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Despite false claim, his star rises

Former Bush aide eyed for State job

WASHINGTON -- The man who insisted that President Bush make the claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa is poised to assume a top State Department job that would make him the lead US arms negotiator with Iran and North Korea, according to administration officials.

Robert G. Joseph, a special assistant for national security to President Bush until a few months ago, is on the short list to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, the nation's senior diplomat in charge of negotiating arms control treaties, said the officials, who spoke on the condition they not be named.

Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice, who was Joseph's boss at the National Security Council, has been a strong supporter of Joseph, the officials said. Joseph did not respond to messages yesterday.

White House and intelligence officials have identified him as the official who included the uranium claim in the president's 2003 State of the Union address, despite strong CIA objections. Joseph has said he believed the CIA's disagreement was over the sourcing of the assertion, not whether the claim was accurate, the White House said about six months after the speech. But the apparent willingness of the administration to consider promoting someone who was involved in one of its biggest embarrassments drew immediate fire from critics.

"He should have been fired or reprimanded," said Joseph Cirincione, a senior arms-proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "We see instead that he could be given the key position in the Department of State for all treaty and nonproliferation matters."

In addition, some diplomatic observers worried that Joseph's appointment, which would have to be confirmed by the Senate, would mark a further consolidation of US foreign policy under the tight-knit group of national security officials that dominated in the first Bush term and aggressively promoted intelligence linking Iraq to weapons of mass destruction and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, despite cautions in the intelligence community.

Under the leadership of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, the State Department served as a check on the so-called neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the White House who strongly backed the Iraq war. With Rice as secretary and Joseph as her chief arms negotiator, many specialists outside the White House fear that the State Department will no longer provide a counterbalance to administration hawks who long have been suspicious of arms-control agreements and have espoused the doctrine of preemptive war.

"With Rice at the top it means that in terms of the one, two, and three posts at State you will now have two-thirds from the conservative ideology working for the president," said Greg Thielmann, who served as the State Department's top analyst on weapons of mass destruction until the fall of 2003.

Rice and Joseph are allies of the policy makers at the Pentagon most responsible for Bush's Iraq policies and his refusal to negotiate directly with Iran or North Korea. Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative named last week to replace Armitage as deputy secretary of state, is considered a moderate of the Powell and Armitage stripe, as is NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns, set to be the undersecretary for political affairs.

But with Rice replacing Powell and Joseph replacing John Bolton, the lone State Department hard-liner in the first term who was allied with the administration's neoconservatives and was often at odds with Powell and Armitage, the overall team at State will nonetheless lean more heavily toward the neoconservative agenda, the observers said.

"It doesn't bode well for future negotiations of threat-reduction agreements," said Cirincione. "Bolton and Joseph are dedicated to tearing down the arms control treaties, not building new ones."

Until late last year, Joseph was senior director for proliferation strategy, counterproliferation, and homeland defense on Rice's National Security Council. Previously, he was the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces and arms control policy in the Reagan administration.

Prior to that he was an assistant professor of international relations at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is now director of studies at the National Institute for Public Policy, a Virginia think tank.

After years of relative obscurity, Joseph saw his profile rise in 2003 when it was learned that he had overridden concerns expressed by the CIA and other intelligence agencies by insisting that the Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address -- widely seen as an effort to build public support for the invasion of Iraq two months later -- include the claim that Iraq sought to purchase uranium oxide in Niger to make nuclear weapons.

The assertion had been taken out of an Oct. 7, 2002, speech by Bush at the insistence of then-CIA Director George Tenet. But after contentious discussions between Joseph and senior CIA officials it was included in the January 2003 speech to Congress with the caveat that the information came from Britain, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry into prewar intelligence.

The president stated, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

White House officials have said Tenet did not review the speech, and added that Rice and her then-deputy, Stephen Hadley, did not recall two October 2002 memorandums from Tenet urging that the reference not be made. Rice and Hadley also did not recall a phone call from Tenet re-emphasizing the point while the State of the Union remarks were being put together, the White House said.

Joseph later said he believed the disagreement with the CIA was over whether to cite the British report or US intelligence as the source, White House communications director Dan Bartlett told reporters in July 2003.

Almost a year after the speech, Tenet took public responsibility for the false claim in the State of the Union speech.

Ambassador Joseph Wilson was sent to the African country of Niger by the CIA in 2002 to investigate the claim. In the summer of 2003, Wilson went public with the widespread doubts in the intelligence agencies about the accuracy of the assertion. Soon after, officials acknowledged that the documents upon which much of the claim was based were found to have been forged.

Some analysts maintain that the controversy over the "16 words" has been overblown.

"I am not sure it was such a faux pas," said Max Boot, a leading neoconservative thinker at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Senate investigation found there was some genuine intelligence of Saddam seeking uranium," even if key documentation was forged. "It was not made up out of whole cloth."

Still, critics say Joseph deserves a share of the blame for hyping the threat of Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, which have yet to be found.

"That's what they do for people who make mistakes in Iraq -- award them or promote them in the State Department," said Thielmann, who also served in the Bush administration before making a highly publicized break in late 2003.

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. 

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