“WASHINGTON — The White House stepped back from a high-profile assertion by
President Bush, in his January 2002 State of the Union Address, that U.S.
forces had uncovered evidence of a potential attack against an American
nuclear facility.

In the speech, Mr. Bush warned of a terrorist threat to the nation, saying
that the U.S. had found “diagrams of American nuclear power plants” in

Coming just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and as U.S.
forces were on the hunt for al Qaeda in Afghanistan — the statement was
offered as evidence of the depth of antipathy among Islamic extremists, and
of “the madness of the destruction they design.”

“Our discoveries in Afghanistan confirmed our worst fears,” Mr. Bush told
Congress and the nation in the televised speech. He said “we have found”
diagrams of public water facilities, instructions on how to make chemical
arms, maps of U.S. cities and descriptions of U.S. landmarks, in addition to
the nuclear-plant plans.

Monday night, the White House defended the warnings about Islamic extremist
intentions, but said the concerns highlighted by Mr. Bush were based on
intelligence developed before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that no
plant diagrams were actually found in Afghanistan. “There’s no additional
basis for the language in the speech that we have found,” a senior
administration official said.

The disclosure came amid increasing questions about the Bush
administration’s use of prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons capability to
justify the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bush has been
forced to concede that the U.S. has found none of the weapons of mass
destruction that he warned of before the war. It is also the second time
that the Bush White House has been forced to back away from an assertion in
a State of the Union address. In the 2003 speech, Mr. Bush warned Iraq was
seeking raw uranium in Africa, a claim the White House later conceded was
mistakenly included in the speech.

The suggestion that plant blueprints might have been in the hands of
terrorists sparked concern among environmental activists and local
communities near the country’s 103 nuclear stations, according to
Greenpeace, the liberal advocacy group. The White House was forced to comb
back over Mr. Bush’s 2002 speech Monday after Greenpeace released a letter
from a senior official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that cast doubt
on Mr. Bush’s claim.

In a letter responding to a request by Greenpeace to clarify Mr. Bush’s
assertion about the nuclear-plant plans, NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan
wrote Feb. 4 to say that he had testified two years ago in “one or more”
closed-door Congressional hearings and told lawmakers that he “was aware of
no evidence” that plant diagrams had been found in Afghanistan. The NRC is
responsible for maintaining security at the nation’s nuclear power plants.

An NRC spokeswoman confirmed the authenticity of the letter, but said that
Mr. McGaffigan wouldn’t have any comment. In the letter, Mr. McGaffigan does
say that al Qaeda poses a danger. “I believe that based on the evidence
available there is a general credible threat by al Qaeda toward American
nuclear power plants,” he wrote.

While some evidence is public, he said, “The vast majority is appropriately

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council,
said Monday night that rather than being based on actual diagrams that were
actually found in Afghanistan, the president’s warning about nuclear plants
grew from information collected by the U.S. intelligence community. Among
other things, U.S. intelligence had received information from a suspected
bin Laden operative in the fall of 2001 and early 2002 suggesting that
potential U.S. targets include nuclear power facilities, dams and
water reservoirs. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
reported a series of suspicious incidents, including the surveillance of
U.S. nuclear plants. In January 2002, the White House said, U.S.
intelligence warned that members of al Qaeda might be tapping into the
U.S.-based Internet sites that included information about nuclear

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal