Joby Warrick in Washington
August 7, 2008
THE Bush Administration has joined former top CIA officials in denouncing a book’s assertion that White House officials ordered the forgery of Iraqi documents to suggest a link between Saddam Hussein and the lead hijacker in the September 11 attacks.
The claim was made by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose new book The Way Of The World also contends that the White House obtained compelling evidence in early 2003 that Iraq had no significant stocks of nuclear or biological weapons but decided to invade the country anyway.
Suskind, who has written two previous investigative books containing criticism of Bush Administration policies, described the alleged forgery as one of the great lies in modern American political history. White House condemnations of the book were equally dramatic, with officials blasting it as “gutter journalism”.
Several former and current CIA officials, including two named by Suskind as key sources, disputed portions of the account.
“The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter … is absurd,” said the White House deputy press secretary, Tony Fratto.
The book’s most contentious claims involve Tahir Jalil Habbush, head of intelligence in Saddam Hussein’s government before the US-led invasion in March 2003. As war neared, US and British intelligence officials arranged a series of secret meetings with Mr Habbush.
In those private meetings, Mr Habbush explained why UN weapons inspectors had been unable to find evidence of programs involving weapons of mass destruction: there were none.
Mr Habbush’s accounts were shared with top officials at the CIA and the White House, where they were dismissed as Iraqi deception. In subsequent meetings, Suskind writes, intelligence officials prodded him for proof that the weapons programs had been abandoned. “Ultimately, Habbush could not offer proof that weapons that didn’t exist, didn’t exist,” the book states.
After the invasion, the CIA paid Mr Habbush $US5 million for serving as an informant and he resettled in Jordan. It was then, according to Suskind’s account, that White House officials decided to enlist his help with the alleged forgery — one suggesting a link between Saddam’s government and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attack.
Suskind writes that, in September 2003, the White House directed the then CIA director George Tenet to concoct a fake letter, backdated to July 2001 but bearing Mr Habbush’s signature, claiming that Atta had been trained in Iraq for his mission.
Mr Habbush agreed to sign the letter, which was then leaked to a British journalist in December 2003, Suskind writes.
He quotes two former CIA officials – Robert Richer and John Maguire – as sources for the account. But in a statement to The Washington Post, the two men denied they had been given the task of producing the forgery.
Suskind said he stood by his account, adding that he understood the “enormous pressure” that could be brought to bear on sources who formerly worked for the Government and still had professional ties.
Mr Tenet acknowledged the prewar contacts with Mr Habbush but denied that the agency or the White House ignored vital evidence. “The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner,” he said.
Regarding the alleged forgery, Mr Tenet said it never happened.