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The White House's Weak Denials

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.

"The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001. 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. The letter also mentioned suspicious shipments to Iraq from Niger set up with al Qaeda's assistance. The idea was to take the letter to Habbush and have him transcribe it in his own neat handwriting on a piece of Iraq government stationery, to make it look legitimate. CIA would then take the finished product to Baghdad and have someone release it to the media.

"Even five years later, Richer remembers looking down at the creamy White House stationery on which the assignment was written. 'The guys from the Vide President's Office were just barraging us in this period with one thing after another: run down this lead, find out about that. It was nonstop. Of course, this was different. This was creating a deception.'"

As for Maguire, Suskind writes that Richer later "took him aside and briefed him on the Iraq Operations Group's next assignment: the Habbush letter.

"'When it was discussed with me I just thought it was incredible,' Maguire recalls. "A box-checking of all outstanding issues in one letter, from one guy.'"

Suskind's Rebuttal

On NBC's Today Show this morning, Meredith Vieira confronted Suskind with the official responses.

Suskind replied: "It's interesting. Rob Richer talked to me and actually other reporters, too, yesterday morning -- he was fine. He'd gotten the book Monday night, read it. And then something happened yesterday afternoon. It's, you know, it's one of these instances you've got a few people whose testimony could mean the impeachment ostensibly of the president. It's enormous pressure on both men. Look, I'm sympathetic to them. They're good guys. I've spent a lot of time with them. Their interviews are taped. . . . "

Viera: "What would have happened yesterday, that's what I don't understand. Richers retired from the CIA."

Suskind: "But also, he's a government contractor. He runs an intelligence firm that lives on government contracts by and large. . . .

"This is a dynamic situation. There are folks in Congress calling -- they want people under oath -- they said, 'There's only so much a journalist can do. We need to have people under oath with threat of perjury. That's the way to get to the bottom of something this contentious and portentous.'"

Viera: "So you still stand by everything and say that perhaps these two guys were pressured."

Suskind: "You know, in this situation, you know, you can almost expect that they would be pressured. You know? It's the testimony of a few people with so very much at stake. . . . We'll see how it unfolds."

Last night, in an interview with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, Suskind also noted the specificity of the denials. His book, he said, "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."

As for the White House's attack on him: "Character assassination is what they do when they have nothing else to say," Suskind said.

The Coverage

On the NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams reported: "In a new book, journalist Ron Suskind claims he has new evidence to show the case was more than a failure of intelligence. It was, he writes, an out and out deception." CBS and ABC all but ignored the story. There was a great deal of discussion on CNN and MSNBC.

Joby Warrick's story in The Washington Post focused on the denials: "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."

Brett J. Blackledge writes for the Associated Press: "Two former CIA officers Tuesday denied that they or the spy agency faked an Iraqi intelligence document purporting to link Saddam Hussein with 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta, as they are quoted as saying in a new book.

"The White House issued the statement on behalf of the former officials after a day of adamant denials from the CIA and Bush administration about the claim, made in 'The Way of the World,' a book by Washington-based journalist Ron Suskind."

Opinion Watch

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "So who do you believe: Ron Suskind (who says that everything in the book is on the record, many sources), or the Bush White House (which is assailing Suskind for "gutter journalism")? Unfortunately for Bush, we have an imbalance here.

"Suskind, who won a Pulitzer while writing for The Wall Street Journal, has been watchdogging this White House ever since he worked with ex-Treasury Department secretary Paul O'Neill on the latter's tell-all book, and the administration has never been able to wreck his reputation. Suskind, in 2004, authored the now-famous New York Times Magazine article that quoted a Bush official voicing disdain for "the reality-based community," a comment that has come to epitomize the Bush regime's faith-based mindset. Suskind spoke to a wide range of Republicans for that article, and ultimately concluded that Bush's governing style was characterized by "a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners." Four years later, is there even a phrase in his conclusion that rings false?

"On the other end of the believability scale, we of course have a White House long practiced in the art of deception. Bush oversold a slew of Saddam threats that turned out to be phony. . . . Indeed, over the past several years, roughly six in 10 Americans have said that Bush deliberately misled us into war.

"Tony Fratto, a Bush deputy press secretary, uttered the standard denial about Suskind yesterday. . . . but how would he know? When the alleged letter forgery was carried out in 2003, Fratto was working for the Treasury Department, and we already know, from Scott McClellan's book, that Bush press secretaries are routinely kept in the dark anyway. . . .

"Even if one is inclined to doubt the notion that the Bush war team would actually fake a document in the service of better propaganda, Suskind's broader theme has long rung true - that Bush has spent much of the last seven years seeking only the kind of evidence that would square with his certitudes."

Marty Kaplan blogs on Huffingtonpost.com: "When this came up on MSNBC, moderator Chuck Todd asked Politico's Mike Allen whether this would lead 'the anti-war crowd' in Congress to call for impeachment. Allen replied that it would 'give the lefty blogosphere something to grab onto.'

"And so, in less time than it takes to say 'Dick Cheney,' the subject is changed from what would be one of the most outrageous violations of the Constitution in the history of the Republic to a left/right issue. . . .

"If the White House asked the CIA to cook up this disinformation aimed at the American people, why shouldn't the righty blogosphere, too, be up in arms? Why doesn't every American, regardless of political party, have a stake in the truth and the rule of law?

"I know, I know: that's not Chuck Todd's or Mike Allen's jobs. Unfortunately, the closest that the MSM usually comes to weighing the evidence is saying: Ron Suskind charges X, and the White House denies it. This is what is now called reporting."

A None Too Proud Tradition

Fratto's response is also highly reminiscent of some previous White House non-denials.

One of my favorites has always been former press secretary Scott McClellan's response to a British press report in 2005, to the effect that Bush had raised with British Prime Minister Tony Blair the idea of bombing al-Jazeera television headquarters. All McClellan would say about that is: "Any such notion that we would engage in that kind of activity is just absurd."

Here's McClellan in October 2003, responding to questions about the White House's campaign against former ambassador and administration critic Joe Wilson: "We -- this White House -- it is absurd to suggest that this White House would seek to punish someone for speaking out with a different view. We welcome people with different views. That's a healthy part of our democracy."

And of course here is McClellan, in September 2003, responding to questions about whether Karl Rove was involved in the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as a CIA operative: "I've made it very clear that it was a ridiculous suggestion in the first place."

Bush's Trip

Bush has finally decided to speak out forcefully about China -- from Thailand.

Michael Abramowitz writes for The Washington Post: "Just before flying to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic games, President Bush plans a speech in the Thai capital that will include some of his bluntest language yet on human rights in China, saying that 'America stands in firm opposition' to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists, according to a draft copy of the speech.

"'We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential,' Bush will say in the speech, to be given at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in Bangkok (10:30 p.m. Wednesday in Washington). 'And we press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs.'

"Bush will also say that 'the United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,' according to the remarks released by the White House in advance to reporters traveling with him.

"Although Bush has previously been critical of Chinese human rights practices, in particular its suppression of religious liberty, the comments go well beyond what the president has said in the run-up to the Olympic games. . . .

"Advocates have called for Bush to make a stronger statement about China's human rights practices or meet with dissidents while in Beijing. Both scenarios appear unlikely, however, in large measure because Bush has repeatedly said he is going to the Olympics to cheer on the U.S. athletes and to show his 'respect' for the Chinese people, as he put it in a news conference in Seoul on Wednesday morning."

Jeremy Pelofsky writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush said on Wednesday that North Korea remained -- for now -- part of what he once branded an 'axis of evil', but hoped the list would some day be empty."

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "When asked if North Korea had fundamentally changed since he first linked it to Iraq and Iran in 2002 as an axis of the world's most dangerous countries, Mr. Bush said that North Korea continued to have a repressive government and that its leader had yet to disclose fully the country's nuclear weapons work.

"But he added that there were signs of progress, including the destruction of the cooling tower at the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, which was filmed by invited television channels. . . .

"'In order to get off the list, the axis-of-evil list, the North Korean leader's going to have to make some certain decisions,' he said. . . .

"'And my hope is that the "axis of evil" list no longer exists,' Mr. Bush said, referring somewhat ambiguously to the current status of North Korea and Iran as international pariahs. 'That's my hope, for the sake of peace. And it's my hope for, you know, for the sake of our children.' . . .

"Mr. Bush has rarely repeated the use of the phrase after he first introduced it in the State of the Union address more than six years ago, though he has often been asked."

Michael Abramowitz and Stella Kim write in The Washington Post: "As President Bush rode a motorcade out of Seoul air base on Tuesday night, he was greeted by hundreds of people waving South Korean and American flags and signs announcing 'Friends Forever.' But in downtown parts of the capital, anti-Bush protests drew thousands of marchers, and police used water cannons to keep them at bay."

'Beijing George'?

Jackie Kucinich and Sam Youngman write in The Hill: "A House Republican leader is lambasting President Bush on his decision not to call Congress back into session to deal with the energy crisis.

"In a legislative update sent to GOP members and staff on Tuesday, Republican House Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) accused 'Beijing George' Bush of throwing House Republicans 'under the bone-dry bus' on his way to the Olympics in China.

"House GOP leaders last week called on Bush to convene an emergency session of Congress, but the White House said such a move would not make a difference because Democrats would not call for an up-or-down vote on offshore drilling legislation.

"McCotter, known for his frank and sometimes unusual political opinions, was not pleased with that decision. His memo stated, 'Today, in his final term, the wildly unpopular President George W. Bush boarded Air Force One bound for the Beijing Olympics and a meeting with his chum Hu Jintao, the dapper ruler of a nuclear armed, communist dictatorship."

Executive Privilege Watch

Matthew Blake writes for the Washington Independent: "In light of a recent ruling that restricts the extent of executive privilege, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is getting in touch with White House officials who made such a claim to skirt giving the House oversight committee official documents related to an array of embarrassing White House scandals. Waxman fired off letters to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, and Susan Dudley, the head of regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, looking for each to answer why, exactly, executive privilege absolves them from turning over subpoenaed documents.

Hillary Watch

Hillary Clinton writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "There appears to be no crisis, tragedy or disaster immune from exploitation under the Bush administration. The examples of the waste, fraud and abuse are legion -- from [former Halliburton subsidiary] KBR performing shoddy electrical work in Iraq that has resulted in the electrocution of our military personnel according to Pentagon and Congressional investigators, to the firing of an Army official who dared to refuse a $1 billion payout for questionable charges to the same company. In another scam, the Pentagon awarded a $300 million contract to AEY, Inc., a company run by a 22-year-old who fulfilled an ammunition deal in Afghanistan by supplying rotting Chinese-made munitions to our allies.

"But the fraud and waste are not limited to the war. In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, for example, FEMA awarded a contract worth more than $500 million for trailers to serve as temporary housing. The contractor, Gulf Stream, collected all of its money even though they knew at the time that its trailers were contaminated with formaldehyde.

"While touting fiscal responsibility, President Bush and his administration have lined the pockets of political cronies like Halliburton and Blackwater. While calling for earmark reform, the president has allowed no-bid and questionable contracting throughout the federal government to dwarf earmark spending by a 10-to-1 ratio.

"If we're going to get serious about putting our nation's fiscal house in order, let's talk about putting an end to billions in no-bid contract awards to unaccountable contractors. Let's talk about the number of lucrative contracts and bonuses being paid for duties never performed, promises never fulfilled, and contracts falsely described as complete. And let's talk about reforming the federal contracting system so that we can take on the real waste, fraud and abuse in our federal government."

Assassination Attempt Watch?

Dan Morse writes in The Washington Post: "Police found a map of Camp David marked with a presidential motorcade route inside the Bethesda home of the teenager at the center of a bombmaking probe, along with a document that appears to describe how to kill someone at a distance of 200 meters, a Montgomery County prosecutor said yesterday at a court hearing. . . .

"At the house last week, police found more than 50 pounds of chemicals, assault-style weapons and armor-piercing bullets."

Cheney Convention Watch

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. writes in the American Spectator: "Vice President Dick Cheney will not make an appearance at the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul next month, according to sources in his office. Cheney has not sought a speaking slot at the convention, nor has his staff sought a role for him at the convention."

CNN reports: "One GOP official told CNN there's a 'mutual understanding' between Cheney's office and the McCain camp that he is 'unlikely' to attend the convention.

"A second Republican official said there are still 'talks going on' between Cheney's office and the McCain camp and both sides are 'still trying to work it out.'"

William Schneider had this to say on CNN: "Cheney may be the only non-incarcerated politician in America who is less popular than President Bush. . . . It doesn't sound like a big draw if the convention is going for ratings."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "If John McCain wants next month's GOP convention in the Twin Cities to be about Dick Cheney instead of his own candidacy, his campaign is on track. . . .

"Now would be a good time for Candidate McCain to step in and say publicly, 'Of course, my good friend the Vice President will be there.' The longer he waits, the worse this is going to get. By signaling that a sitting Republican Vice President might not be welcome at a Republican convention, the McCain campaign is handing the press corps an opening to fill the next few weeks with stories highlighting a divided GOP. Come convention time, you can expect lots of on-air jokes that the missing Mr. Cheney 'must be at an undisclosed location.'"

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "John McCain does not want Dick Cheney to attend the Republican convention, because he says he's too unpopular. . . . When asked to comment, Cheney said, 'I hope the Senator reconsiders.' Then he turned into a bat and flew away."

Jon Stewart notes that Bush has now broken the record to become the most traveled president in history -- as well as the president with the most vacation days. "I think it's pretty clear," he says. "There's something about being at the White House our president cannot stand."

Stewart also looks at Bush's use of language over the years.

Cartoon Watch

Lee Judge on the monkey on McCain's back; Kevin Siers on a dissident's view; John Sherffius on the forged letter.

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