The White House's Weak Denials

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, August 6, 2008; 1:23 PM

The allegation in Ron Suskind's new book that the White House ordered the CIA to forge evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda is so incredibly grave that it demands a serious response from the government. If what Suskind writes is true -- or even partially true -- someone at the highest levels of the White House engaged in a criminal conspiracy to deceive the American public. (See yesterday's column for all the details.)

But so far, we've gotten mostly hyperbole, innuendo and narrowly constructed denials.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto's response was a classic non-denial denial: "The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter from [former Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Jalil] Habbush to Saddam Hussein is absurd," he said. He accused Suskind, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter and well-respected chronicler of Bush administration secrets, of engaging in "gutter journalism."

The White House yesterday also distributed -- and for all we know ghostwrote -- a statement on behalf of two former CIA officials who were key sources for Suskind's book. "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," Robert Richer, the CIA's former deputy director of clandestine operations, said in the statement. And John Maguire, who headed the CIA's Iraq Operations Group at the time in question, supposedly gave Richer permission to state on his behalf: "I never received 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."

Former CIA director George Tenet -- who has had problems with his memory before -- said in statement: "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."

When honest people are confronted with a false accusation, they typically respond without caveats.

But Fratto's response is a far cry from a categorical denial that anything akin to what Suskind describes took place. Indeed, given recent White House history, it more likely means: "We want this question to go away, so we're going to call it ridiculous."

And the statement sent out on behalf of the former CIA officials raises more questions than it answers. Did they perhaps get such instructions from people out of their chain of command? (Vice President Cheney springs to mind.) Maybe someone ordered them to create a forgery, but didn't explicitly mention Habbush?

Ideally, all the people allegedly involved in this plot would be required to provide direct answers to some basic questions. And even more ideally, this would be done under oath.

From the Book

Here, for the record, is what Suskind writes in his book about the White House involvement:

"In late September, Tenet returned from a meeting at the White House with instructions for CIA.

"He called Richer into his office. 'George said something like, "Well, Marine, I've got a job for you, though you may not like it,"' Richer recalls.

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