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Tenet Says He Warned White House About "16 Words"
By Jason Leopold and Matt Renner, Truthout
Ex-CIA chief says he was "in bed, asleep" during Bush' 2003 State of the Union speech when the president claimed Iraq was attempting to obtain uranium from Niger.
George Tenet told former Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in October 2002 that allegations about Iraq's attempt to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger should immediately be removed from a speech President Bush was to give in Cincinnati. Tenet told Hadley that the intelligence was unreliable.
"Steve, take it out," the ex-CIA director writes in a new book, "At the
Center of the Storm," about a conversation he had with Hadley on October 5,
2002, about Iraq's alleged interest in uranium. As deputy National Security
Adviser, Hadley was also in charge of the clearance process for speeches
given by White House officials. "The facts, I told him, were too much in
The 16 words in question, "the British government has learned that
Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from
Africa," was cited by Bush in a January 28, 2003 State of the Union address
and was widely seen as the single most important element that helped
convince Congress and the public to back an invasion of Iraq. However, the
intelligence was wholly unreliable and based on forged documents. Tenet says
that White House officials knew that and used the language anyway.
Following his conversation with Hadley, one of Tenet's aides sent a
follow-up letter to then Deputy National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice,
Hadley, and Bush's speechwriter Mike Gerson highlighting additional reasons
the language about Iraq's purported attempts to obtain uranium from the
African country of Niger should not be used to try and convince Congress and
the public that Iraq was an imminent threat, Tenet wrote in the book.
"More on why we recommend removing the sentence about [Saddam's]
procuring uranium oxide from Africa," Tenet wrote in the book, apparently
quoting from a memo sent to the White House. "Three points: (1) The evidence
is weak. One of the two mines cited by the source as the location of the
uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine cited by the source is under the
control of French authorities; (2) the procurement is not particularly
significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions...And (3) we have shared points one
and two with Congress, telling them the Africa story is overblown and
telling them this was one of two issues where we differed with the British."
The revelation about the behind-the-scenes jockeying, as portrayed by
Tenet, related to the so-called 16 words has not been previously reported. A
copy of Tenet's book was purchased by a Truthout reporter at a bookstore
Saturday afternoon. The book officially goes on sale Monday. Tenet received
a $4 million advance for "At the Center of the Storm," according to news
In the book, Tenet did not say whether he or his staff briefed a
particular member of Congress, a Congressional committee, or the full
Congress about the 16words. Still, no one in Congress has stepped up over
the past five years to say they were informed about the flawed Niger
intelligence, and if so why they allowed the story to be peddled as fact for
the past five years. To the contrary, Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of
the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has sparked renewed
interest in the issue.
Waxman issued a subpoena last week for Rice in order to compel her
testimony about her role in the 16 words controversy. Specifically, Waxman
wants Rice to testify about whether she knew in advance that the
intelligence was false. Rice said she would not honor the subpoena. For more
than four years, Rice has said she could not recall receiving any oral or
written warnings from the CIA about Iraq's interest in uranium from Niger as
being unreliable. And despite previous warnings Tenet said Rice was given,
she penned an Op- Ed January 23, 2003 claiming Iraq was actively trying "to
get uranium from abroad."
Waxman has asked Tenet to testify about the Niger allegations, but the
congressman has not yet received a reply. Neither Tenet nor his spokesman
was available for comment.
Still, the written and verbal warnings Tenet had made to various members
of the administration in October 2002 and thereafter about citing
intelligence claiming Iraq was actively trying to obtain uranium from Niger
apparently fell on deaf ears. On January 28, 2003 Bush cited the 16 words in
the State of the Union. Tenet said he had no idea what the president said
that evening because he "was at home, in bed, asleep."
"You won't find many Washington officials who will admit to not watching
the most important political speech of the year, but I was exhausted from
fifteen months of nonstop work and worry since the tragedy of 9/11," Tenet
writes in the chapter "16 words." "We had warned the White House against
using the Niger uranium reports previously but had not done so with the
State of the Union," Tenet wrote.
According to Tenet's book, and previously published news reports, Robert
Joseph is the official who suggested that the sixteen words about Iraq's
supposed attempts to acquire uranium from Niger be included in the State of
the Union Address. Joseph, formerly the director of nonproliferation at the
National Security Council, is now the under secretary of state for arms
control - a position once held by John Bolton. Bolton is the former United
States ambassador to the United Nations.
Joseph fought to have the language included despite a telephone call he
received from Alan Foley, director of the CIA's nonproliferation,
intelligence and arms control center, demanding the 16 words be taken out of
Bush's speech. Joseph has said he did not recall receiving a phone call from
Foley, according to Tenet's book and a July 18, 2003 story in the Washington
Post http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/ exec/view.cgi/18/1372.
Foley had revealed the details of his conversation with Joseph during a
closed-door hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence back
in July 2003 - just two weeks after Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York
Times documenting his role investigating whether Iraq tried to acquire
uranium from Niger, according to the Post story and Tenet's "At the Center
of the Storm."
The Senate committee held hearings during this time to try to find out
how the administration came to rely on the Niger intelligence at a time when
numerous intelligence agencies had warned top officials in the Bush
administration that it was unreliable.
According to the report in the Washington Post, Foley said he had spoken
to Joseph a day or two before President Bush's January 28, 2003, State of
the Union address and told Joseph that detailed references to Iraq and Niger
should be excluded from the final draft. Foley told committee members that
Joseph had agreed to water down the language and would instead, he told
Foley, attribute the intelligence to the British, which is exactly how
Bush's speech was worded.
Tenet wrote that he believes the administration was excited about the
prospect of removing Saddam Hussein from power and ignored his previous
warnings about the bogus intelligence in order to win support for the war.
"The vision of a despot like Saddam getting his hands on nuclear weapons
was galvanizing" and "provided an irresistible image for speechwriters,
spokesmen, and politicians to seize on," Tenet wrote.
Still, Tenet says when the furor surrounding the 16 words reached a
boiling point in July 2003 he "decided to stand up and take the hit."
"Obviously, the process for vetting the speech at the Agency had broken
down," Tenet wrote. "We had warned the White House about the lack of
reliability of the assertion when we had gotten them to remove similar
language from the president's October  Cincinnati speech and we should
have gotten that language out of the [State of the Union] as well."
Tenet wrote in his book that when it came time to issue a mea culpa for
allowing Bush to use the 16 words in the State of the Union, White House
officials held a background briefing for the media and placed most of the
blame for the intelligence gaffe on the CIA. At that time, July 18, 2003,
one of the officials at the briefing, later identified as I. Lewis "Scooter"
Libby, who was recently convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for
his role in the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, released
a portion of the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate which
attempted to provide further credibility to the uranium claims - even though
the intelligence it was based upon was exposed as forgeries.
The briefing was sparked by an Op-Ed written by former Ambassador Joseph
Wilson two weeks prior in which he accused the administration of twisting
the Niger intelligence to build a case for war. Wilson had been the special
envoy who traveled to Niger in February 2002 at the behest of the CIA to
investigate the uranium claims. He reported back to the CIA that the
allegations were baseless.
Tenet wrote that the intent of the White House's background briefing
"was obvious.... They wanted to demonstrate that the intelligence community
had given the administration and Congress every reason to believe that
Saddam had a robust WMD program that was growing in seriousness every day.
The briefers were questioned about press accounts saying that the White
House had taken references to Niger out of the Cincinnati speech at the
CIA's request. Why then did they insert them again in the State of the
Union?" Tenet wrote that the White House officials had told the media that
the language pertaining to Niger omitted from the Cincinnati speech was
dramatically different than the Niger claims that ended up in the State of
"That simply wasn't so," Tenet wrote. "It was clear that the entire
briefing was intended to convince the press corps that the White House staff
was an innocent victim of bad work by the intelligence community."