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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Newsweek Reporter Michael Isikoff on White House State of the Union Concession Today

Aired July 8, 2003 - 20:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN: Welcome back. The White House now admits that a statement in the president's latest State of the Union Address was based on bad information. Namely, that Iraq sought to buy nuclear material from Niger, a claim which helped make the case for war.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: The administration said, had the White House known then what it knows now, the line would not have been included. Senator Jay Rockefeller responded to that today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D-WEST VIRGINIA): Why? Why didn't they know? I mean, all 14 intelligence agencies basically work for the president. He is the final receiver of intelligence and analysis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Well, one U.S. official has told CNN that the White House did have a report a year before the speech which showed the intelligence was flawed. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had a different take on all of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PENNSYLVANIA): The administration, I think, has been very forthright. I think that's the real issue. The issue is has the administration been forthright as to what they knew and when they knew it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Let's put the question to Michael Isikoff, investigative reporter for "Newsweek" magazine. Always good to see you Michael. Thanks for being with us tonight.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, REPORTER "NEWSWEEK": Good to be with you.

ZAHN; Based on your reporting and all the folks who work with you at "Newsweek" is there reason to believe the president deliberately misled the American public during that speech?

ISIKOFF: Well, there's certainly a lot of unanswered questions here. We do know that the assessment that this was based on faulty intelligence, at least the Niger part of it -- this supposedly came from these documents that had been turned over to the CIA by the Italian Secret Service in early 2002, which purportedly showed that Iraq was making these large purchases of uranium from Niger. That had been investigated.

We do know the White House expressed an interest in those documents, that Vice President Cheney's office, in particular, had raised questions about them. The CIA then sent this special emissary, former ambassador to a number of countries in Africa, Joseph Wilson, who went over there, looked into it, came back and concluded that the documents were bogus, that there was no such purchases at all.

This was relayed, Wilson says, to the CIA, to the state department. Wilson can't say what was told to the White House, but, you know, others have argued it's hard to believe, given the interest, especially that Cheney's office had shown in the documents to begin with, that they would not have asked for a complete report on everything the CIA had been able to learn about those documents.

Anyway, that was early on, well before the State of the Union, and yet somehow it ends up in the president's speech. Now, the White House had said previously they were relying on British intelligence. Well, the British intelligence turns out to be, at least in part, based on those same forged documents. They have -- they later said, well, there was other information about other African countries as well. Nobody has produced any information to substantiate that there were any other uranium purchases.

So what was told to the White House and when was it told, and how did that process make it, you know, collapse so that the statement made it into the State of the Union? Unanswered questions.

ZAHN: So can you clarify for us at all the timing of this and the report that CNN has, that they have been told that someone in the White House was aware of this report a year, at least the fact that parts of it were considered bogus, at least a year before the speech. Can you confirm that?

ISIKOFF: Probably nearly a year. Yes, I think early 2002 Wilson went over to Niger. So that's, you know, February, March period. The speech was in late January, 2002 (sic). He was there, I think, something like two weeks, came back, gave his report.

Now, what exactly was told is still -- to the White House is still unclear. But we do know that at least the CIA had good information that contradicted this report as early as February, March 2002.

ZAHN: So, Michael, as you can see from our introduction that in advance of meeting you tonight, the Democrats had a field day with this today. What will be the impact of all this on the president down the road? ISIKOFF: It's hard to say. I mean, in some ways, the White House statement was a concession to the obvious. We've known now for months these were forged documents and that there was -- and that the CIA had backed away from them, you know, before the State of the Union. So the question about how it made it to the State of the Union was out there for some time.

There are these investigations going on by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but, you know, whether they'll be able to get to the bottom of this is far from clear. They are conducting those hearings behind closed doors in closed session. There are strict committee rules that forbid members from even talking about what they learned in closed session. And, you know, even above and beyond that, the Intelligence Committee's jurisdictions are the intelligence agencies, the CIA, the NSA, and others. It's not the White House.

And whatever went wrong here, it's pretty clear, went wrong inside the White House. And the intelligence committees don't have the jurisdiction, and it's far from clear they even have the wherewithal to try to poke around inside the White House and get to the bottom of it.

ZAHN: What is clear from what you're telling us tonight is you and I are probably going to be asking a lot more questions that we're going to get answers for in the weeks to come. Michael Isikoff, thank you for dropping by tonight.

ISIKOFF: Sure.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

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