The CIA has now joined the White House and former CIA director George Tenet in releasing a statement denying explosive charges at the heart of a new book by journalist Ronald Suskind, The Way of the World. In the book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter charged that a letter falsely alleging that lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta had trained in Iraq, which was purported to have been written by former Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Habbush and which was leaked to journalist Con Coughlin who wrote about it in the Sunday Telegraph in December 2003, had materialized as the result of a White House ordered CIA forgery plot. Newsweek quickly exposed the letter as a fake, and it was later revealed that the letter had been passed to Coughlin by an Iraqi exile politician close to the CIA Ayad Allawi, who reportedly happened to be in meetings at Langley around the time Suskind claimed the White House directive came down. So how did the letter purported to be from Habbush with the discredited claims come to be? In a statement today, the CIA writes:
Suskind claims that, in September 2003, the White House ordered then-Director George Tenet to fabricate a letter describing a level of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa’ida that simply did not exist. The White House has denied making that request, and Director Tenet has denied receiving it. The former Agency officers Suskind cites in his narrative have, for their part, publicly denied being asked to carry out such a mission.
Those denials are powerful in and of themselves. But they are also backed by a thorough, time-consuming records search within CIA and by interviews with other officers—senior and junior alike—who were directly involved in Iraq operations. To assert, as Suskind does, that the White House would request such a document, and that the Agency would accept such a task, says something about him and nothing about us. It did not happen. Moreover, as the public record shows, CIA had concluded—and conveyed to our customers—that the ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa’ida were not as close as some believed.
Tenet released a new statement today too that closely tracks with the CIA denial and was apparently coordinated.
The timing is interesting. Just this week, the House Judiciary committee moved forward with plans to investigate Suskind’s claims, issuing letters to several of the participants named asking them to testify. As a reader friend suggests, whether Suskind got details in his account wrong or not, “there can be no doubt whatsoever that what motivated this statement by CIA echoed by Tenet’s new statement is an effort to scare off and squelch Congress from pursuing its investigation.”
Suskind has said in media appearances that he wants the officials involved to testify under oath. He has also posted the partial transcript of an interview with Rob Richer, a former top CIA official he cites as telling him about the White House order on Habbush. Richer has denied the account took place as Suskind reported it. But his denial is carefully worded. And as my reader friend notes, “Richer’s comments on the record on Suskindresponse contradict the CIA’s official response, insofar as he simply acknowledges as a fact Habbush’s defection while CIA acts like it knows nothing about it and as far as it is concerned Habbush is still a wanted man.”
Let’s see if Operation Squelch Congressional Investigation succeeds.