For Immediate Release
The White House
July 17, 2003
White House Press Briefing, July 17, 2003PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:36 P.M. EDT
[Excerpts on Iraq Intelligence]
Q: Scott, within the NSC, was it in fact Bob Joseph who wanted it -- wanted the information about Iraq seeking uranium allegedly in Africa in the State of the Union? Was it he? Was that communicated, discussed, debated with Condoleezza Rice?
And why is it that he wanted that information in there so badly, given the fact that the CIA couldn't vouch for its accuracy? They told the British in September of '02 to take it out of their own reporting, and they wanted it out of the President's speech in October. So why was the NSC hell bent on having it in the State of the Union?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, there are two different pieces that you touched on there. You touched on the October speech relating to Cincinnati, and that was based on a specific amount and a specific source. And you are correct. The CIA did say, take it out, and we did.
The State of the Union address focused on the reference that was made in the National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. It was based on additional sources. But at the time, before the State of the Union, the British had also made a public -- made a document public stating that claim. And they had additional sources upon which they relied.
We learned some information that we did not know at the time after the State of the Union speech. And that was when we acknowledged -- we acknowledged that relating to some information on some forged documents relating to one part of that overall piece of evidence. And we said, this did not rise to the level of a Presidential speech. And that's why it was taken out.
Q: The reality is that even though the language has changed as it was prepared for the State of the Union, the very fact that it had to be amended in the first place speaks to the fact that this was a suspect piece of intelligence by the admission to the CIA at the time. And it was subject to debate within the administration about its accuracy, and therefore the usefulness of using it.
MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree. I think the reason the British was cited was because it was already a public document, and so why not cite a public source when you're going to put that in the speech.
Q: Even when your own intelligence agencies have doubts about it?
MR. McCLELLAN: But our own intelligence, the National Intelligence Estimate, stated that they were seeking uranium from Africa. And that's where the basis began.
Q: Can you answer the first point? Was, in fact, Bob Joseph, within the NSC, who wanted that in there --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think when you go through the usual vetting process which a speech does, there are a number of people both on the staff here and in the agencies that have input into a speech. And there's a lot of discussion. And what we wanted to make sure we did was look at all the facts to support the overwhelming evidence of the threat that Saddam Hussein posed.
And so we went back and people provided input and went through a number of drafts. Bottom line is, if they had said, take it out -- if the CIA had said, take it out, we would have taken it out.
Q: Scott, I'm sorry -- was Bob Joseph -- you're not disputing that, because was he not the official that was referred to in Director Tenet's testimony yesterday?
MR. McCLELLAN: David, I don't know that you -- one, you're talking about some classified testimony there, so I'm not in a position to get into that.
Q: Why did he want it in so badly? You're not answering that question. Why was this information so important?
MR. McCLELLAN: There was information about -- and remember, let's go back to what I've said previously. We're talking about one piece of information about Iraq reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. There were a number of other factors that justified that statement, and we stand by it. And that overall reconstitution of its nuclear weapons program was one part of a much larger body of evidence of the threat that we needed to confront, and that was posed by Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein talked openly about his nuclear Mujahideen, the nuclear holy warriors, his scientists that he kept in close contact with about reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.
Q: Can I just follow up on that? Because it was a senior deputy of Condoleezza Rice that was trying to find a way to get the uranium evidence --
MR. McCLELLAN: I just disagree with the characterization that is going on here.
Q: Well, let me just state my question, and then you can respond to it. Because it was a senior deputy of the National Security Advisor who was in discussions with the CIA about some way to get the uranium evidence into the State of the Union, should the buck not stop with the National Security Advisor, as opposed to the CIA director?
MR. McCLELLAN: John, I think we've been through this. When you're talking about intelligence, the CIA is our lead intelligence agency. They were involved in the clearance process. And as you saw, in October, on a reference that was about a specific amount and based on a specific source, they said, take it out, and we did. The National Intelligence Estimate was coming out during that time. No one said, take this out of the speech.
Q: The CIA Director has fallen on his sword over this issue. Does the NSC bear no culpability whatsoever in this matter?
MR. McCLELLAN: John, there are a lot of people that are involved in the vetting process. And I think we went through the usual vetting process as this happens. And we rely on people to look at this information and make sure that we're doing our job to support the information that is going to the President.
Q: Do you know if Bob Joseph made aware -- made Condi Rice aware of the discussions he had been having with the CIA?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: Do you know if Bob Joseph made Condi Rice aware of the discussions he was having with the CIA?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the bottom line here is that this has been addressed. This one piece of information should never have been in the speech. It did not change the overriding facts about the threat that was posed by Saddam Hussein. Let me go to Terry. We'll come back later for Jim.
Q: It would be interesting to know if the National Security Advisor knew about these discussions.
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think these issues have been addressed.
Q: I want to just take a step back. Doesn't the buck stop with the President? Isn't he responsible for the words that come out of his own mouth?
MR. McCLELLAN: You bet the President is responsible for the decisions he makes to protect the American people. And it was the right decision to confront what was a grave and growing threat in the form of Saddam Hussein and his regime. It was based on solid and compelling evidence, and America is safer for it. So the responsibility for the decision --
Q: -- policy, I'm saying, on this issue --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I know. But let's get to the issue here. You have --
Q: I'm asking responsibility for misleading the American people.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I totally disagree with that statement. Now there are some in Congress that are seeking to rewrite history and making those claims. Some of these are ones that were in the small minority who opposed the action that we took. They're sitting there seeking to justify their votes against the action that we took.
But the bottom line is that America is safer, the world is safer, because of the action we took. Saddam Hussein is gone. He is no more. He cannot use his weapons of mass destruction.
Q: That's his speech, not an answer --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think we're going to the issue here.
Q: The question that I have -- the administration has pointed a finger at the CIA. Now there's a kind of witch hunt in the NSC. He's the President of the United States. This thing he told the country on the verge of taking the nation to war has turned out to be, and by your own acknowledgement, not reliable. That's his fault, isn't it?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, the -- I'm going back to what I was pointing at was that the decision he made was based on solid and compelling evidence. And he made the right decision to confront this threat instead of ignore it. We live in a very dangerous world in this post-September 11 era that we are living in. And this was important to address. And note --
Q: And I'm not disputing that --
MR. McCLELLAN: And you're not disputing the overriding facts that there was a compelling case against Saddam Hussein that was laid out by the international community, that was supported in an overwhelming bipartisan way by the United States Congress.
Q: Let me ask once more. There are a lot of Americans who feel misled by this specific instance that there was a bogus piece of intelligence that was floating around in the case, in the overall case, for war.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, no, there was intelligence in the National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus document of the intelligence community. We later learned some information that we did not know at the time, and that was after --
Q: When did you learn that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we learned that the forged documents regarding Niger, we learned about that in March when the IAEA came out.
Q: Days after the President spoke, including that claim, Secretary Powell, just days, not a month, not when the forgery was made clear by the IAEA, but just a few days later, Secretary Powell said, well, that is not reliable for me to present before the world community. Why didn't the White House then say, you know what, the President made a mistake --
MR. McCLELLAN: When Secretary Powell went through his reasoning, what was the one intelligence arm within the intelligence community that had had a difference of opinion on this?
Q: But the President and the White House then waited --
MR. McCLELLAN: It was Secretary Powell's Department of State.
Q: -- for some international body to finally blow the whistle on this piece of intelligence to acknowledge that it was unreliable.
MR. McCLELLAN: That's, with intelligence, what happens, is you learn some information later that maybe you didn't have before. We did not know then what we know now.
Q: So the President isn't going to take responsibility for this error?
MR. McCLELLAN: We made it very clear that it should not have been included in the speech. But we're not going to let a few in Congress who are seeking to re-write history, who are seeking to justify their own vote against the action we take, try to distract from the reason we took the action that we took, and that is to make the American people safer. And they are safer because of it.
Q: Scott, this morning when Senator Durbin's statement was read to you, you said, that characterization is "nonsense." Just to cross a t, dot an i, were you saying that Director Tenet did not say this, or were you saying that there is no such White House official?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think what he was suggesting -- again, this goes to -- I'm very glad you pointed out Senator Durbin, because he was one of the few in the minority who opposed the steps that we took. Again, an overwhelming, bipartisan Congress voted to support the action that we took. And the United Nations Security Council made it very clear this was a final opportunity for Saddam Hussein to comply. If we had waited, who knows what position we'd be in now. But the Iraqi people are better off for this. And I'm sorry, I'm not -- the first part of your question?
Q: Just the grammar of it. When you said, that's "nonsense," were you saying --
MR. McCLELLAN: It's nonsense to suggest that someone was pressuring to put this in there, or anything of that nature.
Q: Okay, so are you also saying that Director Tenet did not say that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I can't -- Director Tenet did not say what? I mean, I think you have to ask Director Tenet what he said.
Q: Senator Durbin said --
MR. McCLELLAN: Senator Durbin is putting words in someone else's mouth and trying to characterize it in a way that I think is just nonsense. It's absolute nonsense. And I think you have to look at the reason why he was making those comments. I mean, maybe he's going back, trying to justify his own vote against taking action, against addressing the threats that we face. And now look at Iraq, look at the people of Iraq. The people of Iraq are liberated from a brutal, oppressive regime. Look at Saddam Hussein. He is gone from power. He is no longer a threat to the region, to his people, or to the world. And he is no longer a threat to America. His weapons of mass destruction, he cannot use his weapons of mass destruction.
And it's very important to point out that when we talk about this, we're talking about a region of instability and a region that has led to terrorism, the Middle East. And a peaceful and secure and democratic Iraq is going to help bring about a peaceful and stable Middle East. And that's very important.
Q: Last follow-up, Scott. Have you found an answer to Jeanne's question from Tuesday? Did the President know that that information about Africa and uranium was taken out of the October speech?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, repeat the --
Q: Yes. Jeanne asked you on Tuesday if the President knew that the information about Africa and uranium had been taken out of the --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. Really, I mean, I've told you what I know previously on that question, and I don't really have anything to add. Let me go to Tom -- I'll come to you. I'll come to you. Tom.
Q: The White House web site has a picture on it of the President going over the State of the Union address and it says he's examining it line by line and word by word. Did he in fact go over it line by line and word by word? Are you going to keep this picture on the web site in light of the controversy? And if he went over it line by line and word by word, why isn't it proper for the President to take more responsibility for his own words?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you know, again, it goes back to exactly what I was talking about, I believe, with David, when we were going through how the vetting process works. There are a lot of people involved in that that have input into it and the bottom line is, the speech was cleared. But we learned some more information later we should not have included it in there. But I haven't seen the specific picture.
Q: I had one other thing, too. The Iraqi scientist who had the centrifuge buried in his garden, he has apparently told the U.S. officials that have interrogated him that there was no restart of the Iraqi nuclear program, and that the aluminum tubes that Baghdad bought had nothing to do with the -- with nuclear weapons. How do you assess --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's the first time I've heard that. I'd have to look into it, Tom. Frankly, I've not heard that before. But what we did know is what he had buried in his back yard for a period of time. And that's just another piece of evidence of Saddam Hussein wanting to acquire nuclear weapons that goes back over a long period of time.
But again, I mean, you have to go back to the bigger picture. That was one piece of a much broader case against Saddam Hussein. And I think that you will see the leaders who are in town today, the Prime Minister as well as the President, talk about the most dangerous threat of our time, and that's the nexus between outlaw regimes with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups.
Going to the broader body of evidence, which is very compelling, you had a regime in Iraq that possessed chemical and biological weapons and had shown a willingness to use chemical weapons on his own people. And you had a very unique situation, a dictator that was willing to invade his neighbors and did invade his neighbors in the past. You had a dictator who defied 17 United Nations Security Council resolutions and refused to comply with the international community for 12 years, a dictator who sponsored and harbored known terrorists and terrorist groups. So there is an overwhelming body of evidence about this threat. And this was a threat that we confronted and is no longer there.
Q: Scott, when I asked you about the Cincinnati speech, I asked you if the President knew that the line had been taken out at the direction of the CIA, and you didn't answer the question. It's a simple "yes" or "no." Did the President know?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that -- again, I can tell you what I know. And I know that we've got two different speeches we're talking about here and two pieces of information that were based on some -- well, one that was based on a specific source and a specific amount of information, and it was removed from that speech -- another that was based on broader sourcing. And the President learned after the State of the Union address about these forged documents and the other information --
Q: But I didn't ask that.
MR. McCLELLAN: I know, Jeanne. I'm telling you what I know.
Q: I'm asking specifically, did the President know, back in October, that at CIA direction that this information had been removed from his speech?
MR. McCLELLAN: And I've addressed it based on what I know and the President has stated, when he learned about it.
Q: No, I am asking -- it's a "yes" or "no" question, or an "I don't know." It's a direct question. Do you not know?
MR. McCLELLAN: I told you what I do know.
Q: Are you saying that -- you talked about, or you were asked about the insistence. Are you saying that the impetus for including this information in the State of the Union did not come from the White House?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm saying, Jim, that when you pull together a speech, there are a lot of people pulling together facts. And there was information in our National Intelligence Estimate that we looked to about Iraq's nuclear weapons program. And we put some of that information into the speech. There is a public British document out there, and we made a decision to cite that British document. No one is saying that information is wrong. The British stand fully behind that information. They had additional sources that we did not have, and they feel very strongly about the information that they had.
Q: Actually, in my discussions with officials here and elsewhere, the people never pushed the nuclear thing as much as the chemical and biological thing. But on the other hand, Vice President Cheney said flatly at one point that Iraq is reconstituting it's nuclear weapons.
MR. McCLELLAN: He was referring to its nuclear weapons program. If you go back and look at that interview, I know which one you're citing. And repeatedly throughout that interview he was talking about reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. You're right about that one statement was said, but he was referring to reconstitution of a nuclear weapons program.
Q: And did the administration have any second thoughts about that statement? Does anything that you have learned since cast doubt on that assertion?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, in fact, and again, you pointed out, and I appreciate you pointing it out, that the nuclear -- reconstitution of nuclear weapons program was one part of its overall chemical -- its overall weapons of mass destruction program, chemical and biological weapons.
But Secretary Powell, in his U.N. presentation, talked about Saddam Hussein's intent to reconstitute a nuclear program in Iraq. And he talked about the repeated covert attempts to acquire high specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries. And we recognize there's been some dispute about that. But most experts think they were intended to serve as rotors and centrifuges to enrich uranium.
We also had intelligence from multiple intelligence sources that Iraq attempt to acquire magnets and high-speed balancing machines. Both items can be used in a gas centrifuge program to enrich uranium. And Secretary Powell also pointed out the nuclear Mujahideen that Saddam Hussein paid increasing attention to over the previous 18 months leading up to the action and praising them for their progress.
Q: So you're standing by the overall assertion that they were, in fact, trying to reconstitute their nuclear program in spite of what --
MR. McCLELLAN: That was one part of -- absolutely, very compelling case against Saddam Hussein and the threat that he posed and the reason that we took the action that we took. There were a number of reasons -- it wasn't just what he had, it was his willingness to use them, as well. It was his willingness to conceal these efforts, go to great lengths to conceal these efforts.
Q: According to people who were in the briefing room with Senator -- with CIA Director Tenet yesterday, his testimony raised a lot of questions, fresh questions about what the White House's role was, why exactly this line got in there, how it got in there and so forth. And there was a suggestion that perhaps the committee will have further hearings, perhaps open hearings, and might want to hear from White House officials. Is this something that the White House is willing to do -- we're not getting very many answers, but will Congress?
MR. McCLELLAN: We've stated over the last few days, and even before, what we knew, when we knew it, and so forth. And so I think the White House officials have addressed this. Congress is looking into it. I'm not aware of any requests beyond that.
Q: Was the President aware that there were changes made to drafts of the State of the Union to reflect the concerns that were raised by the CIA about the quantity of uranium and specifications involved as other officials have told --
MR. McCLELLAN: What specific sources are you citing?
Q: We've been told a couple of times in different briefings that the CIA raised concerns about --
MR. McCLELLAN: In the State of the Union.
Q: -- early drafts to the State of the Union, regarding the quantity, and I forget exactly what the phraseology was, but some of the specifics about the original references in the State of the Union, to the attempt to buy uranium. Was the President aware --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that's what I'm asking what changes you're referring to -- because I think that --
Q: -- any changes that were made regarding the reference to Africa and uranium.
MR. McCLELLAN: Because as I understand it, in the speech vetting process, that the documents were referring to uranium from Africa. And that's what the State of the Union was referring to. And it was based on the National Intelligence Estimate. And that's what I understand --
Q: But Dr. Rice told us on the plane flying to Uganda on Friday that the CIA had raised issues about some of the specifics in some of the early drafts of the State of the Union. They were changed. And what I'm asking is whether the President knew that those changes were made --
MR. McCLELLAN: I want to go back, so I'm precise and make sure I'm giving you --
Q: Okay, but then I want to make sure we get an answer on this, then.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and look exactly at -- well, let me see what -- let me refresh my memory and look back and see what Condi said.
Q: It was pretty specific. They raised issues and the draft was changed. I'm asking whether the President knew that the draft was --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, I think that this issue has been addressed. The State of the Union speech was not referring to specific amounts, specific source, specific country. It was talking about what was in the National Intelligence Estimate.
Q: The final version, but we don't know what it said in the early drafts, other than that we know that it was changed, based on concerns raised by the CIA. And I'm saying, did the President know about those changes?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Dick, it just doesn't change the bottom line that we learned information later and we should not have included that -- we should not have included that statement in this speech.
Q: There were concerns raised by the CIA during the drafting of the speech. It does --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll see if there's anything else. But I really think it's been addressed.
Q: Two questions. One on Iraq. Today, a new tape has surfaced in the Middle East that sounds very much like the voice of Saddam Hussein calling for war against the infidels. Has the White House assessed, or the intelligence services assessed this tape yet? Does the White House know if it is Saddam Hussein or not?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure the CIA will evaluate it and I have seen the reports of it. But I'm not in a position to confirm the authenticity at this point. I think that's something that the CIA will look at.
Regardless, Saddam Hussein and his regime are gone and they will never come back. The remnants loyal to the former regime and foreign terrorists operating inside Iraq and other killers who are members of the Iraqi people will fail as well. There are people that are trying to target some of the successes that the coalition provisional authority is making working with the Iraqi people, and so we've seen a lot of that. But I cannot confirm the authenticity of the tape, but I know that he is history.
Q: Just to follow-up on Mike's noble attempt to cross t's and dot i's. What you're saying is "nonsense" is any suggestion that someone at NSC was pressuring for a line in the speech that said that Saddam was trying to get uranium out of Africa.
MR. McCLELLAN: It's outrageous and it's nonsense.
Q: Okay, so there was no pressure from the NSC before that line in the speech?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's just outrageous. And look at -- go back and ask why these statements are being made. This is an attempt to just rewrite history and to justify a vote that was taken against the course of action that we took.
Q: Why won't you give us more details about who at the NSC wants what and what specific --
MR. McCLELLAN: Because, Keith, I really think that we've acknowledged, and we've talked about this extensively already. We've acknowledged that the statements should not have been included in the speech. And the fact that the overriding case was not changed by that one statement.
Q: I just want to ask you a little about the line by line. The President's not at all disappointed that it appears now that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency didn't, in fact, know about this beforehand, and it was only learned about after the speech?
MR. McCLELLAN: He appreciates what the CIA Director said, I should have said, take it out.
Q: But he's not at all concerned about these new revelations?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he feels that this issue has been addressed.
Q: Scott, on this -- two of the columnists for World Net Daily's five million readers, Joseph Farrah and Neal Bortz, who are also nationally syndicated radio talk show hosts, both contend that most of what you and Ari have been hearing for the last three press briefings has, a uranium flap without any evidence, and that Bush's State of the Union statement about Saddam seeking uranium has not been shown to be untrue.
And my question: As Presidential Press Secretary, do you know of any American newspaper, newsmagazine, wire service, or TV network that offers anywhere near as much opportunity for public expression as either talk radio or the Internet on -- (laughter).
MR. McCLELLAN: Are you asking me to promote something, Les?
Q: No, no, no, one follows the other.
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead to your question.
Q: Scott, you've said that Senator Durbin disagreed with you on the war, fair enough. He's still a U.S. Senator, he's a member of the Select Intelligence Committee. He was in the hearing yesterday and he said what he said. The Chairman of the Committee, Pat Roberts, who was not an opponent of the President's, came out of the briefing yesterday -- or the hearing yesterday, and was asked specifically, do you think George Tenet should take sole responsibility for this, and his response was, I think the responsibility goes all the way along the chain. And he said he would follow that where it leads, let the chips fall where they may. Can you say today who or at what level -- at what point that line was inserted into the speech and why?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've been through this. I mean, I think I've been through the speech, and the two different speeches, as a matter of fact, and how this happened and why we said it after the fact, when we learned more information, that it should not have been included in the speech. I think that's been addressed.
Q: Why is the White House having a problem --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we have to ask why are people trying to rewrite history? Why are people implying certain things in order to justify their positions or to seek a political advantage?
Q: But the White House focus has been on whose responsibility was it to take it out? And the White House has been clear, it was George Tenet's responsibility to take it out. Why is the White House having such difficulty --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think Director Tenet said, I should have said, take it out. That's what Director Tenet said.
Q: Why is the White House having such a hard time saying how it got in there in the first place?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've gone through these issues. These issues were addressed last week and this week.
Q: Humor me. Maybe I --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep moving.
Q: One thing that you've said on any number of occasions, that it was a mistake to put it in, that it shouldn't have gone in. Fine. Since then, you've also said that it's not been proven -- that initial claim that Saddam tried to buy uranium from Niger or Africa or anywhere has not been disproved. Is there additional evidence now that makes the administration think that this actually
-- that did occur, that he did try to purchase yellow cake, or whatever, from some place in Africa? And if it were to occur today, could it be included in the -- do you have enough evidence to include it in the -- in a speech or anything today?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, the reference in the speech was to the British document. And the British stand fully behind that document. They had additional sourcing and they made some commitments to that source -- to those sources that they would not share that information elsewhere.
Q: -- confident that it's accurate to say that Saddam attempted to purchase yellow cake, or whatever, from an African nation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we didn't feel we had the specific enough information
Q: But now? I'm talking about now.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- where it rose to the presidential level, and so --
Q: There's been subsequent investigation, presumably. Do you now feel --
MR. McCLELLAN: That statement did not impact the overall case or the decision that was made.
Q: That's fine. I understand that. But I'm just wondering, are you confident in saying now, after --
MR. McCLELLAN: There's nothing to show that it's wrong. We have still pointed that out.
Q: Go back to the Iraq situation. Is the President afraid to take the responsibility what he said before Congress to the American people, or is the White House planning to use the White House as a scapegoat for the blame this scandal that around the world doesn't have any sense of what are you telling us today?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President takes responsibility for the decision he made to confront a grave and growing threat rather than ignore it. And America is safer for it. That's what the President believes. And he made the right decision. And, again, there are some that are trying to simply rewrite history here.
There was never a debate about the overall case, whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or had a program, or was willing to use them, or had used them in the past. Until recently, some are trying to suggest that that threat wasn't real. And that threat was even more real after September 11th.