I have to tell you that I’m stunned by how pointed and personal this Niger-uranium controversy is becoming, and so quickly. Condi Rice gave a fifty-minute briefing on Air Force One today in which she explicitly sought to pin the blame for the entire matter on CIA Director George Tenet.
Those are strong words, I grant you. But I don’t think there’s any other way to characterize what she said. Her comments are the sort that make it difficult, though by no means impossible, for a DCI to remain in the government’s employ.
Here are a few clips from the AP’s version of the story …
Bush’s national security adviser specifically pointed to the CIA and said it had vetted the speech. If CIA Director George Tenet had any misgivings about that sentence in the president’s speech, ”he did not make them known” to Bush or his staff, said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Rice said ”the CIA cleared the speech in its entirety.”
The agency raised only one objection to the sentence involving an allegation that Iraq was trying to obtain ”yellow cake” uranium, she said.
”Some specifics about amount and place were taken out,” Rice added.
”With the changes in that sentence, the speech was cleared,” she said. ”The agency did not say they wanted that sentence out.”
If anyone at the CIA had doubts about the veracity of the uranium-Iraq allegation, Rice said, ”those doubts were not communicated to the president.”
”If the CIA the director of central intelligence had said ‘Take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone,” Rice said. ”We have a high standard for the president’s speeches.”
Rice later made a perfunctory statement that the president still has confidence in Tenet’s ability to the do the job. But, frankly, that seems hard to square with almost everything else she said.
One other point worth mentioning is that Rice seems to have conceded that Powell’s doubts about the uranium story predated his UN presentation, but that he also didn’t make his views known to the White House …
Rice did say that the State Department’s intelligence division considered the uranium-purchasing allegations dubious, and this was also noted in a footnote in the intelligence assessment given to Bush.
Powell, however, did not discuss his misgivings with her or anyone on her staff between the time of the State of the Union address and Powell’s presentation to the United Nations, she said.
Rice’s comments are flatly contradicted by several different news stories, which say that the CIA repeatedly pressed their objections, both prior to the speech and during the final sign off. However, Rice is going on the record. And that will give her version of events some added weight unless and until the unnamed sources on the other side do the same. She is as much as daring Tenet to contradict her.
At the same time, even the other reports show that the CIA did eventually cave, at least in a sense. They relented when the White House opted for the fig leaf of hanging the allegation on what the Brits were saying — even though the CIA thought the Brits were wrong. If you read the rendition of events in last night’s CBS report, the CIA still acquiesced in a version of the speech that was willfully misleading. It was only technically true because the Brits were saying that, even if our own intelligence agencies thought they were all wet, and had sought to stop them from publicly making the claim.
And this raises another question: just how much had the White House — over a period of more than a year — beaten down its intelligence professionals to the point where they just didn’t want to stick their necks out any more? Just how much had the White House already made it very clear that it didn’t want to hear any opinions or facts that got in the way of the president’s Iraq policy? This is the point Ken Pollack made in his comments to TPM a few days ago. I think we’re going to find that at many points and in many ways over the last year they made that message very clear.