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Thursday, July 17

Senate probe on Iraq intelligence aims at White House staff

By Jon Frandsen and John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Pressure mounted on President Bush Thursday to clear up how questionable intelligence about Iraq made its way into his State of the Union speech, and a key Senate committee chairman said he would ask some of Bush's top national security advisers to testify about their role.

But Bush, with his war partner British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side, refused to discuss the matter directly and instead defiantly declared the world was safer now that Saddam Hussein had been removed.

Asked if he would take personal responsibility for using the discredited report that Saddam tried to obtain uranium from Africa in his Jan. 28 address, Bush replied: "I take responsibility for putting our troops into action. I made that decision because Saddam Hussein was a threat to our security.''

While Bush did not directly discuss the intelligence report, which he has acknowledged should not have been in the speech, he made clear that the faulty evidence did not affect his judgment about Iraq's nuclear ambitions.

"I strongly believe he was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program,'' he said at a joint White House news conference with Blair.

Blair, however, did defend the report, which originated with British intelligence.

"We stand by that intelligence,'' Blair said, noting that Iraq was known to have purchased 270 tons of uranium ore from Niger during the 1980s.

A plan by Senate intelligence committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to call members of Bush's National Security Council made clear, however, that Bush cannot expect the growing controversy to die down any time soon. Meanwhile, some Republicans were joining the loud chorus of Democrats demanding an explanation that went beyond saying the CIA had approved the speech.

"The question is, who else and why? Obviously somebody was responsible'' for including the 16-word section of the speech, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told Gannett News Service in an interview. "It didn't happen by happenstance.

"It is bewildering as to why it ever happened, and given all that has happened in America, that we would have a systemic problem and faulty intelligence,'' added Snowe, also a member of the intelligence committee.

Roberts said the panel would continue holding closed-door hearings well into September, make classified and public reports to the Senate and then hold public hearings.

"We'll let the chips fall where they may,'' he said.

But it is not clear, however, if Bush's national security advisers would testify. Presidential advisers traditionally do not testify before Congress and often claim executive privilege when refusing to appear.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., demanded that Bush publicly explain what happened and fire those involved.

"We need from the president leadership in clearing this up and, frankly, clearing out those individuals who attempted to mislead him,'' Durbin said in a Senate floor speech.

Durbin, also a member of the intelligence panel, spoke just one day after CIA director George Tenet appeared before the committee for nearly five hours about the report and the question of whether the administration had overstated intelligence findings to make a persuasive case for going to war.

Tenet said he never actually saw advance drafts of Bush's speech, but he took responsibility for including the allegation because other CIA officials had reviewed it, senators who attended the hearing said.

"Tenet has accepted responsibility even though he personally didn't see the president's speech," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

Roberts said Durbin's call for a clearing out was premature.

"We haven't heard from the individuals yet,'' he said. "You need additional information before you rush to a judgment like that.''

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also said the White House should explain what happened, but he added that the furor should in no way cast doubts about the legitimacy of the war.

Other Republicans were outraged by the attacks and said Democrats were seeking political gain by blowing up a relatively minor mistake.

"We are making a mountain out of molehill because we know Saddam Hussein had a nuclear program. I wonder why we are still nitpicking over whether that particular piece of evidence was relevant,'' said Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo.

The White House acknowledged last week that the charge that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore from Niger should not have been in the speech because there were concerns about the authenticity of the intelligence. It was later determined the documents were forged.

But the public statement led to more questions, including why security council officials pressed to include it in the speech in January even though they struck a similar reference - at Tenet's request - from an October speech.

The controversy has been made worse by dismal developments in Iraq, where attacks on Americans have continued since Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1. Iraqis are growing increasingly angry about the pace of rebuilding the country and creating a government they can call their own.

Durbin and other Democrats said they believed that weapons of mass destruction would eventually be discovered. The issue, he said, was American credibility.

But there is no doubt that Democrats are enjoying Bush's political embarrassment.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee e-mailed an image that it said was from the official White House Web page. It showed a hand holding a pencil over a document, the cuffs of the shirt held together by a cufflink emblazoned with a "W''.

The official caption read: "Working at his desk in the Oval Office, President Bush reviews the State of the Union address line by line and word by word.''

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(Contributing: GNS reporter Maureen Groppe)