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Democrats Question Whether Photo Is Worth 16 Words

Senate Democrats pointed to official White House photographs Thursday showing President Bush working on his 2002 State of the Union speech as possible evidence administration officials were aware they relied on questionable intelligence data to build the case to wage war against Iraq.

In his Jan. 28 speech, Bush said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sought to purchase uranium from Africa to build a nuclear weapon. The data has since proved to be false and CIA Director George Tenet has taken responsibility for allowing the phrase to remain in Bush’s address.

Still, Democrats have argued this week that Bush is ultimately responsible for uttering this false statement in his speech. The Senators said one photo shows Bush labored over every word and should have known the intelligence was wrong.

“Working at his desk in the Oval Office, President Bush reviews the State of the Union address line-by-line and word-by-word,” reads the 2002 caption of the photo where the president’s trademark “W” cufflink can be seen in the bottom left hand corner.

In a similar picture montage of Bush preparing for his 2003 speech, a photograph shows the president intently reading the speech and holding a blue marker in this hand. The caption reads: “Sketching notes in the margin of speech drafts, President Bush rewrites portions of the address in the Oval Office Jan. 23, 2003.”

“I am not surprised the president goes over the State of the Union line by line, but the assertion that this is just inadvertent doesn’t hold much water,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). “I think it is just another indication that White House is not being straight with the American people.”

“The president can’t have it both ways, saying, ‘Well, you know we don’t know about who did this and whether it was proved by the CIA,’” said Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Here is what it says: ‘President Bush reviews the State of the Union address line-by-line and word-by-word.’”

The series of 2002 and 2003 photographs posted on the White House Web site is designed to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at Bush preparing for his national address.

A White House spokesman said Thursday: “The bottom line is, the speech was cleared. But we learned some more information later. We should not have included it in there. But I haven’t seen the specific picture.”

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) dismissed the criticism and said he is “not sure what the pictures say.” Frist also defended the White House’s handling of the situation and pointed out that he “knows they regret leaving those words in.”

In the past week, Democrats have begun to ratchet up the pressure on Bush over this issue. Many Democrats said they relied on questionable intelligence information and Bush’s claims that Hussein was trying to build a nuclear weapons program as the reason why they voted to grant him authority to use force against Iraq.

The phrase in question — “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — is now commonly referred to on Capitol Hill as the “16 words.”

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