WASHINGTON Two former CIA officers Tuesday denied that they or the spy agency faked an Iraqi intelligence document purporting to link Saddam Hussein with 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta, as they are quoted as saying in a new book.
The White House issued the statement on behalf of the former officials after a day of adamant denials from the CIA and Bush administration about the claim, made in "The Way of the World," a book by Washington-based journalist Ron Suskind.
"I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document ... as outlined in Mr. Suskind's book," said Robert Richer, the CIA's former deputy director of clandestine operations.
Richer also said he talked Tuesday to John Maguire, who headed the CIA's Iraq Operations Group at the time and who gave Richer "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," the statement said.
Suskind claims the White House concocted the fake letter, meant to come from Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, director of Iraqi intelligence under Saddam, in the fall of 2003 to bolster its case for the invasion earlier that year as it was becoming clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq. Those weapons were a chief rationale for the war. The letter was provided to a British journalist by an Iraqi government official, according to the book.
"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 Mohammed Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq thus showing, finally, that there was an operational link between Saddam and al-Qaida, 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."
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 said U.S. and other intelligence agencies believed Saddam harbored such weapons and that Saddam 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.
Former CIA Director Tenet also rejected Suskind's allegation that the U.S. had credible intelligence, before the invasion that Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
Tenet, in a statement distributed by the White House, also denied CIA involvement in 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 by some in the administration to paint a picture of Iraqi-al-Qaida 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 told The Associated Press that the criticisms 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 Richer 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 also quotes Maguire 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.
The Associated Press was unable to reach Richer and Maguire separately about the book.
Tenet also challenged Suskind's assertion that the U.S. ignored intelligence that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction.
"There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we assessed that these individuals were parroting the Baath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack," Tenet said. "The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner."
Suskind wrote that Habbush first told British intelligence officer Michael Shipster in January 2003 that invading forces would not find the weapons in Iraq.
"After being told that Habbush had said there were no WMD, Bush was frustrated," Suskind wrote in the book, quoting Bush telling an aide, "Why don't they ask him to give us something we can use to help us make our case?"
Suskind quotes Richer as saying Habbush's information was disregarded by an administration determined to invade.