White House Press Gaggle with Ari Fleischer
The National Hospital, Abuja, Nigeria
12 July 2003
[Excerpts on DCI Tenet, Iraqi Nuclear Program]
Q: Ari, what's the President's reaction to Mr. Tenet's statement -- a rather long one -- what was his reaction?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is pleased that the Director of Central Intelligence acknowledged what needed to be acknowledged, which was the circumstances surrounding the State of the Union speech. The President said that line because it was based on information from the intelligence community and the speech was vetted.
Q: Does the President still have confidence in Director Tenet?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. President Bush has confidence in Director Tenet and President Bush has confidence in the CIA.
Q: Ari, the President often speaks of accountability. Does he feel accountability is achieved in this circumstance? Or how do you address that issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me explain to you the President's thinking on this. A greater, more important truth is being lost in the flap over whether or not Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. The greater truth is that nobody, but nobody, denies that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons. He was pursuing numerous ways to obtain nuclear weapons. The United States never said that he had nuclear weapons. We have said that he was pursuing them. It should surprise nobody that Saddam Hussein was seeking to acquire the means to produce from a variety of sources and a variety of ways.
He had previously obtained yellow cake from Africa. In fact, in one of the least known parts of this story, which is now, for the first time, public -- and you find this in Director Tenet's statement last night -- the official that -- lower-level official sent from the CIA to Niger to look into whether or not Saddam Hussein had sought yellow cake from Niger, Wilson, he -- and Director Tenet's statement last night states the same former official, Wilson, also said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official, Wilson, meet an Iraqi delegation to discuss expanding commercial relations between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.
This is in Wilson's report back to the CIA. Wilson's own report, the very man who was on television saying Niger denies it, who never said anything about forged documents, reports himself that officials in Niger said that Iraq was seeking to contact officials in Niger about sales.
What did the President say in the State of the Union? He said: according to British reports, Iraq is seeking uranium from Africa. And the intelligence cited two other countries, in addition to Niger.
So, again, the larger truth, was Saddam Hussein a threat, in part because he was seeking nuclear weapons, in addition to what we know and have said about chemical and biological.
Now, if you ask, how is the President approaching this, what's the President's approach, the President sees this as much ado, that it's beside the point of the central threat that Saddam Hussein presented.
Q: But doesn't that make it all the more important that some accountability be achieved that this flap over one fact can obscure his larger message?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's larger message has not been obscured. The American people continue to agree that Saddam Hussein was a threat and --
Q: You just said it was being obscured. You said there's a larger truth here that's being missed.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, but the larger truth -- the larger truth being missed this week, but it's not been missed by the country on a longer-term basis.
Q: So this is just another press problem? The President has often thought we go overboard. Is that the case here? Is the larger truth being obscured just by the media?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I'm not saying that, because there was a vetting issue on the speech, and that's a governmental issue. But I'm saying that this governmental issue needs to be put into a larger perspective, now that everybody has had one week's worth of chance to analyze this.
So, no, I can't say this is about the press. But I can say there is an important bigger picture here. And that bigger picture remains just as valid for the American people today as it was the day the President gave the State of the Union address.
Q: On February 5th, Colin Powell did not have enough confidence in that statement to include it in his presentation to the U.N. There was some vetting that was done between the President's speech and Mr. Powell's presentation to the U.N. Why then, if that -- if at that point we knew, you knew, or the administration knew that the information was not good, why then was that very scary accusation allowed to stand through the through the war? I mean, we didn't get this corrected until after the war.
MR. FLEISCHER: It was corrected in March, when the part about yellow cake from Niger was looked into by the IAEA and that's when they reported it was based on forged documents.
But we still do not know whether or not Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. According to the intelligence, there were two other nations that were cited for where Iraq may have been seeking or was seeking uranium.
So what we have said is it should not have risen to the level of a presidential speech. People cannot conclude that the information was necessarily false. After all, why would it surprise anybody that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium. The more uranium you have, the fewer centrifuges you need to produce a nuclear weapon. So that, in and of itself, should not surprise anybody.
What is the issue here, in the President's judgment, is whether that information should have risen to his level and his giving the speech. And the administration, I think, to be fair to the administration, we did acknowledge that. We were the ones who were forthright and direct about it.
Q: Well, after the IAEA brought up the forged documents. But on February -- if it wasn't substantiable enough to be presented in Mr. Powell's presentation, surely by then the White House realized that it wasn't substantiable enough to be put in the State of the Union. Why no public comment after February 5th? Why wait a month until the IAEA challenged the forged documents?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because this is the nature of intelligence information. This intelligence information was included in the NIE; it was part of the information that was being discussed widely in intelligence circles. There was a consensus agreement that supported the NIE with the footnoted objection from the State Department.
Q: Does the President consider the matter closed now? With the President -- with Director Tenet's letter, does the President consider the matter closed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, the President has moved on. And I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on, as well.
Q: This is the last day of the President's historic trip to Africa. Has this overshadowed what he has hoped to accomplish?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think you have to ask the American people that. I think that if you look at America's newspapers and America's TV shows, there has been ample reporting on both. I am not in a position to gauge which report the American people pay the most attention to. I think people probably pay attention to both. But again, I think when people hear about the trip to Africa and the focus on AIDS, the impression people have is we are, indeed, a compassionate nation, our tax dollars are going to a good purpose.
When people hear about the flap over whether or not Iraq did, indeed, seek uranium from Africa, the American people say, we didn't go to war because Iraq may or may not have been seeking uranium from Africa; we went to war because Saddam Hussein was a threat because of chemical and biological weapons and also because he was pursuing nuclear weapons, whether he did or did not seek uranium from Africa. So I think the American people have it in pretty good perspective.
Q: Ari, did Dr. Rice ask Director Tenet to put out the statement, or did anybody else from the White House ask him to put out the statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Discussions with Director Tenet about the statement have been going on for days, have been worked out previously. It's appropriate for the CIA to speak out.
Q: Did he bring up the notion of addressing a statement, or did the White House ask him to?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was mutual. The discussion was, the CIA needs to explain what its role was in this. And the best way for any entity in the government to explain its role is to issue a statement.
Q: Why, if he was going to if it has been talked about for several days, did Dr. Rice come out and brief yesterday? Why not just wait for Tenet to put out his announcement? I mean, was there any reluctance on the CIA to put out a statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Dr. Rice was always scheduled to brief yesterday, just as Secretary Powell was scheduled to brief at the filing center the night before. So we actually, literally the day before the trip or the week before the trip -- sit down. She was scheduled to brief on the flight to Nigeria. It was moved up to the morning flight. It was easier to do it that way, frankly, and to disseminate whatever she said.
Q: Any postmortem briefing to expect on the plane back?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there will be no briefings on the plane back.