of intelligence -- that is, the information that was consistent with the administration's policy was given a front-row seat."

In an interview on U.S. television, Graham added, "If the facts show that that was not true, either because of bad intelligence or intelligence that was politicized, that will be a serious condemnation of the United States, to the world and to the American people."

Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told U.S. National Public Radio that the panel may call Tenet in for questioning. He added that it was "dishonorable" to blame Tenet for what he called a White House error.

Analyst Cox says the American finger-pointing is now extending to the British and Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is set to visit Washington on 17 July. Cox says none of this augurs well for the two major allies as they face mounting difficulties in Iraq.

"Clearly, President Bush wants to blame Tenet," Cox says. "And in the same way, I hear that certain Americans are beginning to blame the British. So if in this situation -- very soon after what you might call a good war, or at least a relatively painless one -- we are already beginning to get into recrimination both within the various bureaucracies in the United States and in London and between London and Washington, then it's clearly a sign of something very serious going on."

Recent opinion polls show American public support declining for both the Iraqi occupation and Bush's credibility.

A poll by CBS News showed a dramatic drop in the percentage of people who believe "the U.S. is in control of the situation in Iraq," down to 45 percent from 71 percent in May.

Cox observed that all the polls in the United States are "beginning to indicate an erosion in the reasons for going to war. Americans in their majorities still do continue to support the reasons for going to war in the first instance," he said. "But they are beginning to say that perhaps there were exaggerations made and threats were overstated. So that is beginning to have some impact on American public opinion."

The CBS poll showed just 54 percent think the war was worth the costs, down from 65 percent in May. A clear majority also says they believe the administration "overestimated" the threat of Iraqi weapons.

The poll also showed Americans becoming more critical of Bush's handling of the economy and other domestic issues.

Many of the poll's results were reflected in a similar survey taken by the Pew Research Center in Washington.