U.S. Department of State
Press Briefing

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Holiday Inn
Pretoria, South Africa
July 10, 2003

[Excerpts on Iraq Uranium Purchase Allegations]


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, regarding that erroneous report last January that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Niger, does the administration owe Americans and, in fact, the world an apology for making that statement? And should the administration beat Congress to the punch by making a detailed investigation and a detailed explanation of how something so important and so wrong got into a presidential address?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think this is very overwrought and overblown and overdrawn. Intelligence reports flow in from all over. Sometimes they are results of your own intelligence agencies at work. Sometimes you get information from very capable foreign intelligence services. And you get the information, you analyze it. Sometimes it holds up, sometimes it does not hold up. It's a moving train. And you keep trying to establish what is right and what is wrong. Very often it never comes out quite that clean, but you have to make judgments.

And at the time of the President's State of the Union address, a judgment was made that that was an appropriate statement for the President to make. There was no effort or attempt on the part of the President, or anyone else in the administration, to mislead or to deceive the American people. The President was presenting what seemed to be a reasonable statement at that time -- and it didn't talk to Niger, it talked specifically about efforts to acquire uranium from nations that had it in Africa.

Subsequently, when we looked at it more thoroughly and when I think it's, oh, a week or two later, when I made my presentation to the United Nations and we really went through every single thing we knew about all of the various issues with respect to weapons of mass destruction, we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore. It was not standing the test of time. And so I didn't use it, and we haven't used it since.

But to think that somehow we went out of our way to insert this single sentence into the State of the Union address for the purpose of deceiving and misleading the American people is an overdrawn, overblown, overwrought conclusion.

QUESTION: So can I follow that up -- some British officials apparently think that what will happen in the end is weapons of mass destruction will not be found. There may be evidence that Saddam Hussein, before the war, either hid or destroyed weapons of mass destruction. Is that now what this administration thinks?

SECRETARY POWELL: No. And I cannot speculate on what an unnamed British official may or may not have said, or does or does not believe. Let's start at the beginning. I don't want to take you through the whole history, but it's instructive.

This is a regime that developed weapons of mass destruction, had them, used them, and in 1991, when we went to war, and I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, we were concerned that they would use those weapons against them -- against us, and everybody knew they had them.

When the first Gulf War was over, Desert Storm, we found them, and we destroyed some. And we looked for more. And the U.N. took it over, and for years the U.N. kept searching for more. And they never were able to get a full accounting and could not find them all. Resolution after resolution was passed, agreed to by the entire international community.

In 1998, Saddam Hussein created conditions that caused the inspectors to have to leave. They were getting close, and they had to leave. President Clinton was so concerned at time that he bombed. What did he bomb? He bombed for four days, in Operation Desert Fox, facilities that were believed to possess or developing or producing weapons of mass destruction.

The entire international community has felt, over this entire period, that Saddam Hussein had these weapons, and there was sufficient intelligence available to all the major intelligence agencies of the world that they existed. And they do exist. And when we went to the United Nations last year, when the President spoke to the United Nations General Assembly last September, he put the charge to the General Assembly: you have been saying; put the charge to the Security Council as well, you have been saying for all these years that this is a nation that has not come clean, here is one last chance.

And in resolution 1441, 15 nations unanimously approved that resolution that begins with a statement that Iraq is in material breach. So everybody had reason to believe, good reason to believe -- not figments of the imagination   -- that they had weapons of mass destruction and had programs to develop more. And if there is anybody who thinks that Saddam Hussein had ever lost the intent to have such weapons, then I think that is the most naive view imaginable. And he had the chance to come clean to the international community; he did not take that chance, he did not take that opportunity. And the war followed. 

And we have now removed a tyrant, a dictator. We have freed people. We have found the mass graves. We have found -- we are starting to find evidence that I think will make it clear that there was a more than adequate justification for this war and more than adequate authority for it under Resolution 1441. 


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I believe you mentioned that the President in the State of the Union didn't mention Niger; he mentioned Africa.


QUESTION: Do you think the other intelligence that was involved, has it stood the test of time? The Niger didn't. Did the other intelligence that went into that, did it stand --

SECRETARY POWELL: I think so. The definitive presentation of our intelligence case, frankly, was the presentation I made on the 5th of February. I spent an enormous amount of time with many of my colleagues and with a large part of the top leadership of the CIA, as well as a lot of the working-level analysts of the CIA, closeted in Langley at CIA headquarters for four days and three nights -- or it might be four weeks and three months -- it felt like it. And we were there well into the night, until midnight, 1:00 a.m. every morning, going over everything. We had lots and lots of information. The challenge was to get it down to that which was absolutely supportable and we were confident of.

There were a lot of items of information that I could have used if I had had three hours or three days. And there were other items of information that were pretty good, but maybe we didn't have a second, third, fourth source on, so let's not lead with that.

And the case I put down on the 5th of February, for an hour and 20 minutes, roughly, on terrorism, on weapons of mass destruction and on the human rights case -- a short section at the end -- we stand behind. And the credibility of the United States was at stake when that presentation was put forward. And I spent the afternoon waiting for the reaction -- not just your reaction, as important as that might be -- but I wanted to see what the Iraqis were going to do. I was interested to see what their response was going to be.

And I waited that afternoon and the next morning, I waited to see what their response was going to be. The first response was predictable: it's all a bunch of lies -- just as they'd been saying for 12 years, all a bunch of lies. And then I waited for, okay, hit me on something, attack some part of the presentation. Well, they're phony intercepts -- nonsense, they're real. I heard the actual -- you heard the voices. And then the only thing that came up over the next several days was a debate about one of the pictures I showed, as to whether those were chemical weapons bunkers or not. And that pretty much was it in the way of a counterattack.

One item I showed was cartoons of the mobile biological van. They were cartoons, artist's renderings, because we had never seen one of these things, but we had good sourcing on it, excellent sourcing on it. And we knew what it would look like when we found it, so we made those pictures. And I can assure you I didn't just throw those pictures up without having quite a bit of confidence in the information that I had been provided and that Director Tenet had been provided and was now supporting me in the presentation on, sitting right behind me.

And we waited. And it took a couple of months, and it took until after the war, until we found a van and another van that pretty much matched what we said it would look like. And I think that's a pretty good indication that we were not cooking the books.

And what I keep saying to people is, if that was really a hydrogen maker for a weather balloon, and I'm Saddam Hussein or the Minister of Information we all got to know and love so well, that van would have been pulled out the next orning and they would have tried to blow us out of the water as they blew up a weather balloon. They didn't, they couldn't, they never showed -- they brought other vehicles forward; they never brought that one out.  

And so it stood the test of time. It stood the test of time a couple of weeks ago, when, if you'll go back to the presentation on nuclear capability and weapons, I said that they had the brainpower, I said they had the infrastructure, and they've never lost the intention, and they have hidden components of their program. I talked about the centrifuge. And I made the point then that there was a difference of opinion about the centrifuge and let's continue to study it. I didn't use the uranium at that point, because I didn't think that was sufficiently strong as evidence to present before the world. And what did we see two weeks ago? An Iraqi scientist coming forward with a bunch of diagrams and blueprints and some centrifuge parts that he dug up out of his yard.

And so I think as you let Mr. Kay and the ISG that support the team that's out there looking at this stuff continue to look, continue to interview people, continue to pore through all the documents that we have, I think the case will no longer be in doubt.

QUESTION: -- describe the process you went through on Niger, was it just that they only had a single source? It appears from what we've heard, the British had some report and they kind of went on a single source. Is that what it turned out to be --

SECRETARY POWELL: What I had available to me, as we went through this -- I can't recover all from my failing, fading, aging memory, but there wasn't enough that would say, take this one to the U.N. next week. So we didn't. We weren't trying to over-sell a case.

Now, the British, as you noticed in the last day or two, still feel that they have enough information to make the claims that they have made. And I would not dispute them or disagree with them, or say they're wrong and we're right, or we're right and they're wrong. I wouldn't do that. Because intelligence is of that nature. Some people have more sources than others on a particular issue; some people have greater confidence in their analysis. And what I've found over many years of experience in this business is, at the end of the day, you're essentially making -- very, very often -- judgment calls, as opposed to an absolute, 100-percent certain fact. When you have 100-percent certain fact, it's great. But very often, you're making judgment calls. And, you know, remember, the reason they call it intelligence is that people are working very, very hard to keep you from knowing the truth.

QUESTION: If I could follow. I mean, let's say the American people assume that the administration was not intending to mislead or misinform. Why doesn't the administration see it as an issue of credibility when it comes to the President's State of the Union address? I mean, this is a statement of record. The President used this, he used the facts to make the case that Saddam Hussein was trying to build up his nuclear weapons arsenal, and making a case for war to the American people. Why is this not an issue of credibility when it comes to the President's delivering his State of the Union address and using that misinformation?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think the President in the State of the Union address had this sentence in there and it talked about efforts on the part of Iraq to obtain uranium from sources in Africa. There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used. It's that once we used the statement and, after further analysis and looking at other estimates we had and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn't hold up. And we said so. And we've acknowledged it and we've moved on.

I'm not troubled by this. I think the American people will put this in context and perspective, and understand perfectly why the President felt it was necessary to undertake this military operation with a willing coalition, in order to remove this tyrant from office, to make sure there are no morequestions about weapons of mass destruction, because the regime that was determined to have them is gone. And we now have to focus on the future, and that is to build a better Iraq for the Iraqi people, and help them put in place a representative form of government that will make sure that there are never any more weapons of mass destruction in this country, and that it's a country that will live in peace with its neighbors. And we can chew on the sentence and the State of the Union address forever, but I don't think it undercuts the President's credibility.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the point is, I think, that very little time passed between the State of the Union address and your presentation to the U.N., little more than a week. You know as well as anyone how carefully a State of the Union message is vetted, there are speechwriters and agency people from far and wide fighting to get their material into the speech, to make it a priority. This was clearly one of the keynote aspects of the President's speech, the case against Iraq. It's in the speech, it's in the State of the Union. Yet eight days later, you go before the U.N. and it's not credible any longer. How quickly does information, intelligence, wither away? And does the fact that it withered away to the point where you wouldn't use it eight days later suggest -- with the benefit of hindsight -- that there should have been more questions about it?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, with the benefit of hindsight, as we have said, it's a statement that, upon reflection and the test of time, we've acknowledged that there was trouble with it. And so -- yes?

QUESTION: But does intelligence usually get reevaluated so quickly?

SECRETARY POWELL: At the time it was put into the State of the Union, my best understanding of this is that it had been seen by the intelligence community and vetted. But on subsequent examination, it didn't hold up, and we have acknowledged that.

QUESTION: Who at the State Department vetted the President's speech with that line in the President's speech? Can you give us their names and their recommendations to the President?

SECRETARY POWELL: I saw the speech and I don't remember the specific line in the speech, but we all at a senior level get a chance to look at a State of the Union address. I saw it, and -- the whole speech -- and it was my understanding that it had been seen and cleared by the intelligence community.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you talked about intelligence being a process of judgment often. And I think what we're trying to get to is an understanding of the sense of urgency that the administration portrayed about the Iraqi threat before the war began. Was the underpinning of that intelligence making statements that were not totally outrageous? Or was it a determination to find the most credible understanding of the threat to present to the American people? In other words, we're looking for why a statement that is simply not outrageous would have been included in the President's State of the Union address, and not something that was thoroughly vetted and known to be true?

SECRETARY POWELL: I can't tell you more than what I've said to you, that the sentence in the State of the Union was not put in there without the knowledge and approval of the intelligence community that saw the speech. And what level and who, I don't know.


Source: State Department