Jason Leopold | The Public Record | August 22, 2008
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers has asked current and former White House aides and ex-CIA officials to respond to questions about an alleged scheme to create a bogus letter in late 2003 linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda.
In sending the interview requests Wednesday, Conyers is following up on a disputed story in journalist Ron Suskind’s new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, which includes an account of how the mysterious letter originated.
The book cites statements from former CIA associate deputy director of operations Rob Richer and John Maguire, the former chief of the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group/Near East Division, as indicating that the White House ordered the CIA to produce the bogus letter to retroactively justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Richer and Maguire gave Suskind on-the-record interviews, which the author recorded, discussing the reasons the letter was created and saying that it likely emanated from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Both men have since recanted their statements.
Conyers, who has held periodic hearings on abuses of power by George W. Bush’s administration, sent letters to former CIA Director George Tenet; the CIA’s former executive director A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard; Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; and John Hannah, another Cheney assistant – as well as to Richer and Maguire.
“I am writing to follow up on recent serious allegations regarding the creation of a false letter from Tahir Jalil Habbush, Saddam Hussein’s former Chief of Intelligence, to Saddam Hussein,” Conyers said.
“The letter, which was allegedly backdated to July 1, 2001, attempted to establish an operational link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the period before the 9/11 attacks by specifically stating that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had received training in Iraq.
“At the time of the alleged decision in 2003 to concoct the false letter, the Vice President’s Office had been reportedly pressuring the CIA to prove this connection as a justification to invade Iraq. The letter also falsely noted that Iraq had received a ‘shipment’ (presumably uranium) from Niger with the assistance of al-Qaeda.
“Upon careful review of the allegations concerning this matter, I have become very concerned with the possibility that this administration may have violated federal law by using the resources of our intelligence agencies to influence domestic policy processes or opinion.
“The law specifically provides that ‘no covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.’”
Suskind wrote in his book that such a violation might constitute an “impeachable offense.”
“It is not the sort of offense, such as assault or burglary, that carries specific penalties, for example, a fine or jail time,” Suskind wrote. “It is much broader than that. It pertains to the White House’s knowingly misusing an arm of government, the sort of thing generally taken up in impeachment proceedings.”
Former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, in a recent column published on Findlaw.com, agreed. But Conyers’ office was unwilling to make that same characterization. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long since taken Bush’s possible impeachment “off the table.”
Conyers was not interested in reviewing the claims contained in Suskind’s book until his office was bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from citizens who favor impeaching President Bush, according to a senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Finally, after Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, sent a letter to Conyers on Aug. 8 requesting a formal review, Conyers agreed to look into the matter.
Many of the allegations in Suskind’s book – about how pre-war Iraq intelligence was cooked at the highest levels of the U.S. government – echo articles of impeachment that Kucinich has filed in the Congress.
“I asked Chairman Conyers to investigate these claims because, if true, the administration fabricated evidence and used it to lead the country into an unprovoked war,” Kucinich said.
It’s unknown what Conyers would do with the information if he determines the White House violated federal law. Moreover, given the White House’s broad claims of executive privilege, it’s unclear whether the intelligence officials will even cooperate.
A spokesman for Tenet would not comment, and the CIA’s Congressional Affairs office said it was reviewing the request. Libby and Hannah did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment.
Libby was convicted of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, leading to a sentence of 30 months in jail. However, Bush commuted the sentence to eliminate jail time and left open the possibility that Libby might get a full pardon before Bush leaves office.
Tenet has vehemently denied Suskind’s claims, going so far as to attack the author’s journalistic integrity.
“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,” Tenet said in a statement issued earlier this month.
“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 Qa’ida 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 and Suskind have clashed before. In an earlier book, The One Percent Doctrine, Suskind wrote that a high-level detainee named Abu Zubaydah, whom the CIA characterized as a top al-Qaeda operative, was actually a low-level driver who was mentally unstable.
In Tenet’s book, At the Center of the Storm, he called Suskind’s allegations “baloney.”
In The Way of the World, Suskind alleges that the Bush administration knew that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was not an immediate threat to the United States, despite spreading propaganda to the contrary to justify the invasion.
Suskind claims Habbush, Hussein’s director of the Iraqi intelligence service, had been turned by the U.S. government before the war and informed the White House “that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – intelligence they received in plenty of time to stop an invasion.”
However, the Bush administration chose to ignore the information from Habbush and other Iraqi government sources – which was buttressed by the failure of UN weapons inspectors to find WMD at suspected sites. Instead, Bush proceeded with the war in March 2003.
By summer and fall of 2003, as U.S. weapons inspectors on the ground were confirming the absence of WMD, the Bush administration began to worry about the possible consequences of having waged a war under false pretenses, according to Suskind’s book.
That was when the forged letter from Habbush to Hussein surfaced supposedly confirming some of the administration’s key pre-war assertions, linking Hussein to al-Qaeda and suggesting that Iraq recently had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.
The central dispute over Suskind’s book revolves around whether he got the story right regarding the CIA’s role in generating the bogus document.
Richer, the CIA’s former associate deputy director of operations, rebutted some of the charges attributed to him in the book and responded to an edited interview transcript that Suskind posted on his Web site on Aug. 8.
According to the transcript, Richer said he was part of a small group who was briefed on the preparation of the forged letter claiming a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
The forged letter “probably passed through five or six people. George [Tenet] probably showed it to me, but then passed it probably to Jim Pavitt, [the CIA's deputy director of operations], who then passed it down to his chief of staff who passed it to me. ‘Cause that’s how – you know, so I saw the original. I got a copy of it,” Richer told Suskind, according to the transcript.
Despite the transcript, Richer said he stood by “my absolute belief that the charges outlined in Mr. Suskind’s book regarding Agency involvement in forging documents are not true.”
Richer added: “During my time as a senior officer, I saw many documents from various offices of the White House regarding many topics. … I was asked to respond to documents regarding the potential use of Habbush upon his defection and during the difficult fall of 2003 when we were wrestling with a developing Iraqi insurgency and ways to combat it.
“I was also involved in many queries from elements of the administration trying to document an Al-Qa’ida and Saddam government link; proof of which was never found. Many of such queries did originate from the staff of the Office of the Vice President. None of this, however, substantiates Mr. Suskind’s explosive allegation. …
“It is important to note, however, in the transcript just released, I make no mention of having received an order to fabricate the letter as claimed by Mr. Suskind in his book. I do speak to discussions regarding using Habbush, which were frequent during that period, but what I was talking about was the possibility of using him to tamp down the insurgency – not to influence Western public opinion.”
Richer noted that in the edited transcripts, he had referred to the Habbush letter as “a non-event.” Richer added, “The fabrication of a letter as claimed by Mr. Suskind would have been much more than a ‘non-event.’ …
“An order such as the one outlined by Mr. Suskind would have been a huge event – and in my opinion illegal. An order to fabricate such a document would have been rejected out of hand and it is improbable to believe anyone would write such a request.”
In an Aug. 8 article in The American Conservative magazine, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi said the bulk of Suskind’s claim – that a forged letter was produced linking Iraq to al-Qaeda – is correct but a “number of details are wrong,” including the CIA’s role.
Giraldi said “an extremely reliable and well placed source” told him that Richer and Maguire were not involved.
“The Suskind account states that two senior CIA officers Robert Richer and John Maguire supervised the preparation of the document under direct orders coming from Director George Tenet. Not so, says my source,” Giraldi wrote.
Giraldi added that “Tenet is for once telling the truth when he states that he would not have undermined himself by preparing such a document while at the same time insisting publicly that there was no connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda.
“Richer and Maguire have both denied that they were involved with the forgery and it should also be noted that preparation of such a document to mislead the media is illegal and they could have wound up in jail.”
Giraldi claimed the letter was prepared by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who operated a top-secret shop inside the Pentagon known as the Office of Special Plans that exaggerated the Iraqi threat and provided the White House with bogus information about links between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
The shop, operating out of the Pentagon, was set up by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the goal of laying the groundwork for a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq.
In his article, Giraldi said Vice President Cheney, “who was behind the forgery, hated and mistrusted the Agency and would not have used it for such a sensitive assignment.”
“The Pentagon has its own false documents center, primarily used to produce fake papers for Delta Force and other special ops officers traveling under cover as businessmen,” Giraldi wrote.
“It was Feith’s office that produced the letter and then surfaced it to the media in Iraq. Unlike the Agency, the Pentagon had no restrictions on it regarding the production of false information to mislead the public. Indeed, one might argue that Doug Feith’s office specialized in such activity.”
In early 2007, the Pentagon’s Inspector General issued a report on pre-war intelligence that concluded Feith’s Office of Special Plans “was inappropriately performing intelligence activities of developing, producing, and disseminating that should be performed by the intelligence community.”