WASHINGTON – 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 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 described the alleged forgery as one of the great lies in modern American political history. White House condemnations of the book were equally dramatic, with officials blasting it as “gutter journalism.”
“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.
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.
Suskind states that, in September 2003, the White House directed then-CIA Director George 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.
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.