WASHINGTON – The White House is strongly fighting back against a new book by a Bush administration critic who claims that the CIA forged a letter from Saddam Hussein's intelligence chief that gave credence to claims Iraq had links to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Ron Suskind, the former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of two highly critical books on the Bush administration, claims in his new book out Tuesday that the administration falsified a letter by then-director of the Iraqi intelligence service, Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, to Saddam, describing the activities of Sept. 11 conspirators in Iraq.
According to an excerpt of "The Way of the World" published on the Politico Web site, Suskind wrote, “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."
Newspapers and television media reported on the existence of the letter at the time of its release in late 2003. It was cited by supporters of the war as proof the U.S. and its allies were right about Iraq.
The White House responded that Suskind is making up a conspiracy theory to sell books.
"Ron Suskind has chosen to dwell in the netherworld of bizarre conspiracy theories. The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter from Habbush to Saddam Hussein is absurd," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
"As every report and commission on pre-war intelligence has concluded, the Saddam Hussein wanted his neighbors to believe he had weapons of mass destruction," Fratto said. "Our intelligence estimates at the time and intelligence estimates from other nations believed that he still harbored such weapons. We know now that those estimates were wrong, but they were the estimates we all relied on. 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."
Former CIA Director George Tenet also responded to the book, calling it "seriously flawed" in its assertions, including that he was ordered by the White House to fabricate a letter linking Al Qaeda to Iraq.
"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 Iraqi-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."
Tenet also took issue with claims that British intelligence had informed U.S. agencies before the war that an Iraqi source had revealed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
"As Mr. Suskind tells it, 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," Tenet said.
"There are undoubtedly many other errors in the book — but these are the first ones of which I've been made aware. One would think a serious journalist would have, at a minimum, asked the supposed participants if what he was prepared to write was consistent with the facts. Mr. Suskind never contacted me on anything regarding this book. I suppose he had a story that fell into the category of: too good to check," Tenet continued.
According to Politico, Suskind wrote in the acknowledgments of his book that he received no official cooperation from the White House in the research.
“It should be noted that the intelligence sources who are quoted in this book in no way disclosed any classified information. None crossed the line,” he also wrote.
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 Maguire, 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 Maguire as saying.
Richer released a statement Tuesday on behalf of him and Maguire denying the allegations.
"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," he said.
"Further, today I talked with John Maguire who has given me permission to state the following 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.'"
Both men left the CIA in recent years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.