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Published: Saturday, 7/26/2003

White House recollections

Timing is indeed everything. The day the White House chose to change its story - again - about who knew what and when regarding Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program, the information was completely overshadowed by the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons and Jessica Lynch's homecoming.

That means public attention was focused on Uday and Qusay and Private Lynch instead of disturbing revelations about a top aide to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. But the new White House disclosure deserves intense scrutiny.

Originally, the Bush Administration professed ignorance about the now debunked allegation that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program. To bolster assertions in his State of the Union address inferring that Iraq had nuclear ambitions, President Bush used a discredited British claim that Iraq was trying to buy raw uranium in Niger.

When confronted with the controversy the White House immediately blamed CIA Director George Tenet, who dutifully fell on his sword for the administration and accepted responsibility for the President's misleading message to the nation.

Gradually it was revealed that the CIA director had indeed made his doubts directly known to the White House about the dubious British intelligence before another presidential speech last October. Reference to the material in the speech was omitted.

But until recently, the White House has maintained its story about being left in the dark about the CIA's misgivings on the prewar intelligence. Even as late as July 8, Ms. Rice insisted, “No one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this [evidence about Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium] might be a forgery.”

Then along comes Ms. Rice's right-hand man, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, with a belated mea culpa about suddenly recalled memos from the CIA expressing strong doubts about the uranium issue. Seems Mr. Hadley received two memos from the CIA as well as a phone call from the director voicing concern about the evidence that was later found to be based on forged documents.

But here's the kicker. One of the CIA memos warning of the unreliability of the uranium intelligence was also directed to Condi Rice. “I can't tell you she read it,” Mr. Hadley said. “But in some sense, it doesn't matter. Memo sent, we're on notice.”

The latest disclosures from the Bush White House indicate high level leaders- perhaps the highest - were willing to ignore CIA warnings and make a phony argument for war against Iraq.

Ultimately, as Sen. Edward Kennedy rightly observes, the buck doesn't stop with the CIA director or deputy national security adviser. It stops with the President.

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