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Context of 'July 11, 2003: White House Backs Away from Admission of Error; Says Admission ‘Biggest Mistake Administration Had Made’'

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The White House, after much discussion and argument among senior advisers (see July 6-7, 2003), issues a vaguely worded admission that President Bush and his top officials erred in claiming that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003). A senior, unnamed White House official says that Bush should not have made the claim (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003) by saying: “Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq’s attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech.… There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made.” The statement is authorized by the White House. [BBC, 7/8/2003; McClellan, 2008, pp. 168-170]
Dashed Hope that Admission Might Defuse Controversy - White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will later write: “Although two other African countries were mentioned in the [Iraq] NIE (National Intelligence Estimate—see October 1, 2002) as possible sources of uranium for Iraq, the only detailed or specific intelligence about Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa was related to Niger, and this was clearly the primary basis for the president’s 16 words” in the State of the Union speech. Senior White House officials, with Bush’s authorization, elaborate on the concession. One official says, “We couldn’t prove it, and it might in fact be wrong.” McClellan will write: “It was the public acknowledgement that the president should have not made the uranium allegation in his State of the Union address and that the information in which it had been based was incomplete or inaccurate. At the White House, everyone hoped the acknowledgement would put the 16-words controversy to rest. The reality was the opposite.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 168-170]
Critics: Bush 'Knowingly Misled' US Citizenry, Calls for Firings - Critics of the White House are quick to jump on the claim. “This may be the first time in recent history that a president knowingly misled the American people during the State of Union address,” says Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. “Either President Bush knowingly used false information in his State of the Union address or senior administration officials allowed the use of that information. This was not a mistake. It was no oversight and it was no error.” Tom Daschle (D-SD), the Senate Majority Leader, calls the admission another reason for Congress to fully investigate the use and misuse of prewar intelligence. Retired Colonel David Hunt, a Fox News analyst, says: “This is an absolute failure. This is an overstatement and it’s embarrassing and it’s very poor business for the war on terrorism, really bad news.” Hunt calls for firings over the admission: “I think there are some people that need to be fired—starting with the [CIA Director George] Tenet. This is bad. When they’re blaming him publicly, and that’s unheard of… it can’t be glossed over. The bureaucracy has got to knock this off. It can’t happen anymore.” [Fox News, 7/9/2003]
Calls for Congressional Investigation - Congressional Democrats demand, but never get, a Congressional inquiry; Senator Carl Levin questions how such a “bogus” claim could have become a key part of the case for war, and Ted Kennedy suggests the claim is a “deliberate deception.” McClellan will observe: “Whether legitimate expressions of concern or grandstanding for political gain, their efforts to raise more suspicion about the White House for political gain, their efforts to raise more suspicion about the White House were a natural part of the ongoing partisan warfare that President Bush had promised to end. Now, the way the president had chosen to sell the war to the American people and his reluctance to discuss openly and directly how that case had been made were ensuring his promise would not be kept.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 168-170]
Blair Administration 'Furious' at Admission - In Great Britain, officials in the government of Tony Blair are “privately furious with the White House,” according to McClellan. Blair’s officials insist on standing by the claim, thus causing an embarrasing disparity between the White House and Downing Street. [McClellan, 2008, pp. 168-170]
Admission Retracted Days Later - Within days, the White House will retract the admission (see July 11, 2003).

Entity Tags: David Hunt, George W. Bush, George J. Tenet, Tom Daschle, Bush administration (43), Terry McAuliffe

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Almost immediately after the CIA admits that President Bush never should have claimed that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003), the White House begins backing away from the admission of error. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus tells former ambassador Joseph Wilson (see July 11, 2003) that he is receiving numerous phone calls from White House officials trying to take back the admission. One official tells Pincus that, in Wilson’s words, “telling the truth ‘was the biggest mistake the administration had made.’” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 335]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Walter Pincus, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times revealing his failure to find any validity in the claims of a uranium deal between Iraq and Niger during a fact-finding trip to Africa (see July 6, 2003 and February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002), is pleased at CIA Director George Tenet’s admission that the Iraq-Niger uranium claim “should never have been included in the text written for the president” (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003). According to his wife, senior CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson, “Joe felt his work was done; he had made his point.” [Wilson, 2007, pp. 140] Wilson himself will recall believing: “I honestly thought that my exposure in the matter would quickly fade, as the administration would now have to concentrate on the serious question of competence among the members of the president’s staff. I told any interested friends and all inquisitive journalists that as my charges had been satisfactorily answered, I’d have nothing more to say. I honored obligations for interviews that I had previously accepted, but I denied any others in order to allow the waters I’d roiled to still. I thought that surely the focus of the debate would shift away from me. How naive and mistaken I was on that score!” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 335]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Joseph C. Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Referring to President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003), CIA Director George Tenet says in a written statement: “I am responsible for the approval process in my agency.… These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president.” Tenet denies that the White House is responsible for the mistake, putting the blame squarely on himself and his agency. His statement comes hours after Bush blamed the CIA for the words making it into the speech (see July 11, 2003). [CNN, 7/11/2003; Central Intelligence Agency, 7/11/2003; New York Times, 7/12/2003]
CIA Chose to Send Wilson to Niger - Tenet also confirms that it was the CIA’s choice to send former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002), apparently in an effort to rebut claims that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the mission. Tenet states: “There was fragmentary intelligence gathered in late 2001 and early 2002 on the allegations of Saddam’s efforts to obtain additional raw uranium from Africa, beyond the 550 metric tons already in Iraq. In an effort to inquire about certain reports involving Niger, CIA’s counterproliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region [Wilson] to make a visit to see what he could learn.” Tenet says that Wilson found no evidence to believe that Iraq had attempted to purchase Nigerien uranium, though this did not settle the issue for either the CIA or the White House. [Central Intelligence Agency, 7/11/2003]
Coordinated with White House - Tenet’s admission was coordinated by White House advisers for what reporter Murray Waas will call “maximum effect.” Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, White House political strategist Karl Rove, and Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby had reviewed drafts of Tenet’s statement days in advance; Hadley and Rove had suggested changes in the draft. [National Journal, 3/30/2006] Cheney rejected an earlier draft, marking it “unacceptable” (see July 11, 2003).
White House Joins in Blaming CIA - National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also blames the CIA. Peppered with questions from reporters about the claim, she continues the White House attempt to pin the blame for the faulty intelligence on the CIA: “We have a higher standard for what we put in presidential speeches” than other governments or other agencies. “We don’t make the president his own fact witness. That’s why we send them out for clearance.” Had the CIA expressed doubts about the Niger claim before the State of the Union? she is asked (see January 26 or 27, 2003, March 8, 2003, March 23, 2003, April 5, 2003, Early June 2003, June 9, 2003, and June 17, 2003). “The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety,” she replies. “If the CIA, the director of central intelligence, had said, ‘Take this out of the speech,’ (see January 27, 2003) it would have been gone without question. If there were doubts about the underlying intelligence, those doubts were not communicated to the president, to the vice president or to me.… What we’ve said subsequently is, knowing what we know now, that some of the Niger documents were apparently forged, we wouldn’t have put this in the president’s speech—but that’s knowing what we know now.” Another senior White House official, defending the president and his advisers, tells ABC News: “We were very careful with what the president said. We vetted the information at the highest levels.” But another intelligence official, also interviewed by ABC, contradicts this statement. [CNN, 7/11/2003; White House, 7/11/2003; Washington Post, 7/12/2003; New York Times, 7/12/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 99; McClellan, 2008, pp. 171-172] Tenet’s mea culpa is apparently enough for Bush; press secretary Ari Fleischer says, “The president has moved on.” [White House, 7/11/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 99] White House press secretary Scott McClellan will later claim that at this point Rice is unaware that her National Security Council is far more responsible for the inclusion than the CIA. He will write that the news media reports “not unfairly” that Rice is blaming the CIA for the inclusion. [McClellan, 2008, pp. 171-172]
News Reports Reveal Warnings Not to Use Claim - Following Tenet’s statement, a barrage of news reports citing unnamed CIA officials reveal that the White House had in fact been explicitly warned not to include the Africa-uranium claim. These reports indicate that at the time Bush delivered his State of the Union address, it had been widely understood in US intelligence circles that the claim had little evidence supporting it. [Boston Globe, 3/16/2003; New York Times, 3/23/2003; Associated Press, 6/12/2003; Knight Ridder, 6/12/2003; Associated Press, 6/12/2003; Knight Ridder, 6/13/2003; ABC News, 6/16/2003; Newsday, 7/12/2003; Washington Post, 7/20/2003] For example, CBS News reports, “CIA officials warned members of the president’s National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.” And a Washington Post article cites an unnamed intelligence source who says, “We consulted about the paper [September 2002 British dossier] and recommended against using that material.” [CBS News, 7/10/2003; CNN, 7/10/2003; Washington Post, 7/11/2003]
Claim 'Technically True' since British, Not US, Actually Made It - White House officials respond that the dossier issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion, “Iraq has… sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” and that the officials had argued that as long as the statement was attributed to the British intelligence, it would be technically true. Similarly, ABC News reports: “A CIA official has an idea about how the Niger information got into the president’s speech. He said he is not sure the sentence was ever cleared by the agency, but said he heard speechwriters wanted it included, so they attributed it to the British.” The same version of events is told to the New York Times by a senior administration official, who claims, “The decision to mention uranium came from White House speechwriters, not from senior White House officials.” [ABC News, 6/12/2003; CBS News, 7/10/2003; New York Times, 7/14/2003; New York Times, 7/19/2003]
Decision Influenced by Office of Special Plans - But according to a CIA intelligence official and four members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who are investigating the issue, the decision to include the Africa-uranium claim was influenced by the people associated with the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (see September 2002). [Information Clearing House, 7/16/2003]
Reactions - Rice says that the White House will not declassify the October 2002 NIE on Iraq (see October 1, 2002) to allow the public to judge for itself whether the administration exaggerated the Iraq-Niger claim; McClellan will write that Rice is currently “unaware of the fact that President Bush had already agreed to ‘selective declassification’ of parts of the NIE so that Vice President Cheney, or his top aide Scooter Libby, could use them to make the administration’s case with selected reporters” (see 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003). [McClellan, 2008, pp. 171-172] Two days later, Rice will join Bush in placing the blame for using the Iraq-Niger claim solely on the CIA (see July 13, 2003). McClellan will later write, “The squabbling would leave the self-protective CIA lying in wait to exact revenge against the White House.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 172]
Former Ambassador Considers Matter Settled - Former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times revealing his failure to find any validity in the claims during his fact-finding trip to Niger (see July 6, 2003 and February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002), is pleased at Tenet’s admission. According to his wife, CIA analyst Valerie Plame Wilson, “Joe felt his work was done; he had made his point.” [Wilson, 2007, pp. 140]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, Joseph C. Wilson, Condoleezza Rice, Ari Fleischer, Bush administration (43), Karl C. Rove, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Murray Waas, Valerie Plame Wilson, ABC News, Stephen J. Hadley, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Scott McClellan, CBS News, Office of Special Plans

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The White House continues to back away from its admission of error concerning President Bush’s claim that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger (see July 8, 2003 and July 11, 2003). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice appear on the Sunday morning talk shows to assert that the “16 words” in Bush’s January speech (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003) were “technically correct” because British intelligence, not American intelligence, was the original source of the claim as worded by Bush. The British still stand by the claim, though they refuse to provide evidence. In the interviews, Rice tries to call the claim a “mistake” and simultaneously vouch for its “accuracy.” [Washington Post, 7/26/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 100] “I believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” she says. In particular, Fox News host Tony Snow gives Rice multiple opportunities to state that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, and that the Iraq-Niger uranium claim is probably true. She says that the related claim of the Iraqis buying aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges is also supported by the CIA, even though Snow acknowledges that the tubes theory has been “knocked down.” [Fox News, 7/13/2003]
Invoking the British, Blaming Tenet - On CBS’s Face the Nation, Rice again blames CIA Director George Tenet for the error (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003), saying: “My only point is that, in retrospect, knowing that some of the documents underneath may have been—were, indeed, forgeries, and knowing that apparently there were concerns swirling around about this, had we known that at the time, we would not have put it in.… And had there been even a peep that the agency did not want that sentence in or that George Tenet did not want that sentence in, that the director of central intelligence did not want it in, it would have been gone.” [CBS News, 7/13/2003] On Fox News, Rice says: “[T]he statement that [Bush] made was indeed accurate. The British government did say that. Not only was the statement accurate, there were statements of this kind in the National Intelligence Estimate. And the British themselves stand by that statement to this very day, saying that they had sources other than sources that have now been called into question to back up that claim. We have no reason not to believe them.… We have every reason to believe that the British services are quite reliable.” [Fox News, 7/13/2003] On CNN, Rice calls the issue “enormously overblown.… This 16 words has been taken out of context. It’s been blown out of proportion.” She emphasizes that Bush’s claim came “from a whole host of sources.… The British, by the way, still stand by their report to this very day in its accuracy, because they tell us that they had sources that were not compromised in any way by later, in March or April, later reports that there were some forgeries.” She adds: “We’re talking about a sentence, a data point, not the president’s case about reconstitution of weapons of mass destruction, or of nuclear weapons in Iraq.… We’re talking about a single sentence, the consequence of which was not to send America to war. The consequence of which was to state in the State of the Union something that, while accurate, did not meet the standard that we use for the president.” [CNN, 7/13/2003]
Denies Involvement in Wilson Mission - Rice also denies that anyone at the White House had any involvement in sending former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate the uranium claims (see July 6, 2003). CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer says of the Wilson mission, “Supposedly, it came at the request of the vice president.” Rice replies: “No, this is simply not true, and this is something that’s been perpetuated that we simply have to straighten out. The vice president did not ask that Joe Wilson go to Niger. The vice president did not know. I don’t think he knew who Joe Wilson was, and he certainly didn’t know that he was going. The first that I heard of Joe Wilson mission was when I was doing a Sunday talk show and heard about it (see June 8, 2003 and June 8, 2003)… [T]he Wilson trip was not sent by anyone at a high level. It wasn’t briefed to anyone at high level. And it appears to have been inconclusive in what it found.” Rice is following the White House strategy of denying Vice President Dick Cheney’s involvement in the Wilson mission (see July 6, 2003, 8:45 a.m. July 7, 2003, 9:22 a.m. July 7, 2003, July 7-8, 2003, and July 8, 2003). [CNN, 7/13/2003]

Entity Tags: Wolf Blitzer, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Tony Snow, Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush, Joseph C. Wilson, Donald Rumsfeld, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), George J. Tenet, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The Wall Street Journal prints an editorial based on, in its words, “[w]hat the National Intelligence Estimate [NIE—see October 1, 2002] said about Iraq’s hunt for uranium.” The Journal does not mention that the editorial is based on leaked information from the Office of the Vice President via the Defense Department (see July 14 or 15, 2003); in fact, it denies receiving the information from the White House entirely. (It is possible that the Journal editors were not aware that the leaked information originally came from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.) The Journal says “[w]e’re reliably told” that the NIE largely supports the Iraq-Niger uranium claims recently repudiated by the Bush administration (see July 8, 2003 and July 11, 2003). According to the material leaked to the Journal, the NIE indicates that before the March 2003 invasion, Iraq was close to producing nuclear weapons, and the regime of Saddam Hussein was actively seeking yellowcake uranium, such as that produced by Niger, to shorten the time it would take to bring actual nuclear devices online. The Journal concludes that the Iraq-Niger claims were “supposedly discredited,” but are actually viable, and President Bush was “entirely accurate” in making the Iraq-Niger uranium claim in the January 2003 State of the Union address (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003). In contrast, CIA Director George Tenet’s recent admission that the claim was a “mistake” was, the Journal says, “more tortured than warranted by the assertions in the NIE.” [Wall Street Journal, 7/17/2003] The day after the editorial is published, the White House releases a heavily redacted version of the NIE to the public (see July 18, 2003).

Entity Tags: Office of the Vice President, George J. Tenet, US Department of Defense, Wall Street Journal, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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