The White House and the CIA on Tuesday adamantly denied a report that the Bush administration concocted a fake letter purporting to show a link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaida as a justification for the Iraq war.
The allegation was raised by Washington-based journalist Ron Suskind in a new book, “The Way of the World,” published Tuesday. The letter supposedly was written by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, director of Iraqi intelligence under Saddam Hussein.
“The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001,” Suskind wrote. “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-Qaida, 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 said the letter’s existence had been reported before, and that it had been treated as if it were genuine.
Denying the report, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said, “The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter from Habbush to Saddam Hussein is absurd.”
Fratto and former CIA Director George Tenet also rejected Suskind’s allegation that the U.S. had credible intelligence, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction. It was supposedly British intelligence, based on information from a senior Iraqi official.
Fratto said U.S. and other intelligence agencies believed Saddam harbored such weapons and that Saddam had tried to make his neighbors believe he had them. In the end, no such weapons were found, undercutting Bush’s main reason to go to war.
“We know now that those estimates were wrong, but they were the estimates we all relied on,” Fratto said. “Regardless, military force in Iraq was used because Saddam Hussein defiantly failed to comply with the 17 UN Security Council resolutions Iraq was subject to.”
Tenet, in a statement distributed by the White House, also issued a denial about the supposedly fake letter. “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,” he said.
“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-Qaida connections that went beyond the evidence,” Tenet said. “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.”
'All but obligated to deny'
Suskind told The Associated Press that the criticism from the White House and Tenet were expected. He said Tenet “is not credible on this issue” and the White House “is all but obligated to deny this.”
“If they go in the other direction, I think they’re probably going to have to start firing people,” Suskind said.
In his book, Suskind writes that Tenet gave Rob Richer, the CIA’s former head of the Near East division and deputy director of clandestine operations, the fake letter during a fall 2003 meeting. Suskind quotes Richer as saying, “George said something like, ’Well, Marine, I’ve got a job for you, though you may not like it.”’
Suskind wrote that “Richer remembers looking down at the creamy White House stationery on which the assignment was written.” He quotes Richer as saying, “This was creating a deception.”
Suskind also quotes John Maquire, who oversaw the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group, about the alleged fake letter. “When it was discussed with me, I just thought it was incredible, a box-checking of all outstanding issues in one letter, from one guy,” Suskind quotes Maquire as saying.
Richer and Maquire, who both left the CIA in recent years, could not be reached Tuesday for comment about the book.
Tenet also challenged Suskind’s assertion that the U.S. ignored intelligence that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction.
Tenet: 'A complete fabrication'
“As Mr. Suskind tells it,” Tenet said, “the White House directed (and CIA allegedly went along with) burying that information so that the war could go ahead as planned. This is a complete fabrication. In fact, the source in question failed to persuade his British interlocutors that he had anything new to offer by way of intelligence, concessions, or negotiations with regard to the Iraq crisis and the British on their own elected to break off contact with him.”
Tenet said, “There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we assessed that these individuals were parroting the Baath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack. The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner.”
Suskind wrote that Habbush first told British intelligence agent Michael Shipster in January 2003 that invading forces would not find the weapons in Iraq.
“After being told that Habbush had said there were no WMD, Bush was frustrated,” Suskind wrote in the book, quoting Bush telling an aide, “Why don’t they ask him to give us something we can use to help us make our case?”
Suskind quotes Richer as saying Habbush’s information was disregarded by an administration determined to invade.