A high-ranking CIA official warned Condoleezza Rice in September 2002 that allegations about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger were untrue and that she, as national security adviser, should stop President George W. Bush from citing the claim in making his case against Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to new evidence released by a House committee.
Nevertheless, the false Niger story showed up in Bush’s State of the Union Address on Jan 28, 2003, and Rice later joined other White House officials in blaming the CIA for failing to alert them about the dubious intelligence.
However, Rep. Henry Waxman, House Oversight Committee chairman, said in a Dec. 18 memo to other panel members that statements by Rice and former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales were contradicted by testimony and other evidence collected during the panel’s long investigation of the Niger mystery.
“For more than five years, I have been seeking answers to basic questions about why the President made a false assertion about such a fundamental matter,” the California Democrat said.
“As the President’s national security adviser at the time, Condoleezza Rice asserted publicly that she knew nothing about any doubts the CIA had raised about this claim prior to the 2003 State of the Union address,” Waxman wrote, noting that Gonzales had “asserted to the Senate – on her behalf – that the CIA approved the use of the claim in several presidential speeches.
“The [House Oversight] Committee has obtained evidence that just the opposite is true. This evidence would appear to raise serious questions about the veracity of the assertions that Mr. Gonzales made to Congress on behalf of Dr. Rice about a key part of the President’s case for going to war in Iraq.”
The House Oversight Committee obtained testimony from Jami Miscik, who was the CIA’s Deputy Director of Intelligence in 2002. Miscik stated that she intervened with Rice after some of Rice’s aides on the National Security Council staff resisted CIA demands that they remove the Niger uranium claim from a presidential speech.
“Ms. Miscik stated that she spoke with Dr. Rice directly over the telephone on Sept. 24, 2002,” Waxman wrote in his memo. “Ms. Miscik … was asked to explain directly to Dr. Rice ‘the reasons why we didn’t think this was credible.’ Ms. Miscik stated, ‘[i]t was clear that we had problems or we at the most fundamental level wouldn’t have been having the phone call at all.’”
House investigators also learned from John Gibson, a chief speechwriter at the NSC, that there was an attempt to insert the Niger uranium claim in an earlier Bush speech at the request of chief White House speechwriter Michael Gerson and Robert Joseph, a senior aide to Rice.
However, Gibson said the CIA rejected the uranium claim as “not sufficiently reliable to include it in the speech.” Gibson added that “the CIA was not willing to clear that language” and “at the end of the day they did not clear it.”
The CIA fought to keep the Niger allegations out of another presidential speech on Iraq, scheduled for October 2002 in Cincinnati, according to testimony from then-CIA Director George Tenet, who said he spoke personally with Stephen Hadley, Rice’s deputy.
“In his deposition, Mr. Tenet provided new details about the explicit nature of these warnings,” Waxman wrote, adding that Tenet said he was approached by CIA subordinates who urged him to intervene because they were encountering resistance from the NSC staff about striking the dubious information from the speech.
“Staff came down to say there was specific language that they wanted out and, essentially, I called Mr. Hadley up,” Tenet said. “It was a very short conversation. And I said Steve, take it out. We don’t want the President to be a fact witness on this issue.”
Mr. Tenet added, “The facts, I told him, were too much in doubt. … We sent two memos to Mr. Hadley saying, this is why you don’t let the President say this in Cincinnati.”
Though the Niger claim was removed from the speeches in 2002, Rice penned an op-ed on Jan. 23, 2003, claiming Iraq was actively trying “to get uranium from abroad.”
Then, five days later, the allegation ended up in the President’s 2003 State of the Union Address when Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” what became known as “The Sixteen Words.”
Bush’s line about Iraq’s nuclear ambitions helped the President seal the case for war with Congress and the American public. But it had other unexpected consequences.
After Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson began revealing that he had undertaken a fact-finding mission for the CIA to Niger in February 2002 and returned with the strong belief that the uranium-buying allegation was bogus, a conclusion shared by other U.S. officials who had examined the evidence.
Wilson went public with his account on July 6, 2003, with an op-ed in the New York Times, accusing the Bush administration of “twisting” the intelligence to justify the war.
Five days later, Rice blamed the CIA for failing to vet the Niger claims, and Tenet accepted responsibility, which many people interpreted as Tenet falling on his sword to protect the President
Though Wilson’s article forced the White House to back track, it also touched off a behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit Wilson, a drive that led Bush administration officials to disclose to selected reporters that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA officer.
When right-wing columnist Robert Novak published that fact on July 14, 2003, Mrs. Wilson’s career as a covert CIA officer was effectively over.
The CIA then demanded a leak investigation, which eventually ended with the 2007 conviction of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, for perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush later commuted Libby’s sentence to spare him any jail time.
When the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the Niger case in 2004, then-White House counsel Gonzales told the panel – on behalf of Rice – that the CIA “orally cleared” the uranium claim “for use by the President” in his speeches.
However, Waxman continued his panel’s investigation on a separate track. He subpoenaed Rice last year seeking to compel her testimony about whether she knew in advance that the Niger intelligence was unreliable. Rice refused to comply with the subpoena.
In his memo, Waxman disclosed the new evidence that suggests that Gonzales and Rice may have lied about the CIA’s role in the Niger case.
“Unfortunately, Dr. Rice resisted efforts by the Committee to obtain her testimony about these matters,” Waxman wrote. “Thus, I am not able to report to you how she would explain the seeming contradictions between her statements and those of Mr. Gonzales on her behalf and the statements made to the Committee by senior CIA and NSC officials.”
Waxman wrote his Dec. 18 memo in the context of ending his tenure as Oversight Committee chairman. In January, he will become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Other key figures in the case also have moved on to other jobs and assignments. Rice is now Secretary of State. Hadley replaced her as national security adviser.
Gonzales rose to be Attorney General before resigning in the midst of a scandal over politicizing the Justice Department. Tenet also resigned amid criticism of intelligence failures at the CIA. Gerson is now a columnist for the Washington Post.