The State Department told a congressional committee on Tuesday that seven days after US President George W. Bush gave his State of the Union address, in which he charged that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase uranium in Africa, US diplomats warned the International Atomic Energy Agency that the US could not confirm the reports.
The statement, provided in writing to Representative Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, confirms that there were deep misgivings in the government about a portion of the intelligence Bush cited in his January speech.
On Monday the White House said for the first time that the evidence that Iraq sought nuclear fuel in Africa was not credible enough and should not have been included in the his remarks.
Nonetheless, White House officials declined on Tuesday to reveal how the charge made it into Bush's remarks. And they argued, in further statements that went beyond those issued from Air Force One on Monday, that the uranium issue was just one of many pieces of evidence indicating that Saddam was seeking to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program.
The White House acknowledgment that it had used flawed intelligence came nearly six months after the speech was delivered, and after weeks of arguments here and in Britain over how the invasion of Iraq was justified. On Tuesday it touched off a new series of accusations between Democrats and Republicans over whether the administration had deliberately skewed the evidence, or, as the Democrats argue, withheld information that would have cast doubt on the intelligence.
Democrats seized on the admission by the White House as new justification for a full-scale investigation by the intelligence panels, which are now reviewing the Iraq intelligence material but have shied away from portraying their work as an investigation.
"It's a recognition that we were provided faulty information," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters.
"And I think it's all the more reason why a full investigation of all of the facts surrounding this situation be undertaken, the sooner the better.
Republicans said the White House had been "forthright" in making the admission and they said it was an example of what can come from relying on intelligence from other nations. Bush had cited British intelligence reports when he charged that Saddam had sought uranium in Africa, but that report was at least in part based on information developed by US intelligence agencies.
"Obviously, when you use foreign intelligence, you -- we don't have necessarily as much confidence or as much reliability as you do your own," said Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate.
"It has since turned out to be, at least according to the reports that have been just released, not true," he added. "The president stepped forward and said so. I think that's all you can expect."
The State Department's letter came in response to a statement provided to Waxman by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body that monitors nuclear activity around the world. The IAEA said it sought specific information in December from the administration to back up US charges that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Niger.
The initial intelligence had been provided to Congress, in classified form, in late October. But it was not until until Feb. 4, a week after Bush spoke, and the day before Secretary of State Colin Powell made his detailed presentation about Iraq to the UN, that the administration provided documents to the IAEA to back up its charges.