By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
The Bush administration joined former top CIA officials in denouncing a new book's assertion that White House officials ordered the forgery of Iraqi documents to suggest a link between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The claim was made by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose book "The Way of the World" also contends that the White House obtained compelling evidence in early 2003 that Iraq possessed no significant stocks of nuclear or biological weapons but decided to invade the country anyway.
Suskind, who has written two previous investigative books that contained criticism of Bush administration policies, described the alleged forgery as a deliberate "misusing of an arm of government, the kind of thing generally taken up in impeachment proceedings." White House condemnations of the book were equally dramatic, with officials blasting it as "gutter journalism." In separate statements, several former and current CIA officials disputed portions of the account, including two named by Suskind as key sources.
"The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter . . . is absurd," said White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto.
The book's most contentious claims involve Tahir Jalil Habbush, the former head of intelligence in Saddam Hussein's government in the years before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. As the deadline for war neared, U.S. and British intelligence officials arranged a series of secret meetings with Habbush in early 2003 and confronted him regarding their concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction .
In those private meetings, Habbush explained why U.N. weapons inspectors had been unable to find evidence of active Iraqi WMD programs: There were none. According to Suskind, Habbush said Saddam Hussein had ended Iraq's nuclear weapons work after the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, and halted biological weapons research in 1996.
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 Habbush for proof that the weapons programs had been abandoned.
"Ultimately, Habbush could not offer proof that weapons that didn't exist, didn't exist," Suskind wrote.
After the invasion, Habbush was paid $5 million by the CIA for serving as an informant and 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 Hussein's government and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attack. The administration, and particularly Vice President Cheney, had long argued that such a link existed but that the CIA had failed to find supporting evidence. Claims by a captured al-Qaeda official of links to Hussein were later determined to be false.
Suskind states that, in September 2003, the White House directed then-CIA Director George J. Tenet to concoct a fake letter, backdated to July 2001 but bearing Habbush's signature, claiming that Atta had been trained in Iraq for his mission. Habbush agreed to sign the letter, which was then leaked to a British journalist in December 2003, Suskind writes in the book.
The author quotes two former CIA officials -- Robert Richer and John Maguire, veterans of the CIA's operations division -- as sources for the account. But the two men, in a statement to The Washington Post, disputed Suskind's account that they had been tasked with producing the forgery.
"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," Richer said in an e-mail.
"I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter," Maguire said in the same statement.
Suskind said he stands by his account, which he said was based on many hours of interviews in which sources "laid out the story bit by bit." Many of the interviews were taped, he said. Suskind added that he understood "the enormous pressure that can be brought to bear" on sources who formerly worked for the government and still have professional ties.
Tenet acknowledged the prewar contacts with Habbush but denied that the agency or the White House ignored vital evidence.
"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 Ba'ath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack," he said in a statement. "The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner."
Regarding the alleged forgery, Tenet said it never happened.
"At my direction, CIA resisted efforts on the part of some in the Administration to paint a picture of Iraqi-Al Qaeda connections that went beyond the evidence," he 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."