WASHINGTON — President Bush defended the quality of intelligence he receives as "darn good" despite an uproar over disputed reports that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons.
Bush said today he remained convinced that Saddam Hussein was attempting to develop a weapons program that threatened the world and justified the United States going to war against Iraq.
"Our country made the right decision," Bush said.
Bush spoke with reporters at the end of an Oval Office meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"When all is said and done the people of the United States will realize that Saddam Hussein had a weapons program," Bush said.
"I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence and the speeches I have given are backed by good intelligence," Bush said. However, the administration has acknowledged the uncertainty of remarks Bush made in his January State of the Union address about Iraq's alleged attempts to buy uranium in Africa.
Administration officials say the remark should not have been included in Bush's speech because it was based on British intelligence that was not confirmed by the United States.
"When I gave the speech the line was relevant," the president said. He noted that it was cleared by the CIA at the time, although doubts were subsequently raised.
CIA Director George Tenet said last week his agency was responsible for allowing the claim into Bush's Jan. 28 State of the Union address, and Fleischer indicated the White House had no interest in digging deeper into an incident that has embarrassed the administration.
"I think the bottom has been gotten to," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said earlier today. "No one can accurately tell you it was wrong. That is not known," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said the United States and Britain have intelligence that supports Bush's contention that Saddam Hussein sought uranium in from Africa nuclear weapons.
At the same time, both also said the intelligence falls short of the elevated standards necessary for a presidential address. They said Tenet had deleted a similar but more narrowly focused assertion from a Bush speech in Cincinnati three months earlier.
Rumsfeld and Rice took identical messages to Sunday's television talk shows: The statement was and remains accurate; it was cleared for delivery by all necessary agencies; it was a minor part of Bush's State of the Union; it is supported by more evidence than documents revealed earlier that were proved to have been forged.
Democrats jumped into the fray, with two presidential contenders questioning the administration's explanation. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said the suggestion that no one in the White House was aware of the weakness of the intelligence claim before the speech "stretches belief."
Forged documents purported to confirm approaches by Iraq to the West African nation of Niger, the world's third-largest producer of mined uranium. In the address, Bush said "the British government has learned" of the Iraqi approach, but he did not mention that U.S. agencies had questioned the validity of that intelligence.
Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" to explain why the statement should have been dumped, Rumsfeld said: "Referencing another country's intelligence, as opposed to your own, probably — according to George Tenet and the president ... it would have been better not to include it."
Still, "The British stand by their statement," Rice said on "Fox News Sunday." "They have told us that despite the fact that we had apparently some concerns about that report, that they had other sources, and that they stand by the statement." U.S. officials have been denied access to the additional evidence, she said.
A former U.S. ambassador, Joseph Wilson, said a week ago that his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger in February 2002 determined the intelligence could not be verified. A furor then arose in Washington, and Tenet assumed responsibility Friday for not having insisted the statement be removed.
Bush affirmed his support for Tenet on Saturday and declared the controversy over.
Speaking of the clamor over the statement, Rice said Sunday: "It is ludicrous to suggest that the president of the United States went to war on the question of whether Saddam Hussein sought uranium from Africa. This was a part of a very broad case that the president laid out in the State of the Union and other places."
Graham said on NBC that Vice President Dick Cheney personally had asked for a CIA review of the Iraq-Niger link. That he got no response, he said, "I will have to say that stretches belief ...."
Another Democratic presidential aspirant, Massachusetts. Sen. John Kerry, challenged Bush's contention that the episode is over.
Instead, he told CNN's "Late Edition, there remain "enormous questions still about the overall intelligence given to the Congress, the quality of that intelligence and even about the politics that entered into the judgment of taking that famous phrase out of one speech (in Cincinnati) but leaving it in another."