July 9, 2003 | Broadcast

Wolf Blitzer Reports

But that allegation has come back to embarrass the president.


BLITZER (voice-over): The White House now acknowledges President Bush should never have said this in his State of the Union address in January.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

BLITZER: That’s in part because the British government itself has now backed away from that assertion.

What’s clear now is that earlier intelligence reports suggesting Saddam Hussein’s regime was attempting to obtain uranium from the African nation of Niger were based on false information, including forged documents.

But what’s even more embarrassing to Bush administration officials is that the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department had themselves earlier concluded the Niger uranium reports were almost certainly not true.

Former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson was sent by the CIA to Niger in February 2002, 11 months before the president’s State of the Union address, to investigate the allegation.

AMBASSADOR JOSEPH WILSON, FORMER U.S. CHARGE D’AFFAIRES TO IRAQ: I traveled out there, spent eight days out there, and concluded that it was nigh on impossible that this transaction could this be done clandestinely.

BLITZER: Two months after the president’s address to Congress, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and went further than the president in alleging Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He’s had years to get good at it. We know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.

BLITZER: The White House has now released a statement acknowledging the Niger documents were forged, but insisting there were other intelligence reports at the time suggesting Iraq was, indeed, attempting to acquire uranium from other countries in Africa.

Still, the White House says those reports were not specific: “Because of this lack of specificity this reporting alone did not rise to the level of inclusion in a presidential speech. That said, the issue of Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from abroad was not an element underpinning the judgment reached by most intelligence agencies that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”


BLITZER: Senator Carl Levin, the ranking member of the Armed Service Committee, says this issue reinforces the need for a formal inquiry why, as late as the State of the Union address in January, the president was “still using information which the intelligence community knew was almost certainly false.”

To date, no weapons of mass destruction have been found anywhere in Iraq, with the possible exception of those two trailer trucks that may have had some biological weapons capability.

Joining me now to debate this issue, Cliff May. He’s president of Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. And Peter Beinart; he’s editor of “The New Republic.”

I want to point out, Cliff, Vice President Cheney’s assistants point out correctly that in the course of that one hour interview he gave Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” he repeatedly said that Iraq has reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. And that one clip that we just ran, he slipped up and he just said nuclear weapons. But he meant the program.

Is that a difference, significant difference?

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: It is a significant difference because we know that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons development program going back for decades.

In ’81, you recall, it was destroyed by the Israelis. They bombed in. In ’91 when we got there, we found out that it was further along, closer to developing a bomb than we expected.

So we knew he had nuclear ambitions. The question is how far along was he? We didn’t know, but it was a danger to us. In recent days, CNN has reported that an Iraqi scientist said, “Hey, I had a centrifuge for making nuclear devices buried in my backyard.”

PETER BEINART, “THE NEW REPUBLIC” EDITOR: That was from the first Gulf War.

MAY: I think what we now can conclude — we didn’t know this before — was that Saddam Hussein never gave up his nuclear ambitions or other weapons of mass destruction ambitions. The question was when he could go ahead and develop them. Maybe that meant after the inspectors were gone, after the sanctions were lifted, but this guy was an enemy of ours and he meant to do us harm. It was important that we toppled him.

BLITZER: Peter, you don’t believe he ever gave up his ambitions for potentially down the road having a nuclear capability?

BEINART: No. You see, the problem is the language keeps on changing. First we were talking about weapons, then we were talking about a program, now we have no evidence of a program. There is zero evidence that has really held up of a nuclear weapons program.

BLITZER: What about the centrifuge?

BEINART: No, no. The point is that he buried it. It was underground in his bed for the entire period. Maybe, yes, he didn’t give them up. He may well have, at a future date, wanted to set them up. But the fact that he buried him showed that, in fact, there wasn’t a program. We don’t have any evidence for it.

BLITZER: Peter — Peter, you remember after the first Gulf War. The commitment the Iraqis made was not to bury it but to destroy it.

BEINART: Yes. We’re not arguing whether they complied with the U.N. They clearly didn’t. The question is, do we have evidence of a nuclear program, of reconstituting a nuclear program? There is so far no evidence.

MAY: But as you know, we went into Iraq under Resolution 1441 of the U.N. Security Council. What was that based on? It was based on the fact. The fact that Saddam Hussein had not complied with his agreement, had not disclosed to all his weapons programs and all the weapons he had, had not cooperated with the inspectors. And that was absolutely the case.

BEINART: But that’s a separate question from whether we have any evidence he reconstituted a nuclear weapons program. In fact, the scientists who we’re offering $200,000 for evidence none of them have given any evidence of a reconstituted nuclear weapons program. The two pieces of evidence the Bush administration’s come forward to have not stood up.

MAY: The nature of intelligence, especially with a regime like this one, a despotic, totalitarian regime, is you’re never exactly sure. I think the American people would rather have a president who says, “Look, I’m going err and be prudent on the side of caution. I’m not going to say I don’t have beyond a reasonable doubt, so I’ll wait until he uses the weapons against us.”

BEINART: We should be honest about what we know. I don’t mind if the president wants to take us to war, but he should be honest about what the intelligence community knows, not shade it so dramatically that America has a misunderstanding…

BLITZER: There were articles in “The New Republic” that supported the war.

BEINART: We still support the war. But we still think that being dishonest with the American people, what the Bush administration was, is a very serious issue.

MAY: It’s wrong to call it dishonesty. Here’s what happened…

BEINART: The State of the Union was wrong.

BLITZER: Let’s get to some e-mails and we’ll continue through the course of these e-mails. This is for you from Nathan: “The American people were sold a war in Iraq on the basis that Saddam had WMDs that posed a clear and present danger to the United States, not because Saddam was a mean guy who killed a bunch of his own people.”

MAY: I just don’t think that’s true. There were any number of reasons — I was involved in this — why we thought it was necessary to secure a regime change in Iraq.

One was that the butchery, which is worse than we thought, of his own people, perhaps a million political executions, mass graveyards being found in every town.

The fact that he hadn’t complied with his agreements with the U.N. or with us.

The fact that he was involved in terrorism in other parts of the world.

The fact that he was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

What it really comes down to is the dangerous matrix.

BEINART: We don’t know he was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have any evidence of that so far.

MAY: He admitted he had and was developing biological weapons. He has used chemical weapons in the past.

BEINART: When did he admit? He said that he wasn’t. You might say if, but we haven’t found any evidence that he was.

MAY: He didn’t turn over the anthrax.

BLITZER: Let’s get to another e-mail. This is from Don in Canada for you, Peter.

“I’m fed up with this fixation on the issue of whether Bush exaggerated nuclear development by Iraq. Face it, the job of getting rid of Saddam Hussein had to be done — for many other reasons that have long been recognized. Bush finally did it. I say, ‘Good job.'”

BEINART: Well, I’m glad he did it, too. But the question is in a democracy, you cannot so blithely say it’s fine for a presidential administration on a matter of war and peace to not be straight with the American people.

I’m not accusing President Bush himself of anything, but there’s no question that on the State of the Union address we now have a critical sentence in the case for war that we know was not true. And the question is who in the White House and the administration knew it wasn’t true.

BLITZER: And the fact is that 11 months earlier Ambassador Joe Wilson came back from that secret mission to Niger and reported to the CIA and the State Department it was probably not true.

MAY: That’s right. And who sent Joe Wilson on the mission? Vice President Cheney, because he wanted to find out if it was true.

BLITZER: How come Vice President Cheney didn’t know about the results?

MAY: There was clearly a screw-up, because something that evidently wasn’t true, or at least we didn’t have strong evidence for it, that yellow cake uranium had gone from Niamey (ph), Niger to Baghdad, Iraq somehow got into the State of the Union.

That is absolutely a screw-up. But please don’t say it’s a matter of dishonesty. You have no evidence of that. At least you said it wasn’t the president’s.

BEINART: We don’t have any evidence of that, either. The truth is we don’t know. And the question is are we going to have a real investigation which finds out — we have to find out who knew this was not true — the CIA thought it was a forgery — and still let it get if in. That’s a tremendously important question.

BLITZER: Because the fact is, the president, remember, in that clip, in the remark in the State of the Union, he said the British government has evidence that Niger — he didn’t refer to Niger he said Africa.

MAY: Which could mean it was some other transaction.

BEINART: Well, first they were saying they had evidence from other countries. Now they backpedaled from that, too. There’s really been a pattern of not being straight here.

BLITZER: Let’s go to another e-mail for you, Cliff. This is from frank in Arizona.

“The decision to go to war was made long before any reasons were circulated to the U.N. and the American people. The WMO threat was one of several issues that were put forth to garner support for their decision. That now appears to have been a poor choice, so the administration is backpedaling.”

MAY: But it wasn’t a poor choice. I think most people agree — I think Peter even agrees — that we were right to intervene militarily in Iraq. We were right to liberate the people of Iraq. This was a good decision and it wasn’t the decision even — for 12 years we have been in a struggle with Saddam Hussein. At a certain point we had to end that struggle with him decisively.

BEINART: I agree, but there was a time when Republicans and conservatives thought honesty in a presidential administration was an extremely important issue. And I cannot understand why all of a…

MAY: It was a screw-up. We should find out how.

BEINART: We don’t know it was a screw-up. You’re assuming it was a screw-up. We don’t know who knew, so how can you say it was a screw-up?

MAY: Cheney obviously wanted to know the truth in this, that’s why he sent Joe Wilson to find out. Somehow it got into a speech anyhow. If I were the president, I’d be angry that my speech wasn’t probably vetted.

BEINART: But then why isn’t the president calling for a full, serious investigation of this?

BLITZER: You’ve got to admit, this is not just a speech. This is the State of the Union address, where they supposedly vet every word and they run it through all of the branches of the U.S. government before it’s approved.

MAY: And the president absolutely should say, “I want to know how it got into my speech and I want to know who was responsible” and maybe fire somebody. But the idea that Cheney and somehow Condi and Blair were all involved — If they were going to do it, seriously, they should do a lot better than this.

BEINART: Vice President Cheney’s office asked him to go investigate. Then the question is, did they report back to Cheney’s office if they are the ones who initiated the investigation? If they reported back to Cheney’s office, who in Cheney’s office knew that the CIA knew it was a forgery and let it get into the State of the Union? That’s a very serious question.

MAY: Wilson reported back to the CIA and assumed that the CIA reported it to Cheney and that’s…

BLITZER: Let’s get to a final e-mail. This is from Steven in Illinois for you, Peter.

“After Desert Storm, the U.N. resolutions stated very clearly that the entire burden of proof was on Saddam to prove that he had completely disposed of the large arsenal of WMDs that he had. Of course, the recent war was justified for multiple reasons, but the U.S. never had to find any WMDs in the first place.”

BEINART: This is not an argument about whether we were right to go to war. It’s an argument about honesty.

The question is, the Bush administration is the one who made the centerpiece of their case, WMD, not humanitarianism, not U.N. resolutions. WMD was the centerpiece of their case, and nuclear was a key component of that, along with terrorism.

That stuff is now — doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence, and we need to figure out why they said it.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

MAY: Look, I think Steven has it exactly right. I think we had multiple reasons for wanting to secure, to disarm Saddam Hussein and eventually secure regime change. That was justified, it was right, and what this all shows us is we need better intelligence than we’ve had over the past 10 or even 20 years.

BEINART: And for the intelligence to be fairly portrayed to the American people.

BLITZER: And when the defense secretary earlier today at that stakeout, when he came out with the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Warner, pointed out to reporters that intelligence is always changing and opinions are always changing. That’s absolutely true if you know the intelligence community.

But what isn’t necessarily always true and certainly highly unusual, I’m sure, Cliff, you would agree, that bad intelligence doesn’t make it into a State of the Union address.

MAY: It shouldn’t happen. And again, I said it was a screw-up. I think it should be seen as a screw-up. And I admitted to such and other president should want to know, most of all, how did this get into my…

BEINARTS: Why are the Republicans opposing a Republican investigation to this?

MAY: Because we don’t need — There’s a lot of Democrats, for political reasons, want to turn this into Watergate. I think the Congress has better things to do than stage of public investigation for P.R. purposes when the president can simply say, “Hey, find out how that got into my speech.”

BEINART: Has the White House done an internal investigation? Have they gotten to the bottom of this? Well, have they? I haven’t seen any — Not as far as we know.

MAY: If they are not, I would urge them to do so. The president should be very clear what’s in the State of the Union, as you say, an important speech, needs to be carefully researched and vetted. That’s obvious.

BLITZER: We’ll leave it there.

MAY: Thank you.

BLITZER: I’m sure it’s not left there. It will be a continued source of discussion. Thanks, Cliff May. Peter Beinart, thanks very much. Peter, of course, a regular panelist on CNN’s “LATE EDITION” on Sundays.