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Bush takes responsibility for Niger claim Agencies Wednesday July 30, 2003 The Guardian
The US president, George Bush, today accepted personal responsibility for citing a controversial claim that the former Iraqi regime tried to obtain nuclear material in Africa.
"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, absolutely," the president said at a White House news conference when asked about the now discredited accusation.
Mr Bush's administration has faced increasing scrutiny over the claim - which was based on British intelligence - ever since the CIA publicly cast doubt over its validity, saying it should not have been included in his State of the Union address last year.
Mr Bush has been asked before about the 16 words on Niger he uttered in his keynote speech, but declined to take personal responsibility. Instead, CIA director George Tenet and a senior White House aide, deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, accepted blame for the oversight.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," the president said in last winter's nationally televised address. But many CIA officials doubted the accuracy of the British intelligence - concerns that were not reflected in the decision to include the statement in the speech.
Mr Bush's appearance before reporters marked the eighth time since taking office that he has fielded questions at a formal news conference, and the first time since American and British forces invaded Iraq last March.
By comparison, former President Bill Clinton had held 33 formal news conferences at a comparable point in his administration, while Mr Bush's father, former President George Bush, had held 61.
Today's development came as the Foreign Office was forced to defend the British government's evidence for the Niger claims.
In a letter to the Commons foreign affairs committee (FAC), it insisted there had been no need to include a "health warning" on the claim in the government's dossier on Iraqi weapons as it was confident in the underlying intelligence.
Before the war, the International Atomic Energy Authority said that documents it had received relating to the allegation had been crude forgeries.
Britain, however, has insisted that it received separate intelligence from a third country - widely assumed to be France - which it could not share with the Americans.
In its letter, responding to a series of detailed questions from the FAC, the Foreign Office confirmed that the CIA had warned just before the dossier was published last September that it did not believe the claim was credible.
However, it said that the CIA had provided no explanation for its concerns. "UK officials were confident that the dossier's statement was based on reliable intelligence. A judgment was therefore made by the JIC (joint intelligence committee) chairman to retain the reference," it said.
"British officials saw no need to put a health warning on the claim, because they were confident in the intelligence underlying it. The reference in the dossier was based on intelligence from more than one source."
The Foreign Office again insisted that it had only learned of a visit to Niger early last year by former US ambassador Joseph Wilson - who also cast doubt on the uranium claim - when details appeared in the media.
The letter acknowledged that documents and centrifuge parts needed to enrich uranium discovered at the home of an Iraqi nuclear scientist - which were referred to by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw - had been hidden for 12 years.
However, it added that the finds were still significant as the scientist had said that he had been ordered to conceal them "so as to be able to rebuild the bomb programme at some time in the future".
It said: "The discovery was significant both in terms of Iraq retaining components for a nuclear programme, and as an example of successful concealment from UN inspectors".
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