An interesting meditation on the newfound distinction between 'accurate' and 'true' in a back and forth this morning in Ari Fleischer's final press gaggle ...
Questioner: Does the President consider the whole Niger uranium story finished?
Fleischer: I think as far as the President is concerned, he's moved on. The President --
Questioner: What do you mean, "moved on"? That we shouldn't get to the bottom of it?
Fleischer: I think the bottom has been gotten to. The President has explained and said, and the Director of Central Agency has said --
Questioner: Who's to blame for the misinformation?
Fleischer: Well, I think everybody went through this last week, and you can refer to the statements that have been made on it.
Questioner: But there are some questions, Ari, that haven't been answered yet. Who, specifically, can you tell us, in the White House, asked for that line to be put in, given that this came out of the Cincinnati speech?
Fleischer: Which line was taken out of Cincinnati?
Questioner: Well, given that the information relating to the uranium in Niger was not included in the Cincinnati speech because the evidence wasn't there or intelligence wasn't there -- so who made the decision? Was it the speechwriters, the NSC, to put it into the State of the Union?
Fleischer: When you say "it," the information from the Cincinnati speech, which you just accurately said would have applied to Niger and to uranium, was not in the State of the Union. It's a different issue. You had an apple in Cincinnati and an orange in the State of the Union. They are different issues
Questioner: Right. But as I understand it, the matter of the issue -- the intelligence was discussed prior to the Cincinnati speech. And what's been reported all over the place is that a recommendation was made not to include that in the Cincinnati speech. And, yet, it was included in the State of the Union address.
Fleischer: Be precise. When you say, it was not included in Cincinnati, but that was included in the State of the Union -- again, let's be -- I'll walk you through it. But the precision is crucial, because that's the heart of understanding what was taken out of Cincinnati and included in the State of the Union.
The reference that the CIA recommended be taken out of the Cincinnati speech was very specific to the country of Niger and to the quantity of uranium that Iraq sought from Niger, specifically the country of Niger. The language in the State of the Union was very different. The language in the State of the Union said, sought uranium from Africa -- not just Niger -- because there was other reporting about other countries beyond Niger, in Africa. So it would be erroneous to report or to say that the language in Cincinnati, they tried to get it back into the State of the Union. Different language, different meaning, different implications, different facts.
Questioner: Ari, so who -- okay, fine. Who asked that the language about uranium in Africa be put into the State of the Union speech?
Fleischer: It was based on the NIE, by the reporting that we had at the time from the CIA, and it went through the vetting process, through the regular NSC process, speechwriting process.
Questioner: Ari --
Fleischer: And as you know, it was not objected to in the final analysis.
Questioner: Ari, the whole premise for the White House saying that the President's statement shouldn't have been made was because you found out that the -- specifically the Niger information was not credible. So if you knew that that part in October, why did you let him say it given that now you're saying, yes, there was other information about Africa but that, in and of itself, did not hold up and didn't lend itself to --
Fleischer: No, we said it didn't rise to a Presidential level. That's what we've said, that in hindsight, we now realize it did not rise to a Presidential level. There is still -- it would be also erroneous for anybody to report that the information about whether or not Iraq sought uranium from Africa was wrong. No one can accurately tell you that it was wrong. That is not known.
Questioner: In his statement Friday, the CIA Director said that he had alerted the White House officials several times to the fragmented nature of that intelligence, and, yet, Dr. Rice said on Friday and repeated again yesterday that neither she nor the President was aware of any concerns about the quality of the intelligence underlying the charge. Which is it?
Fleischer: I think the CIA Director's statement speaks for itself. I mean, he explains in there very directly that the information in the State of the Union dealing with the broader question of whether or not Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa was not vetted the way it should have been by the CIA. And it was based on CIA documents, as has been very well and publicly reported. I mean, there's nothing new here that hasn't been discussed last week.
Questioner: But in his statement he says that not once, but, in his words, several times, the White House was alerted to concerns about the quality of the intelligence. He meets with the President every day, he's meeting with him now. Did that subject never come up in any of these meetings?
Fleischer: The fact that it's fragmentary is what means that it should not have been -- risen to the Presidential level. There's all kinds of information that is available that may -- may not be true. And I've always talked about intelligence being mosaic. Some parts of the mosaic are very clear. Those parts that are the most clear are absolutely concrete is what should rise up to the Presidential level. There's many other pieces of intelligence in the mosaic that certainly may be true, they may be fragmentary, but they should not necessarily rise to the President's level. We're the ones who acknowledge that.
Questioner: Didn't the White House know, from Tenet, that that information was fragmentary and uncertain? The White House knew that from Tenet, correct?
Fleischer: The information specific to Niger and the quantity sought --
Questioner: -- included in the speech, forget Niger.
Fleischer: No, because the NIA did not say that. And as Director Tenet has pointed out, the speech had been vetted by the CIA, and it was not taken out.
But, look, let me back up a second. Let me back up a second. The issue is, the President said that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. That still may be absolute fact. The point is, it just didn't rise to the President's level.
Questioner: Nobody here knew that that -- that the information that was included in the speech about uranium from Africa was based on fragmentary evidence. Nobody here understood that.
Fleischer: Keith, that's why there is a vetting process. There is information that we get from the CIA and that we talk to the CIA about. Then a speech gets written. It gets shopped to the CIA for them to review. And if the CIA has objections, it comes out.
Questioner: Well, if only the CIA knew -- the White House understood that to be accurate, firm, information and only the CIA knew that, in fact, it wasn't. Is that what you're saying?
Fleischer: I'm not sure I follow your question.
Questioner: In other words, I'm trying to figure out if the White House understood at the time that this was uncertain information -- because if they did, then somebody here is also responsible, not just Secretary Tenet.
Fleischer: No, it's a process, and the process is we had the NIE in hand. The NIE said it explicitly, as you know. It gets written, it gets sent to the CIA, and nobody from the CIA said, take it out. I think the Cincinnati example actually underscores everything we've been telling you, because in Cincinnati, Director Tenet said, take that out. Had, for the State of the Union, somebody said, take that out, it, too, would have been taken out.
Questioner: But Rice and people here -- forget "take it out," "don't take it out" -- the people at the White House understood that to be certain information based on firm evidence; is that correct, or not?
Fleischer: The NIE stated it directly. And then what happens in the drafting process, the information is then sent back to the originating agency. And they review it and they didn't take it out.
Questioner: Why not, though?
Questioner: So if the NIE states it, then it's firm information?
Questioner: Ari, if the Cincinnati speech underscores the process, doesn't Secretary Powell's speech a week after the State of the Union undercut the process here? Because Secretary Powell looked at the totality of what the President said -- not Niger, just Africa -- considered it and said, this is insupportable. Now, what changed in the week's time between the time the President uttered the words in the State of the Union and the time that Secretary Powell presented his evidence that made everybody suddenly feel nervous about the evidence?
Fleischer: The exact answer that Dr. Rice gave to you when you asked it last week, and that's been in the pool report from last week. No difference. I'm not going to say anything different. It's what she said.