(CNSNews.com) - The White House on Thursday corrected what President Bush previously said about when he learned of intelligence that said Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program.
Bush said Tuesday that Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told him in August there would be a reassessment of Tehran's nuclear goals. But, Bush added, "He didn't tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze."
While Bush admitted to being briefed in August on a possible new assessment of Iran, he said, on Oct. 17, "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino spoke to reporters Thursday and indicated that President Bush had in fact been told in August that the intelligence community had information - that it had not yet vetted and thoroughly analyzed - that indicated Iran may have suspended its nuclear weapons program.
While insisting that the president told the truth at his press conference, she conceded that he "could have been more precise" in his language.
"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," Perino said.
During the long exchange with reporters, Perino also said: "The president was told there is new information in the context of raw intelligence - not told the details of what it was - and told that he's going, they're going back and do some more checking on it because they didn't have a high degree of confidence in it, and it could potentially be in conflict."
She further said: "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 told that the intelligence community was going to need to go back and check out to find out if it's true."
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released this week reported Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. But it also said that it "will be difficult" to convince Iran to permanently forego nuclear weapons. Democrats have criticized President Bush's approach and statements regarding Iran's potential threat to the United States.
The intelligence that Bush was briefed on in August was "raw" at the time, Perino said. "And the question from this room would be, 'Did the president pressure the intelligence community? Did he meddle in this intelligence? And the answer is, no.'
"I can see where you might see that the president could have been more precise in that language. But the president was being truthful," Perino said.
Before Perino issued her clarification about what the president meant at his Tuesday press conference, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) had accused the president of lying.
Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday on CNN's "Out in the Open" that Bush "started talking about World War III and the weapons program and the nuclear program that is going on ... yet he had advice, all the way back in terms of August and before that, that Iranians had not - according to the 16 American intelligence agencies, that in 2003 - they had shut down their program to build a nuclear weapon."
CNN host Rick Sanchez then said, "You're saying the president was telling the American people one thing, seemingly presuming that there was this huge threat on the horizon coming from Iran, when he knew that that wasn't the case. Now my dad and your dad would call that a lie."
Biden responded, "That's exactly what I'm saying."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the junior senator from Biden's own state, all shied away from supporting Biden's accusation that the president knowingly misled Americans when asked about Biden's comments by Cybercast News Service .
"Joe Biden is running for president. I have the greatest respect in the world for him," Reid told Cybercast News Service . "That's his statement. I'm not going to analyze it." (Hear Reid Audio)
Kerry was non-committal though slightly harsher than Reid in assessing Biden's comments.
Asked if he agreed with Biden that Bush lied, Kerry said, "It's a possibility" (Hear Kerry Audio)
"I mean, I don't know the facts of it," Kerry told Cybercast News Service . "Certainly we've had very different positions given to Americans than the position of the NIE."
Carper, who was asked if he agreed with Biden that Bush lied, said, "I hope not."
"I've asked to be briefed on the NIE report, so let me reserve comment," Carper continued. "But I'm certainly interested in what our intelligence folks are saying now compared to what they said a couple of years ago." (Hear Carper Audio)
Regardless, Carper said he still considers Iran to be a threat.
"As long as the president stays in power, and some of the other extremists are pulling the strings in that country, we need to be concerned," he said.
Republicans were quick to rebut Biden's claims.
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.), ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "Unfortunately Sen. Biden was totally misinformed." (Hear Bond Audio)
"Sen. Biden spent too much time on the campaign trail and does not know what's going on," Bond told Cybercast News Service .
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Biden's comments, as well as comments from other Democratic critics, were just "politics as usual." (Hear Thune Audio)
"Biden is obviously on the opposite side of the president when it comes to Iraq and is using this as an opportunity to score political points on Iran," Thune said. "So, I don't put much political stock in that. ... I think the president has raised legitimate questions about it (the NIE report). When he knew, to me at this point, just seems like an effort by the Democrats to gain a political advantage."
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