In a Countdown cable exclusive, journalist Ron Suskind talks to Keith Olbermann about the allegations in his book, "The Way of the World," which suggests there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida, so the White House ordered the CIA to forge a letter to justify the Iraq war.
Below is a transcript of their conversation.
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, COUNTDOWN: If you scoff at the thought that the American government might actually try to create a forged document to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks and thus an excuse to invade Iraq, some snippets of history to consider as we begin our fifth story, our cable exclusive interview with the author reporting this in his new book, Ron Suskind.
Fake government documents created by the Soviets were used against President Reagan, and President Carter, and President Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller, and Secretary of Defense Weinberger and the police commissioner of New York City, and the U.S. ambassador of the United Nations.
The French faked their own government documents in the Dreyfus case, and forged Napoleon’s signature to use against President Madison. There were the SISMI documents, the Tanaka memorandum, and most pertinent to our purposes here, the Italian Niger Yellow cake uranium forgery.
Ron Suskind in a moment. First, the details of what he has written in “The Way of the World” published today. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writing that before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, President Bush already knew that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, something that did not stop him from ordering the invasion anyway.
Suskind speaking on the record with U.S. intelligence officials, who told him that in early 2003, in secret meetings with British intelligence, Saddam’s own intelligence chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, revealed that Iraq, in fact, did not have weapons of mass destruction, information that was passed on to the CIA.
When that information was then passed on to Mr. Bush, author Suskind says, the president became frustrated and said of Habbush, quote, “Why don’t they ask him to give us something we can use to help us make our case?”
Habbush then held weekly meetings with British intelligence, telling them that Saddam had no WMD stockpiles and no active nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs.
When all this was shared with CIA Director George Tenet, he said, quote, “They’re not going to like this downtown,” downtown being the White House. It sounds like a police drama.
“The White House then buried the Habbush Report. They instructed the British that they were no longer interested in keeping the channel open.
Rob Richer, the CIA’s Near East Division head, telling Suskind again on the record, quote, “Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq from the very first few days he was in office. Nothing was going to stop that.”
Now, for the smoking gun about the smoking gun that was never a smoking gun. CIA division head, Richer, is telling Suskind that not only did the order to forge a fake letter come from the White House, but the assignment had been written on creamy White House stationary.
“The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001. It said that 9/11 ring leader , Mohammed 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.”
Another CIA official, John Maguire who oversaw the Iraq operations group also is confirming the existence of the forged letter to author Suskind, but Mr. Richer backtracking for both of them tonight in a statement to MSNBC, quote, “I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind’s book.
Further, today, I talked with John Maguire, who has given me the permission to state the following on his behalf, ‘I never receive any instruction from then Chief/NE Rob Richer or any other officer in my chain of command instructing me to fabricate such a letter. Further, I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter and as to how it circulated in Iraq.”
The letter, whatever its origins, was passed in Baghdad to Con Coughlin, a reporter for the “Sunday Telegraph” of London who wrote it about in the front page of his newspaper on December 14th, 2003, the same day that Saddam Hussein was discovered in his hiding hole in Iraq. That day, Mr. Coughlin describing the significance of his find to Tom Brokaw on “MEET THE PRESS.”
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, DECEMBER 14, 2003)
CON COUGHLIN, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH: It’s an intelligence document written by the then head of Iraqi intelligence, Habbush to Saddam. It’s dated the 1st of July, 2001. And it’s basically a memo saying that Mohammed Atta has successfully completed a training course at the house of Abu Nidal, the infamous Palestinian terrorist, who, of course, was killed by Saddam a couple of months later.
Now, this is the first, really, concrete proof that al Qaeda was working with Saddam. It’s a very explosive development, Tom.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Not true, but explosive.
As we mentioned Ron Suskind, the author of “The Way of the World: The Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism”—welcome.
RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR, “THE WAY OF THE WORLD”: Nice to be here.
OLBERMANN: The CIA officials, Maguire and Richer, they spoke with you at length on the record about the existence of this letter. They were detailed down to the stationery and the tone of voice in Mr. Tenet’s voice. Why do you believe they’re backtracking now?
SUSKIND: Well, it’s interesting, because Maguire and Richer and I, have been talking obviously over the last couple of days. Rob got a book early, the night before, so he could read it before the morning that the book was released. He was fine with it this morning. He was fine with it at midday.
Now, reporters actually called him. He said to me, “I’ll tell them no comment because it’s in the book, but Ron Suskind is a fine journalist. That will be my comment.” He said, “It’s fine, Rob.”
You know, I’m sympathetic in a way to all these guys. They’re under acute pressure. They’re individuals. They’ve got to feed their families. They really survive off the government, both of them, they’re contractors and whatnot.
Maguire, interestingly, from that statement, John and I have been exchanging e-mails from, he’s in Iraq now where he’s doing some consulting, and he sends very inspirational notes. You know, he’s—go get ‘em, go get ‘em. Interestingly, it seems like he doesn’t have a book yet because it’s hard to get one in Baghdad.
SUSKIND: Rob is, seems casting some of his comments to him over the phone in some way because what he says there obviously in his statement, that’s not said in the book. It never says that Maguire was in the chain of command. It says in fact that Rob talked to John Maguire about it but Maguire was going back to Baghdad, so his successor handled it.
So, you know, what you’re getting is, you know, guys who I think did the right thing. I think people will agree that historically they may still stand up and Maguire, I think, will still stand up in daylight. He’s a guy who said something to me that journalists I think might, you know, take into consideration.
He said to me at one point in the last of couple weeks. He said, “You know, I understand now why the First and Second Amendment are the way they are. See, the First Amendment is the most important amendment, and if they take that one way, then you should start loading your weapons.” I mean, the kind of thing that might turn journalists around the world into NRA members, ain’t it?
You know, these guys, though, are feeling now great pressure. And, you know, what you realize in this process is that there is a limit to what a journalist can do even with taped interviews, people talking for hours at a time, when they can be brought into a moment of crisis by the government saying, “You’ll never work again, you’ll never earn a living.” That’s the kind of thing that mostly happens in terms of what congressional hearings do testimony under subpoena with threat of perjury.
OLBERMANN: Well and that’s what we need. But in the interview, I presume the Maguire and Richer interviews are on tape, is that right?
SUSKIND: You bet, yes. And there’s a lot of them. They’re very detailed. The book is full of really nuanced renderings by both men, not only of what occur but how they felt. You know, how people reacted in the book. Context, what people were thinking as to what this all meant.
OLBERMANN: How did this man Habbush go from the man who basically said, “There’s no there there, there’s no WMD here, look, I’m telling you, there’s WMD there,” repeatedly, to being the man who’s name appears on a forged document that sets up this aided-along, self-fulfilling prophecy? You know, not only, it’s not a question of WMD anymore, it’s Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. How did he go from one extreme in the story to the other end?
SUSKIND: It’s interesting because Habbush pops up in early 2003. And that point, the book shows clearly that the case for WMD was a rickety structure ready to fall. Habbush arrives at that point. January, he starts his meetings. Richer helps set it up with the British intelligence guy, Michael Shipster from the region. It goes on every week, every other week through the month.
And it’s interesting to see the havoc it creates inside of the administration, at the upper-most levels, because there are two sides here there’s the operational side, guys like John Maguire or Rob Richer for that matter, who say, “We can use him. He might be able to take out Saddam Hussein. We have a window into Saddam’s inner circle. We can send him disinformation. Maybe we can get Habbush to go in and take out Saddam.” “We can walk to Baghdad,” Maguire says, rather than fight our way.”
On the other side, you have the explosive issue of the information Habbush is giving to undercut the case. There are really separate things. And the agendas start to collide.
So, in February, when Richard Dearlove, the head of British intelligence, flies over to deliver the final report to George Tenet, that’s when Tenet reads it and says to Richer, “They’re not going like this downtown.”
OLBERMANN: Which you couldn’t make it up there in a million years.
SUSKIND: You know, where is the screenplay?
And at that moment, the side worried about how this will look for the case for war essentially wins out. And that’s obviously the White House team.
The president, the vice president, and Condi Rice are briefed about this. At that point, the channel gets cut off with Habbush. And folks at CIA including Maguire lives could be at risk because you’re worried about this guy undercutting your case. That doesn’t make sense. This war rages through the administration.
But Habbush, of course, has his deal. He met, it was understood that there would be a resettlement, and off we go where Habbush becomes, in a way, the most explosive single entity, you know, certainly in terms of the U.S. government for years now. Five years they kept him in hiding.
You know, it’s interesting, Keith, all the way through this period, he’s resettled when we invade. And then, as we move forward, t’s fascinating to watch the reactions of everybody, because as it becomes clear to the world that some of the suspicions before the war that there were no WMD is now obvious.
SUSKIND: And, you know, Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame popped up that summer. As Maguire says, “Everyone was terrified that Habbush would pop up on the screen.” That’s his quote. At that moment, they dotted the “I’s” and crossed the “T’s” on his financial arrangement of his resettlement. And they agreed to pay him $5 million.
Now, by almost any reckoning, considering what he provided and that we didn’t use him for anything else going forward, that would be considered hush money in almost any parlance. Now, what’s fascinating is at that point, you see this great kind of disconnect going on in the government. Rice and Cheney were happy we had him, but in some way, he’s the last man they want to talk to.
OLBERMANN: Of course.
SUSKIND: The operational guys who are handling Iraq are saying, “He’s a gold mine, go talk to him. He used to be the police chief of Iraq, he’s their intelligence chief. He can help us understand the country so we don’t get into trouble.” No, no, he’s not touched all through the summer of 2003 until fall.
Interestingly, then the White House figures out, “Well, we might have something he can be useful for.” That’s when they come up with the “Habbush letter” concept. And that’s when they deliver it to CIA.
OLBERMANN: And that’s when he actually earns his $5 million for something he had nothing to do with.
SUSKIND: Well, you know, it’s hard to see what that kind of earning really amounts to, but clearly that was the idea.
OLBERMANN: Let me get your reaction to the reaction of the White House and Mr. Tenet.
George Tenet said, quote, “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 Iraq and al Qaeda 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.”
Meanwhile, Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary working at the White House, told Politico.com, “The allegation that the White House directed anyone to forge a document from Habbush to Saddam is just absurd. Ron Suskind makes a living from gutter journalism,” which is I presume the category in which you won the Pulitzer Prize. “He is about selling books and making wild allegations that no one can verify including the numerous bipartisan commissions that have reported on prewar intelligence.”
They’re coming at you kind of forcefully. What’s your response to that forcefulness and these comments?
SUSKIND: Well, the fact is, a lot of this is expected. I’m one person who is standing at this point with the sources behind me, those who are holding firm, and, obviously, they’re under acute pressure to say this is an action that has constitutional implications along with, you know, the possibility of impeachment proceedings. All this in an odd way, you know, character assassination is what they do when they have nothing else to say.
OLBERMANN: Ask Scott McClellan.
SUSKIND: We’ve seen a lot of this and in some way, this is, I think, a kind of homage to how they’re reacting to what they’re actually saying.
OLBERMANN: It’s almost a verification. It’s the last confirmation for the sources in the book, I would imagine.
SUSKIND: Right. I remember when I was a kid, the Nixon’s enemies list, they used to stick that up on the wall as a point of pride.
OLBERMANN: That’s it. If you got a picture on it, it was even bigger. I’m sure there’s a very big picture of you at the White House tonight and it has appropriate numbers at each rung.
Ron Suskind, the book is called “The Way of the World”—great thanks for coming in tonight.
SUSKIND: My pleasure, Keith.
OLBERMANN: All right. Best of luck with this.
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