Wed, Jul 16, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Bush says intelligence on Iraqi arms was `darn good'

ON THE DEFENSIVE Ahead of a visit by the British prime minister, the US president insisted he was justified in quoting UK claims about Iraq's intent to buy uranium


US President George W. Bush on Monday defended pre-war US intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons as "darn good," amid charges that he inflated the nuclear threat posed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in a key speech.

"The intelligence I get is darn good intelligence. And the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence," said Bush, who has drawn fire over a sentence in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address to the nation.

The White House has since admitted that the evidence buttressing that line -- "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" -- was so flawed that it should not have been included in the speech.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Monday that Britain could not tell the US how it knew that Iraq tried to get uranium because the information originated from a third country.

His statement seemed likely to add to an embarrassing rift between London and Washington -- allies in the war to overthrow Saddam -- over the way intelligence was used in the run-up to the conflict.

The issue could cloud talks in Washington tomorrow when British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with Bush and makes a special address to Congress.

Straw, speaking on BBC radio, stood by Britain's claim, which was contained in a controversial 50-page dossier on Saddam's pursuit of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons issued last September.

"We believe in the intelligence which was behind the claims made in the September 24 dossier, yes," he said on a current affairs program when asked if the intelligence on Niger was still valid in the eyes of the British government.

France and Italy both issued swift denials that their intelligence services were the origins of the contested claim about Niger.

Blair was Bush's staunchest ally on Iraq, but since combat was declared over on May 1, US and British forces have yet to unearth hard proof of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction -- let alone the man himself.

As well as souring relations across the Atlantic, the confusion over Iraq's weapons programs has boosted the confidence of opposition Democrats in the US.

But Bush maintained that the war was justified.

"I am absolutely convinced today, like I was convinced when I gave the speeches, that Saddam Hussein developed a program of weapons of mass destruction, and that our country made the right decision," Bush said.

"The speech that I gave was cleared by the CIA," he said. "Subsequent to the speech, the CIA had some doubts."

If the agency had expressed those worries, "I wouldn't have put it in the speech," said the president.

In a surprise statement Friday, CIA Director George Tenet took responsibility for the inclusion of the disputed allegation.

Tenet's statement echoed what the White House had been saying for the past week -- that Bush made the claim in good faith after the information had been cleared by intelligence agencies.

On Monday, Bush received his regular daily intelligence briefing from Tenet -- their first face-to-face since the controversy erupted early last week.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he did not know whether they had discussed the matter, but told reporters, "I assure you the president is not pleased" with the failure to remove the flawed accusation.

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