Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, cautioned other White House aides in the summer of 2003 that Bush's 2004 re-election prospects would be severely damaged if it was publicly disclosed that he had been personally warned that a key rationale for going to war had been challenged within the administration. Rove expressed his concerns shortly after an informal review of classified government records by then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley determined that Bush had been specifically advised that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address — that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon — might not be true, according to government records and interviews.
As the 2004 election loomed, the White House was determined to keep the wraps on a potentially damaging memo about Iraq.
Hadley was particularly concerned that the public might learn of a classified one-page summary of a National Intelligence Estimate, specifically written for Bush in October 2002. The summary said that although "most agencies judge" that the aluminum tubes were "related to a uranium enrichment effort," the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department's intelligence branch "believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons."
Three months after receiving that assessment, the president stated without qualification in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
The previously undisclosed review by Hadley was part of a damage-control effort launched after former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV alleged that Bush's claims regarding the uranium were not true. The CIA had sent Wilson to the African nation of Niger in 2002 to investigate the purported procurement efforts by Iraq; he reported that they were most likely a hoax.
The White House was largely successful in defusing the Niger controversy because there was no evidence that Bush was aware that his claims about the uranium were based on faulty intelligence. Then-CIA Director George Tenet swiftly and publicly took the blame for the entire episode, saying that he and the CIA were at fault for not warning Bush and his aides that the information might be untrue.
But Hadley and other administration officials realized that it would be much more difficult to shield Bush from criticism for his statements regarding the aluminum tubes, for several reasons.
For one, Hadley's review concluded that Bush had been directly and repeatedly apprised of the deep rift within the intelligence community over whether Iraq wanted the high-strength aluminum tubes for a nuclear weapons program or for conventional weapons.
For another, the president and others in the administration had cited the aluminum tubes as the most compelling evidence that Saddam was determined to build a nuclear weapon — even more than the allegations that he was attempting to purchase uranium.
And finally, full disclosure of the internal dissent over the importance of the tubes would have almost certainly raised broader questions about the administration's conduct in the months leading up to war.
"Presidential knowledge was the ball game," says a former senior government official outside the White House who was personally familiar with the damage-control effort. "The mission was to insulate the president. It was about making it appear that he wasn't in the know. You could do that on Niger. You couldn't do that with the tubes." A Republican political appointee involved in the process, who thought the Bush administration had a constitutional obligation to be more open with Congress, said: "This was about getting past the election."
The President's Summary
Most troublesome to those leading the damage-control effort was documentary evidence — albeit in highly classified government records that they might be able to keep secret — that the president had been advised that many in the intelligence community believed that the tubes were meant for conventional weapons.
The one-page documents known as the "President's Summary" are distilled from the much lengthier National Intelligence Estimates, which combine the analysis of as many as six intelligence agencies regarding major national security issues. Bush's knowledge of the State and Energy departments' dissent over the tubes was disclosed in a March 4, 2006, National Journal story — more than three years after the intelligence assessment was provided to the president, and some 16 months after the 2004 presidential election.
The President's Summary was only one of several high-level warnings given to Bush and other senior administration officials that serious doubts existed about the intended use of the tubes, according to government records and interviews with former and current officials.
In mid-September 2002, two weeks before Bush received the October 2002 President's Summary, Tenet informed him that both State and Energy had doubts about the aluminum tubes and that even some within the CIA weren't certain that the tubes were meant for nuclear weapons, according to government records and interviews with two former senior officials.
Official records and interviews with current and former officials also reveal that the president was told that even then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had doubts that the tubes might be used for nuclear weapons.
When U.S. inspectors entered Iraq after the fall of Saddam's regime, they determined that Iraq's nuclear program had been dormant for more than a decade and that the aluminum tubes had been used only for conventional weapons.
In the end, the White House's damage control was largely successful, because the public did not learn until after the 2004 elections the full extent of the president's knowledge that the assessment linking the aluminum tubes to a nuclear weapons program might not be true. The most crucial information was kept under wraps until long after Bush's re-election.
The new disclosures regarding the tubes may also shed light on why officials so vigorously attempted to discredit Wilson's allegations regarding Niger, including by leaking information to the media that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. Administration officials hoped that the suggestion that Plame had played a role in the agency's choice of Wilson for the Niger trip might cast doubt on his allegations.
I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, then chief of staff and national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted on October 28 on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice in attempting to conceal his role in outing Plame as an undercover CIA operative. Signaling a possible defense strategy, Libby's attorneys filed papers in federal court on March 17 asserting that he had not intentionally deceived FBI agents and a federal grand jury while answering questions about Plame because her role was only "peripheral" to potentially more serious questions regarding the Bush administration's use of intelligence in the prewar debate. "The media conflagration ignited by the failure to find [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq and in part by Mr. Wilson's criticism of the administration, led officials within the White House, the State Department, and the CIA to blame each other, publicly and in private, for faulty prewar intelligence about Iraq's WMD capabilities," Libby's attorneys said in court papers.
Plame's identity was disclosed during "a period of increasing bureaucratic infighting, when certain officials at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department each sought to avoid or assign blame for intelligence failures relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability," the attorneys said. "The White House and the CIA were widely regarded to be at war."
Only two months before Wilson went public with his allegations, the Iraq war was being viewed as one of the greatest achievements of Bush's presidency. Rove, whom Bush would later call the "architect" of his re-election campaign, was determined to exploit the war for the president's electoral success. On May 1, 2003, Bush made a dramatic landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce to the nation the cessation of major combat operations in Iraq. Dressed in a military flight suit, the president emerged from a four-seat Navy S-3B Viking with the words "George W. Bush Commander-in-Chief" painted just below the cockpit window.
The New York Times later reported that White House aides "had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush's right shoulder and the 'Mission Accomplished' banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot."
On May 6, in a column in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof quoted an unnamed former ambassador as saying that allegations that Saddam had attempted to procure uranium from Africa were "unequivocally wrong" and that "documents had been forged." But the column drew little notice.
A month later, on June 5, the president made a triumphant visit to Camp As Sayliyah, the regional headquarters of Central Command just outside Qatar's capital, where he spoke to 1,000 troops who were in camouflage fatigues. Afterward, Rove took out a camera and began snapping pictures of service personnel with various presidential advisers. "Step right up! Get your photo with Ari Fleischer — get 'em while they're hot. Get your Condi Rice," Rove said, according to press accounts of the trip. On the trip home, as Air Force One flew at 31,000 feet over Iraqi airspace, escorted by pairs of F-18 fighters off each wing, the plane's pilots dipped the wings as a sign, an administration spokesperson explained, "that Iraq is now free."
There were few hints of what lay ahead: that sectarian violence would engulf Iraq to the point where some fear civil war and that more than 2,440 American troops and contractors would lose their lives in Iraq and an additional 17,260 servicemen and -women would be wounded.
Blame The CIA
The pre-election damage-control effort in response to Wilson's allegations and the broader issue of whether the Bush administration might have misrepresented intelligence information to make the case for war had three major components, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials: blame the CIA for the use of the Niger information in the president's State of the Union address; discredit and undermine Wilson; and make sure that the public did not learn that the president had been personally warned that the intelligence assessments he was citing about the aluminum tubes might be wrong.
On July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson challenged the Niger-uranium claim in an op-ed article in The New York Times, Libby met with Judith Miller, then a Times reporter, for breakfast at the St. Regis hotel in Washington. Libby told Miller that Wilson's wife, Plame, worked for the CIA, and he suggested that Wilson could not be trusted because his wife may have played a role in selecting him for the Niger mission. Also during that meeting, according to accounts given by both Miller and Libby, Libby provided the reporter with details of a then-classified National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE contained detailed information that Iraq had been attempting to procure uranium from Niger and perhaps two other African nations. Libby and other administration officials believed that the NIE showed that Bush's statements reflected the consensus view of the intelligence community at the time.
According to Miller's account of that meeting in The Times, Libby told her that "the assessments of the classified estimate" that Iraq had attempted to get uranium from Africa and was attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program "were even stronger" than a declassified White Paper on Iraq that the administration had made public to make the case for war.
The special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has said that he considers the selective disclosure of elements of the NIE to be "inextricably intertwined" with the outing of Plame. Papers filed in federal court by Libby's attorneys on March 17 stated that Libby "believed his actions were authorized" and that he had "testified before the grand jury that this disclosure was authorized," a reference to the NIE details he gave to Miller.
In the same filings, Libby's attorneys said that Hadley played a key role in attempting to have the NIE declassified and made available to reporters: "Mr. Hadley was active in discussions about the need to declassify and disseminate the NIE and [also] had numerous conversations during [this] critical early-July period with Mr. Tenet about the 16 words [the Niger claim in the State of the Union address] and Mr. Tenet's public statements about that issue."
Three days later, on July 11, while on a visit to Africa, Bush and his top aides intensified their efforts to counter the damage done by Wilson's Niger allegations.
Aboard Air Force One, en route to Entebbe, Uganda, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave a background briefing for reporters. A reporter pointed out that when Secretary Powell had addressed the United Nations on February 5, 2003, he — unlike others in the Bush administration — had noted that some in the U.S. government did not believe that Iraq's procurement of high-strength aluminum tubes was for nuclear weapons.
Responding, Rice said: "I'm saying that when we put [Powell's speech] together … the secretary decided that he would caveat the aluminum tubes, which he did…. The secretary also has an intelligence arm that happened to hold that view." Rice added, "Now, if there were any doubts about the underlying intelligence to that NIE, those doubts were not communicated to the president, to the vice president, or me."
In fact, contrary to Rice's statement, the president was indeed informed of such doubts when he received the October 2002 President's Summary of the NIE. Both Cheney and Rice also got copies of the summary, as well as a number of other intelligence reports about the State and Energy departments' doubts that the tubes were meant for a nuclear weapons program.
After Air Force One landed in Entebbe, the president placed the blame squarely on the CIA for the Niger information in the State of the Union: "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services." Within hours, Tenet accepted full responsibility. The intelligence information on Niger, Tenet said in a prepared statement, "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed." Tenet went on to say, "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound. These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."
Behind the scenes, the White House and Tenet had coordinated their statements for maximum effect. Hadley, Libby, and Rove had reviewed drafts of Tenet's statement days in advance. And Hadley and Rove even suggested changes in the draft, according to government records and interviews.
Meanwhile, as the president, Rice, and White House advisers worked to contain the damage from overseas, Rove and Libby, who had remained in Washington, moved forward with their effort to discredit Wilson. That same day, July 11, the two spoke privately at the close of a White House senior staff meeting.
According to grand jury testimony from both men, Rove told Libby that he had spoken to columnist Robert Novak on July 9 and that Novak had said he would soon be writing a column about Valerie Plame. On July 12, the day after Rice's briefing, the president's and Tenet's comments, and the conversation between Rove and Libby regarding Novak, the issue of discrediting Wilson through his wife was still high on the agenda. According to the indictment of Libby: "Libby flew with the vice president and others to and from Norfolk, Virginia on Air Force Two." On the return trip, "Libby discussed with other officials aboard the plane what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries" regarding Wilson's allegations.
Later that day, Libby spoke on the phone with Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. Cooper had been told days earlier that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA. During this conversation, according to Libby's indictment, "Libby confirmed to Cooper, without elaboration or qualification, that he had heard this information, too." Also that day, Libby's indictment charged, "Libby spoke by telephone with Judith Miller … and discussed Wilson's wife, and that she worked at the CIA."
On July 14, Novak published his now-famous column identifying Plame as a CIA "operative" and reporting that she had been responsible for sending her husband to Niger.
On July 18, the Bush administration declassified a relatively small portion of the NIE and held a press briefing to discuss it, in a further effort to show that the president had used the Niger information only because the intelligence community had vouched for it. Reporters noted that an "alternate view" box in the NIE stated that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (known as INR) believed that claims of Iraqi purchases of uranium from Africa were "highly dubious" and that State and DOE also believed that the aluminum tubes were "most likely for the production of artillery shells."
But White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett suggested that both the president and Rice had been unaware of this information: "They did not read footnotes in a 90-page document." Later, addressing the same issue, Bartlett said, "The president of the United States is not a fact-checker."
Because the Bush administration was able to control what information would remain classified, however, reporters did not know that Bush had received the President's Summary that informed him that both State's INR and the Energy Department doubted that the aluminum tubes were to be used for a nuclear-related purpose.
(Ironically, at one point, before he had reviewed the one-page summary, Hadley considered declassifying it because it said nothing about the Niger intelligence information being untrue. However, after reviewing the summary and realizing that it would have disclosed presidential knowledge that INR and DOE had doubts about the tubes, senior Bush administration officials became preoccupied with ensuring that the text of the document remained classified, according to an account provided by an administration official.)
On July 22, the White House arranged yet another briefing for reporters regarding the Niger controversy. Hadley, when asked whether there was any reason that the president should have hesitated in citing Iraq's procurement of aluminum tubes as evidence of Saddam's nuclear ambitions, answered, "It is an assessment in which the director and the CIA stand by to this day. And, therefore, we have every reason to be confident."
Later that summer, the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation of intelligence agencies to determine why they failed to accurately assess that Saddam had no viable programs to develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion.
As National Journal first disclosed on its Web site on October 27, 2005, Cheney, Libby, and Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington, rejected advice given to them by other White House officials and decided to withhold from the committee crucial documents that might have shown that administration claims about Saddam's capabilities often went beyond information provided by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Among those documents was the President's Summary of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
In July 2004, when the Intelligence Committee released a 511-page report on its investigation of prewar intelligence by the CIA and other agencies, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in his own "Additional Views" to the report, "Concurrent with the production of a National Intelligence Estimate is the production of a one-page President's Summary of the NIE. A one-page President's Summary was completed and disseminated for the October 2002 NIE … though there is no mention of this fact in [this] report. These one-page NIE summaries are … written exclusively for the president and senior policy makers and are therefore tailored for that audience."
Durbin concluded, "In determining what the president was told about the contents of the NIE dealing with Iraq's weapons of mass destruction — qualifiers and all — there is nothing clearer than this single page."