WASHINGTON - The White House and the CIA yesterday adamantly denied a report that the Bush administration concocted a fake letter purporting to show a link between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda as a justification for the Iraq war.
The allegation was raised by Washington-based journalist Ron Suskind in a new book, "The Way of the World," published yesterday. The letter supposedly was written by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, director of Iraqi intelligence under Saddam Hussein.
"The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001," Suskind wrote. "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."
Suskind said the letter's existence had been reported before, and that it had been treated as if it were genuine.
Denying the report, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said, "The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter from Habbush to Saddam Hussein is absurd."
Fratto and former CIA Director George Tenet also rejected Suskind's allegation that the United States had credible intelligence, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. It was supposedly British intelligence, based on information from a senior Iraqi official.
Fratto said US and other intelligence agencies believed Hussein harbored such weapons and that Hussein had tried to make his neighbors believe he had them. In the end, no such weapons were found, undercutting Bush's main reason to go to war.
"We know now that those estimates were wrong, but they were the estimates we all relied on," Fratto said. "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."
Tenet, in a statement distributed by the White House, also issued a denial about the supposedly fake letter. "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," he said.
"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," Tenet said. "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."
Suskind said 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.
Tenet also challenged Suskind's assertion that the United States ignored intelligence that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.