A White House Forgery Scandal?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 5, 2008; 12:05 PM

Investigative reporter Ron Suskind's new book charges that the White House, seeking to justify its invasion of Iraq, ordered the CIA in late 2003 to forge evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda.

Suskind, a Pulitzer-winning reporter and relentless chronicler of this administration's secrets, depicts a White House with a simpleminded bully in the Oval Office taking direction from a paranoid vice president -- and caps off his latest expose with what he acknowledges sounds a lot like an impeachable offense.

Mike Allen writes for Politico: "A new book by the author Ron Suskind claims that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a back-dated, handwritten letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence to Saddam Hussein.

"Suskind writes in ' The Way of the World,' to be published Tuesday, that the alleged forgery -- adamantly denied by the White House -- was designed to portray a false link between Hussein's regime and al Qaeda as a justification for the Iraq war. . . .

"The letter's existence has been reported before, and it had been written about as if it were genuine. It was passed in Baghdad to a reporter for The (London) Sunday Telegraph who wrote about it on the front page of Dec. 14, 2003, under the headline, Terrorist behind September 11 strike 'was trained by Saddam.'

"The Telegraph story by Con Coughlin (which, coincidentally, ran the day Hussein was captured in his 'spider hole') was touted in the U.S. media by supporters of the war, and he was interviewed on NBC's ' Meet the Press.'"

A recurring figure in Suskind's book is the head of Hussein's intelligence service, Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti.

More from Politico's synopsis: "'The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001,' Suskind writes. 'It said that 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq -- thus showing, finally, that there was an operational link between Saddam and al Qaeda, something the Vice President's Office had been pressing CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq. There is no link.' . . .

"Suskind writes in his new book that the order to create the letter was written on 'creamy White House stationery.' The book suggests that the letter was subsequently created by the CIA and delivered to Iraq, but does not say how.

"The author claims that such an operation, part of 'false pretenses' for war, would apparently constitute illegal White House use of the CIA to influence a domestic audience, an arguably impeachable offense."

And the White House response?

"The White House flatly denied Suskind's account. Tony Fratto, deputy White House press secretary, told Politico: 'The allegation that the White House directed anyone to forge a document from Habbush to Saddam is just absurd.'

"The White House plans to push back hard. Fratto added: 'Ron Suskind makes a living from gutter journalism. He is about selling books and making wild allegations that no one can verify, including the numerous bipartisan commissions that have reported on pre-war intelligence.'"

Here's a White House statement on the book: "The subject of pre-war intelligence has been exhaustively examined by numerous individuals, committees of Congress, and expert bipartisan commissions. Indeed, it is difficult to identify a subject as thoroughly examined as this one - including the WMD Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on pre-war intelligence.

"There were lots of unsubstantiated messages being sent prior to the invasion of Iraq - none of that is new. This is a rehash of very old reporting -- reports of this particular contact were reported on extensively in 2003. What is a fact is that intelligence estimates at that time were not accurate, but it was the intelligence we all relied on, and our intelligence reached same conclusions as other intelligence agencies around the world."

Suskind Makes the Rounds

Here's Suskind talking to Steve Inskeep on NPR this morning:

Inskeep: "Who in the White House ordered this fake letter to be made?"

Suskind: "You know, it is from the highest reaches in the White House."

Inskeep: "Meaning that you don't have someone on the record saying 'This was President Bush' 'This was Dick Cheney' but it appears that's where it would have to come from?"

Suskind: "It would have to come from the very top."

Suskind adds: "This in fact is a violation of the laws that authorize the CIA. The CIA cannot run deception operations on the American public."

Habbush, the intelligence chief, also figures prominently in another major indictment in Suskind's book: That Bush had ample reason to know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and intentionally lied his way to war.

Suskind was on NBC's Today Show this morning. Here's how David Gregory set up the interview.

Gregory: "This book pulls no punches, claiming that President Bush knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, but ordered the invasion anyway. It is a controversial look at administration decision-making -- with the former director of central intelligence, George Tenet, telling NBC News the charge against the president is 'just wrong.' . . .

"Suskind reports that in early 2003 in secret meetings with British intelligence, Habbush revealed that Iraq in fact did not have weapons of mass destruction. That information was passed on to the CIA. Suskind claims the president wasn't interested in information that contradicted the case for war. After the president was told about Habbush, Suskind quotes Mr. Bush telling an aide, 'Why don't they ask them to give us something we can use to help us make our case?' Suskind writes that Mr. Bush later dismissed Habbush and cut off the channel of communication to the Iraqi intelligence chief. . . .

"CIA director Tenet in a statement insists that that former Iraqi intelligence chief, Habbush, did not provide the kind of intelligence that Suskind claims he did, saying he was unreliable."

Meredith Viera conducted the NBC interview with Suskind.

Viera: "You talk about the smoking gun evidence that the White House tried to manipulate the intelligence, that it ignored this intelligence chief from Iraq, Habbush. But they had a lot of information that they were gathering at the time. Some of it contradicting what he was saying. So what convinced you that he was more a reliable than anyone else?"

Suskind: "Well, at this late date in this administration, people are saying 'Let's step up in sunlight'. And I lay out step by step there was really very little in the way of a case, actually, at the point when Habbush pops up in early January of 2003 and says there are no WMD. And beyond that, he went through in the meetings in January with the British intelligence chief, he went through the mind of Saddam Hussein, why he's acting the way he did, all the things that came out later. . . . "

Viera: "You say this is worse than Watergate in large part because of this letter that you claim the White House ordered the CIA to forge that would link Iraq with 9/11 -- Mohammed Atta -- and with al Qaeda. CIA agents that you quote in the book agree there was a letter, but what convinced you that the White House was behind it? What evidence do you have that the White House ordered it?"

Suskind: "Well, the CIA folks involved, in the book -- and others -- talk about George coming back, -- Tenet -- coming back from the White House with the assignment on White House stationery and turning to the CIA operatives, who are professionals, saying, 'You may not like this, but here's our next mission.' And they carried it through. . . .

"It was a dark day for the CIA. It was the kind of thing where they said, 'Look, this is not our charge. We're not here to carry forward a political mandate,' which is clearly what this was, to solve a political problem in America, and it was a cause of a great grievance inside the agency."

Viera: "But you heard what Tenet said. We asked for a statement from him, and this is what he said: 'There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort. It is well established that, at my direction, CIA resisted efforts on the part of some in the Administration to paint a picture of Iraqi-Al Qa'ida connections that went beyond the evidence. The notion that I would suddenly reverse our stance and have created and planted false evidence that was contrary to our own beliefs is ridiculous.'

"He calls it ridiculous."

Suskind: "Well, you know, this is I think part of George's memory issue. He's dealt with this before in front of congressional investigators -- "

Viera: "You don't think he'd remember this letter?"

Suskind: "Well, he seems not to remember it. You know, that's at least what he claims. (Chuckles) The fact is that a lot of people know about this. . . . In this book, Meredith, instead of going to George I went to all the people around George, close to George, who remembered because they were involved in the thing and they remember what George said to them."

And There's More

As Allen writes in the Politico:

"-- Suskind reports that Bush initially told Cheney he had to 'step back' in large meetings when they were together, like those at the NSC [National Security Council], because people were addressing and deferring to Cheney. Cheney said he understood, that he'd mostly just take notes at the big tables and then he and Bush would meet privately, frequently, to discuss options and action.

"-- Suskind contends Cheney established 'deniability' for Bush as part of the vice president's 'complex strategies, developed over decades, for how to protect a president.'

"'After the searing experience of being in the Nixon White House, Cheney developed a view that the failure of Watergate was not the break-in, or even the cover-up, but the way the president had, in essence, been over-briefed. There were certain things a president shouldn't know -- things that could be illegal, disruptive to key foreign relationships, or humiliating to the executive.

"'The key was a signaling system, where the president made his wishes broadly known to a sufficiently powerful deputy who could take it from there. If an investigation ensued, or a foreign leader cried foul, the president could shrug. This was never something he'd authorized. The whole point of Cheney's model is to make a president less accountable for his action. Cheney's view is that accountability -- a bedrock feature of representative democracy -- is not, in every case, a virtue.'"


In his prologue, Suskind writes about the dilemma "that would come to define America's posture in the world: Bush's powerful confidence in his instinct. It might be called a compensatory strength, making up for other areas of deficit. He's not particularly reflective, doesn't think in large strategic terms, and he's never had much taste for the basic analytical rigors embraced by the modern professional class. What he does is size up people, swiftly -- he trusts his eyes, his ears, his touch -- and act. . . . [His] headlong, impatient energy fueled his rise. . . . It's how Bush -- like many bullies who've risen to great heights -- became the president. Once he landed in the Oval Office, however, he discovered that every relationship is altered, corrupted by the gravitational incongruities between the leader of the free world and everyone else. Everything you touch is velvety, deferential, and flattering. To fight this, presidents have been known to search furiously for the real, for the unfiltered, secretly eavesdropping on focus group sessions far from Washington, arranging Oval Office arguments between top aides -- a Gerald Ford trick -- or ordering policy advisers, as Nixon often did, to tell them something the advisers were sure they didn't want to hear. These men, even with their overweening confidence, embraced a unique kind of humility, recognizing they were in a bubble and fearing they would make historic mistakes.

"Bush, with his distaste for analysis and those who contradict him, didn't go down those paths, and he seemed unconcerned, unlike other presidents, that isolation would prompt errors in judgment. . . . [He was a] man who trusts only what he can touch placed in a realm where nothing he touches is authentic.

"It's a diabolical twist worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Either would have written it as a tragedy. Because, over the years, the bullying presence of Bush -- making things personal without hesitation or limits -- became the face of America. . . . After eventful years and Bush's re-election, the nation and its leader became inseparable, as America, itself, was viewed as angry, reckless, petulant and insecure, spoiled and careless, with a false smile that concealed boiling hostility."

Suskind also writes about a longtime U.S. intelligence official despairing over the loss of intelligence that came as a result of the military campaign in Iraq, "as anti-American sentiment became the currency of global opinion and terrorist recruitment skyrocketed. . . .

"This state of affairs is untenable -- a loss of intelligence capability that will end in disaster -- and he thinks about why, about how America went from a country that people wanted to help in its time of need to one they'd just as soon see humbled. And each time he goes through this exercise, he comes back to Iraq and the suspicions of so many, in the United States and abroad, that we went to war under false pretenses. He thinks it's the key reason the United States has lost its moral authority in the world. People -- at the agency and around Washington -- dismiss it, the whole mess, saying it's all past tense, let it go. But he knows more than they do -- more than all but a dozen people, maybe fewer, inside the U.S. government, with two of them being Bush and Cheney. He knows there was a secret mission a few months before the war -- a top-drawer intelligence-gathering mission that the United States was involved in -- that found out everything we later learned. That there were no weapons. And we knew in plenty of time.

"But what he knows -- this troubled public servant -- is itself only a glimpse of something much larger, and still submerged. It is a violation of American principle and law that lies, quiet and sure, beneath the country's misfortunes. . . .

"It is one of the great lies in modern American political history."

Loss of Nerve

Suskind lists a cast of characters on his own Web site. Here's what he writes about Bush there: "Bush made it to the top mostly on pure nerve.

"Which he lost on 9/11. That was visible to anyone who saw him on the tarmac making his first timorous statements and speaking uncertainly at first before the rubble at Ground Zero. This began to turn when he grabbed the bullhorn. By the time he delivered the best speech of his presidency, two weeks after the attack, he was rebuilt, a chastened bully, who wiped away tears, brushed off the dirt, and was reconstituted by vengeance dressed up as high purpose.

"The moment was so cathartic for Bush it's easy to see how it would be difficult for him to move past it."

A Pattern Emerging?

James Gordon Meek wrote in the New York Daily News earlier this week: "In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks, White House officials repeatedly pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller to prove it was a second-wave assault by Al Qaeda, but investigators ruled that out, the Daily News has learned.

"After the Oct. 5, 2001, death from anthrax exposure of Sun photo editor Robert Stevens, Mueller was 'beaten up' during President Bush's morning intelligence briefings for not producing proof the killer spores were the handiwork of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, according to a former aide.

"'They really wanted to blame somebody in the Middle East,' the retired senior FBI official told The News.

"On October 15, 2001, President Bush said, 'There may be some possible link' to Bin Laden, adding, 'I wouldn't put it past him.' Vice President Cheney also said Bin Laden's henchmen were trained 'how to deploy and use these kinds of substances, so you start to piece it all together.'

"But by then the FBI already knew anthrax spilling out of letters addressed to media outlets and to a U.S. senator was a military strain of the bioweapon. 'Very quickly [Fort Detrick, Md., experts] told us this was not something some guy in a cave could come up with,' the ex-FBI official said. 'They couldn't go from box cutters one week to weapons-grade anthrax the next.'"

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "The significance of the anthrax attacks in shaping US policy in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has largely been forgotten. . . .

"When the anthrax attacks occurred, Iraq was immediately fingered by some experts and many neoconservative hawks as a possible source; ABC News quoted three unnamed government sources as saying the powder in the letters matched the type produced in Iraq.

"Even though most serious analysts were highly skeptical that the tainted letters came from Hussein, the mere possibility that Iraq could have maintained a stockpile of anthrax was enough to convince many people that it was a looming threat.

"It's impossible to know how much, if at all, this speculation influenced the Bush administration's subsequent decision to confront Iraq. Perhaps Iraq was so much on the minds of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that no other trigger was needed.

"But to many others in Congress, the media, and the general public, the anthrax attacks made the administration's later arguments seem more credible: If an enemy of the United States could start killing people by sending powder through the mail, there might indeed be a justification for more precipitous action.

"In the end, of course, there was no anthrax found in Iraq - and no weapons of mass destruction of any sort."

So who told ABC the powder looked Iraqi? Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has been asking that question for days.

Bush's China Syndrome

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Three days before he is set to arrive in Beijing for the Olympics, President Bush offered a mixed assessment of China's role in the world, praising its efforts to curb the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, expressing disappointment about its recent move to help scuttle global trade talks, and saying that it is 'really hard to tell' whether human rights in China have improved over the past eight years. . . .

"Bush said China must do more to pressure repressive governments in Burma and Sudan, where he suggested Beijing's interest in acquiring raw materials to fuel China's booming economy is conflicting with an interest in stopping the killing in Sudan's Darfur region. But he skirted a question about a pre-Olympics security drive by Chinese authorities that human rights advocates call a crackdown on dissent.

"'They're hypersensitive to a potential terrorist attack,' Bush said. 'And my hope is, of course, that as they have their security in place, that they're mindful of the spirit of the Games, and that if there is a provocation, they handle it in a responsible way without violence.' . . .

"During a half-hour interview in his private office aboard Air Force One, Bush emphasized that it is 'important to engage the Chinese' -- a striking comment for a president who came to office with aides depicting China as a 'strategic competitor' and surrounded by hawks who looked suspiciously upon the Chinese government. Even critics of the president say he has emerged as an unexpected diplomat with China, conducting a personal campaign to woo the senior Chinese leadership."

Bush's advisers say engagement has paid off in terms of Chinese cooperation on key international concerns, but human rights activists are critical.

"'In terms of effectiveness, the so-called quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy so far is a failure,' said Bob Fu, founder of the China Aid Association and one of several activists who met with Bush last week at the White House. 'On the human rights front, as we approach the Olympics, China really has the worst record and is deteriorating up until today.'"

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times that Bush "has characterized his visit as an apolitical celebration of the Olympic spirit and American sportsmanship. But behind the scenes, according to officials and others involved in the discussions, the preparations have been far more complicated and remain a source of friction.

"The White House's plans have been thwarted by Chinese objections, by security issues and by sensitivities that the administration chose not to upset, even as Mr. Bush faced criticism from human-rights campaigners and lawmakers here in Washington for not doing and saying more. . . .

"Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who was among a group of advocates who met with [national security adviser Stephen] Hadley last week to discuss China, said the problem with the balance Mr. Bush was striving for was that it too readily accepted the Chinese authorities' conditions. . . .

"The worst nightmare for the White House could be a harsh, even violent Chinese government response to protests at a moment when Mr. Bush is appearing in sparkling stadiums, watching sports with his family.

"'He will look awful,' Mr. Roth of Human Rights Watch said, 'if he ignores the repression around him.'"

Interview, Part II

In a second story about his interview with Bush, Abramowitz writes on washingtonpost.com: "President Bush said Monday he sees little distance between himself and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on how to approach troop reductions in Iraq, dismissing the suggestion that Maliki had effectively endorsed Sen. Barack Obama's plan to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades in 16 months.

"'I talk to him all the time, and that's not what I heard,' Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post aboard Air Force One on the start of a trip to Asia. 'I heard a man who wants to work with the United States to come up with a rational way to have the United States withdraw combat troops depending upon conditions on the ground, that's all.'"

Abramowitz also asked Bush about the recent charges of politicization at the U.S. Justice Department: "In a report last week, the Justice Department's inspector general concluded that senior department officials broke the law and improperly took political considerations into account in screening applicants for civil service jobs.

"Bush described the report as a 'very thorough and well-researched analysis' but declined to say much more. He also refused to get drawn into a discussion of whether there was 'too much politics' in administration hiring, as Democrats and others have charged.

"'I had a lot of hires in this administration, a lot of parts of it,' Bush said. 'I've read the critique. I've listened very seriously to what they said. And other than that, I have no comment.'"

Abramowitz blogs about the interview: "Bush was in a feisty mood, eager to challenge me over some of my questions: 'Are you giving me the summary of the story or were. . . . you trying to actually talk to the guy who formulated the policy?' Bush said at one point, when I interrupted him to ask a question. . . .

"I came away from the interview with a sense of a guarded president, skeptical of the press and anxious not to make 'news' except on his own terms."

Torture Watch

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration informed all foreign intelligence and law enforcement teams visiting their citizens held at Guantanamo Bay that video and sound from their interrogation sessions would be recorded, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. The policy suggests that the United States could possess hundreds or thousands of hours of secret taped conversations between detainees and representatives from nearly three dozen countries. . . .

"Should such videotapes exist, they would reveal how representatives from countries such as China, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia treated detainees in small interrogation booths at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- sessions that some detainees have said were abusive and at times contained threats of torture or even death."

Alaska Stopover

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Monday that U.S. troops going to Iraq soon will find a country dramatically different from the one that was 'hopeless' before his troop buildup. . . .

"Beginning a weeklong Asian tour with a refueling stop in Alaska, the president offered thanks to units from this base near Fairbanks and nearby Fort Wainwright that have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"'About a year ago people thought Iraq was lost and hopeless. People were saying let's get out of there, it doesn't matter to our national security. Iraq's changed -- a lot,' Bush said. 'The terrorists are on the run.'"

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Last week, President Bush's Justice Department announced that Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska had been indicted on federal corruption charges. Yesterday, the two men came together at a military base in Stevens's state, where Bush warmly praised the Senate's longest-serving Republican."

Cartoon Watch

Joel Pett on Bush's war on science-ism; David Fitzsimmons on Bush's Justice Department.

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