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.
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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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
Aboard Air Force One, en route to Entebbe, Uganda [in July 2003], 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.
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.