What Bush knew, Take 5

"The president could have been more precise in that language."

By Tim Grieve

Published December 6, 2007 7:26PM (EST)

From today's briefing with White House press secretary Dana Perino:

Reporter: Dana, on Tuesday at his press conference, when the president was asked about when he learned about Iran's nuclear program being halted, was he being completely candid?

Perino: Yes, he was ... If you look at the rest of that sentence, what the president is -- the president was clearly told that there was new information that was coming in, but he wasn't told the details of it. And the president was also told that the intelligence community was going to need to go back and check out to find out if it's true. What I said is that [Director of National Intelligence Mike] McConnell told the president if the new information turns out to be true, what we thought we knew for sure is right: Iran does, in fact, have a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may be suspended. He said that there were many streams of information that were coming in. They could potentially be in conflict. They didn't have a lot of confidence in the information yet.

Reporter: But the president said, "He didn't tell me what the information was." But you're now saying he was told that Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons program and also that there may be a new assessment, right?

Perino: Right, but he doesn't -- he didn't get any of the details of what -- what the information was, in terms of what the actual raw intelligence was.

Reporter: But he didn't say "details." He just said, "He didn't tell me what the ... "

Perino: OK, look. I can see where you could say that the president could have been more precise in that language. But the president was being truthful ...

Reporter: Can I just clarify? Is the president briefed every day by Director McConnell when he gets his daily intelligence briefing?

Perino: I don't know if it's him every day, but he does get a briefing.

Reporter: ... on a regular basis ...

Perino: Sure.

Reporter: ... Director McConnell's in the Oval Office.

Perino: Sure.

Reporter: So are you saying that from August when the president was tipped off by McConnell until last week ...

Perino: "Tipped off"? Come on.

Reporter: No, no, no.

Perino: Ed, "tipped off"? He was ...

Reporter: He was tipped off to the fact that the assessment may be changing. In your own words, you said he was told of that.

Perino: Sure.

Reporter: He wasn't told all the details. So from August till last week the president never asked Director McConnell, "Hey, how's that going? Are we getting any more on Iran?" He never asked ...

Perino: I'm not saying that.

Reporter: Well, so he did ask McConnell?

Perino: I don't know exactly what the president asked in the presidential daily brief. But say that I -- I'm going to do a hypothetical here, which I usually don't do -- but say I had and the questions from this room would be, "Did the president pressure the intelligence community? Did he meddle in the intelligence?" And the answer is no. Look, this is what -- stop.

Reporter: How about just being curious and asking, "Hey, you know, is there a new assessment? I'm out there talking about World War III."

Perino: No -- let me clarify that one more time. The president said, "If you want to avoid World War III, you will prevent Iran from having the know-how to make a nuclear weapon." What we know right now, for sure, is that Iran is enriching uranium, which is fissile material, to get a bomb. They are developing ballistic missiles in order to deliver a bomb. And we know something that we didn't know before, which is that they have halted a covert nuclear weapons program ...

Reporter: Can you just clarify one more thing? What day was the president actually briefed on the NIE?

Perino: I don't know. I don't know.

Reporter: Well, because [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley left the impression that it was last Wednesday.

Perino: Oh, on the NIE, specifically?

Reporter: On the NIE.

Perino: Yes, last Wednesday.

Reporter: Last Wednesday? OK. But there have been reports that the president briefed Prime Minister Olmert last week, maybe on Monday.

Perino: I don't know.

Reporter: Did he brief Prime Minister Olmert? And how could he brief Olmert on Monday about a report that he found out about on Wednesday? Can you ...

Perino: I don't -- I will check. I mean, it's possible that he knew that there was information coming; the intelligence community was checking it out ...

Reporter: The New York Times today is saying that there was a meeting in the situation room two weeks ago about this NIE and the vice president was there, but not the president. Is that true?

Perino: I don't know, but it wouldn't be a -- that wouldn't strike me as unusual.

Reporter: OK, but then it wouldn't filter up to the president if the vice president knew about the contents of the NIE two weeks ago? It wouldn't filter to the president until last week? He wouldn't know about the details?

Perino: I don't know, I'll check for you. But that would -- it would not strike me as unusual if the people are getting ...

Reporter: I want to follow up, Dana, on two subjects that have been coming through so far: Iran and the NIE. The most senior of the four senior intelligence officials who briefed reporters in downtown Washington on the day of the release of the unclassified judgments of the NIE ...

Perino: Yes.

Reporter: ... stated on that occasion that it was his belief -- that it remains his belief that it is Iran's, quote, "latent goal to build a nuclear weapon." ... Does [the president] believe that it is Iran's latent goal to build a nuclear weapon?

Perino: I think that -- I'm going to have to ask him the specific question ...

Reporter: If I can clarify -- two questions -- if I can clarify something you said earlier, you said they're enriching uranium, which is fissile material, "to get a bomb."

Perino: I'm sorry -- which can lead to fissile material to get a bomb.

Reporter: OK. So you're not saying at the moment they're currently enriching uranium to the degree necessary to have weapons-grade uranium?

Perino: We don't know.

Reporter: OK. All right.

Reporter: On Iraq ...

Perino: Iraq?

Reporter: Iraq, with a Q.

Perino: OK.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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