Straw defends UK intelligence in row over Saddam's uranium

Click to follow
Indy Politics

President George Bush said yesterday that he continued to have confidence in George Tenet and his staff even as the White House continued to line up the CIA director to take the blame in the row over the false claim about Iraq's efforts to buy nuclear weapons material from Niger.

"I've got confidence in George Tenet. I've got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA and ... look forward to working with them as we win this war on terror," Mr Bush said in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, as he wound up his Africa tour.

The White House this week sought to blame the CIA over the Niger claim, saying that the agency had authorised the President's State of the Union address on 28 January in which he said the British Government had learned that Iraq had recently sought to buy uranium from Africa.

Last week the White House admitted that the claim - long since exposed as false and based on forged documents - should not have been included. But, said Mr Bush, "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services".

Mr Tenet, in turn, issued a statement in which he said he was responsible for approving the speech but also pointed out that his officials had long been warning the administration that the intelligence on which the Niger claim was based was "fragmentary".

He also confirmed reports that the CIA had asked Britain to drop the claim from its "Iraq dossier" published in September 2002. Britain refused to do so. In a letter published yesterday the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, defended the inclusion of the Niger claim, admitting that the CIA had expressed its concerns but saying that it had not made it clear what they were.

In his letter to the Commons foreign affairs committee, Mr Straw said the Government had based its claim in part "on reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the US".

Mr Straw did not say why Britain declined to share the information with its ally, but wrote that he had explained the reasons privately to the committee. A Downing Street spokesman said the information had come from foreign intelligence services and was "not ours to share".

Australia's prime minister, John Howard, said his decision to send troops to Iraq was not based on the discredited US intelligence but rather the additional intelligence held by Britain, which he had not seen.

Mr Howard said he had relied on the judgement of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, which stood by claims that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from Africa.

"The relevant British intelligence agencies continue to stand by that judgment," he said. "They rely on intelligence, which Australian agencies have not seen, separate from the documents declared by the International Atomic Energy Agency to have been forgeries."

Mr Howard has been under intense pressure this week to explain when he knew the US claims were wrong. Two Australian intelligence agencies and officials at the country's Foreign Ministry have acknowledged they knew of the inaccuracy but did not tell him.