Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Pressure escalates in Washington

LACK OF INTELLIGENCE The Bush administration wants to put a lid on debate over the use of inaccurate information, but the Democrats are beginning to smell blood

THE GUARDIAN , WASHINGTON

The Bush administration tried to bring the African uranium row to an end on Sunday, insisting that the American people have "moved on," but it was clear that the scandal over the president's case for war in Iraq was still gathering momentum.

The Democratic party, having acquiesced in the invasion despite misgivings over the evidence against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, is now calling for a public inquiry as a new poll found that half the electorate believes that US President George W. Bush exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam in the run-up to the war.

It is an escalating row in which Britain's role, as the source of allegedly tainted intelligence, is at the center.

Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday that the whole affair was "enormously overblown," arguing that it was based on only 16 words in the president's State of the Union address in January, in which he quoted British intelligence as claiming Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in Africa.

The allegation was disowned by the White House last week, although British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government sticks by the claim.

Rice said yesterday that British officials had told Washington "they had sources that were not compromised in any way by later reports in March and April that there were some forgeries."

But the Democrats, sensing the Bush administration's vulnerability, were increasing the pressure on the White House on Sunday.

"Its time for a thorough inquiry or investigation into how this happened but also into all the use of the intelligence," said Senator Carl Levin, the most senior Democrat on the Senate's Armed Services Committee.

"The way the administration has responded in the last few days has raised more questions than it answers, because now it looks like there was a conscious attempt here to convey a misleading impression," he said.

The gravity of the charges is all the greater, White House critics say, because Bush made the disputed reference in the State of the Union address in January, a solemn and heavily vetted annual speech to the American people.

But the scandal has also been given momentum by the White House's uncertain handling of the issue. By disowning the claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger, seeking to blame the whole matter on the British, and then -- after that failed to quell the growing uproar -- on the CIA Director George Tenet, the administration has only raised more questions.

"The question is: were false statements made about why we should go to war?" Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist, said on Sunday.

"I believe this intelligence was manipulated, that this was not solid intelligence data, and if we have an investigation, I think we will find that this president took the very best case for himself on this," Fenn said.

The uproar has been fuelled by longstanding resentment among officials at the CIA and the State Department, who felt they were pressured into stretching the thin evidence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction to bolster a case the White House was determined to make.

The CIA is particularly furious that Tenet was obliged to take responsibility for a claim he had argued against.

Leaks in the US press on Sunday, apparently from the agency, suggested he had intervened personally to have a reference to African uranium removed from a presidential speech on Oct. 7.

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