What Bush knew, when

"What did the president know and when did he know it?" Republican Howard Baker was raising that question 30 years ago in the Senate Watergate committee, hoping to shield President Nixon from responsibility for the break-in and wiretapping of Democratic headquarters. It turned out that Nixon knew plenty - more than Senator Baker had bargained for.

The question arises again because of a bitter dispute, in part between the CIA and the White House, about how President Bush came to make a representation about an Iraqi nuclear program known in the intelligence community to be based on forged documents.

In his January State of the Union address, Mr. Bush spoke of an advanced Iraqi nuclear-weapons program in the '90s, and added, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

If true, that would have been the first solid indication of a current Iraqi nuclear-weapons program. But, apparently, it wasn't true. The New York Times reported 11 months earlier that the CIA, at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney, had sent to Niger a knowledgeable retired ambassador (whose name was withheld) to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium there.

The diplomat brought back word that the government of Niger denied any such dealings with Iraq, and the documents on which the allegation was based were patent forgeries. How, under the circumstances, the president could give credence to the uranium canard in a speech almost a year later is hard to imagine.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said it hadn't been realized in the White House that the report wasn't credible until after the president had spoken. That suggests that the CIA kept the White House ignorant - which CIA officials deny.

In any event, there was no further reference to an African uranium deal when on Feb. 5 Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his extensive briefing to the UN Security Council.

Since then, the International Atomic Energy Agency has conducted its own investigation and reported that the uranium documents were "not authentic." In a word, fakes. By whom and for what purpose? It's hard to believe Bush would intentionally deceive the American people about a nuclear threat in order to promote a war. So the question remains: Did the president know he was dealing in disinformation, and if so, why didn't he tell us?

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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