WASHINGTON - CIA Director George Tenet was expected to testify behind closed doors Wednesday about President Bush's claim in his State of the Union address that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa to restart its nuclear weapons program.
Tenet, who was to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session, has already taken responsibility for the line's getting into the January speech. The White House says that while it believes the statement was accurate, it should not have been included in the president's speech.
In Rome on Wednesday, the head of a parliamentary intelligence committee said Italy may have passed on to the United States and Britain the disputed claim that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has denied that Italy's intelligence services passed on "documents" about the matter. But committee chief Enzo Bianco, speaking after a top government official addressed the commission in secret, did not deny that the information may have been passed on informally.
"This is possible," he said. "I don't rule it out."
Cabinet undersecretary and top Berlusconi aide Gianni Letta, who briefed the intelligence commission Wednesday afternoon, refused to comment on the hearing.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said her committee's inquiry into intelligence on Iraq will look into Bush's claim - a statement apparently based on a series of documents now known to be forgeries.
"The speech should not have cited British information about which the U.S. intelligence community had expressed serious doubts," Harman, newly returned from a trip to Iraq, said in a statement. "I appreciate that the administration and (Tenet) have acknowledged that it was a mistake to have included this information in the president's speech, but big questions remain about who forged the documents and the paper trail that followed."
Democrats renewed calls Tuesday for an investigation into the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs, some of which turned out to be bogus.
Separately, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., sent a 12-page letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss on Tuesday that spelled out his questions about prewar Iraqi intelligence and called for immediate, open hearings into the documents purporting to be from Niger.
"It is now abundantly clear that something fundamentally wrong has occurred," Waxman wrote. "The issues about the Niger hoax ... should not be allowed to fester."
Republican leaders sought to knock the criticisms aside. Goss, R-Fla., refused to be drawn into the controversy over how the Niger uranium allegation found its way into Bush's address, and said he remains confident in Tenet as CIA director.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, also defended Tenet, and dismissed the controversy as an "incredibly overblown" result of Democratic presidential hopefuls vying for support in advance of their primaries.
DeLay said that Bush "didn't lie. He didn't mislead anybody. His statement was accurate." The majority leader also responded forcefully to a question of whether Tenet should depart the government. "Absolutely not," he said.
The Bush administration has acknowledged its error in using the Niger allegations in Bush's speech, despite serious doubts expressed by the intelligence community.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., appearing on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday, said "there is a broader issue, and that is the failed policy toward Iraq." Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, accused Bush of deception.
"He deceived the American people by allowing into a State of the Union speech - at a critical point when he was making the case for war with Iraq - a statement that he either knew was wrong or should have known was wrong."
Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, joined two former intelligence officials to blast Bush administration use of intelligence.
Andrew Wilkie, a senior analyst from Australia's Office of National Assessments, said the war on Iraq was sold using inaccurate information.
"In that time, I saw not a single piece of critical hard intelligence to substantiate the claim of any cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaida," said Wilkie, who resigned before the war to Australian government support for the war.
Wilkie was joined by Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst who retired in 1990 and now heads a group of retired intelligence officers critical of the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence.
Overseas, Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into reports that Italian intelligence agencies gave those documents to U.S. and British intelligence, the foreign minister in Rome said Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Tuesday that Italy "never, never gave documentation relative to this issue to other nations' intelligence services."