'Today' Promotes Author Who Calls Pre-War Runup 'Worse Than Watergate'

NBC's Meredith Vieira, at the top of Tuesday's "Today" show, greeted viewers with the following teaser and jarring charge that "A scathing new book...claims the Bush administration's case for war...wasn't a mistake but deliberate deception...It is worse than Watergate."

Vieira, in the 7am half-hour interviewed journalist/author Ron Suskind about his new book, The Way of the World, and his claim that the Bush administration ordered the CIA to forge a letter that would link Iraq and al Qaeda. While Vieira and David Gregory did cite denials from former CIA Director George Tenet and Condoleezza Rice no Suskind critic appeared, live on the air, to debate him. In fact Vieira, at the end of the interview, noted that Suskind will be on tomorrow's "Today," as well.

The following is a complete transcript of the Gregory set-up piece, followed by the full Vieira interview with Suskind as it aired on the August 5, "Today" show:

[7:00am]

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Also ahead a scathing new book from a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter that claims the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq wasn't a mistake but deliberate deception. His claim? It is worse than Watergate. But the White House says it's absurd and gutter journalism. The man at the center of it all joins us for an exclusive interview.

[7:09am]

MEREDITH VIEIRA: And now to that new bombshell book that claims the White House deliberately misled the American public about the case for war in Iraq. The author, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. We're gonna talk to Ron Suskind in a moment. But first NBC's chief White House correspondent David Gregory has more. David, good morning to you

[On screen headline: "Bombshell Book, Did White House Mislead America To War?"]

DAVID GREGORY: Good morning, Meredith. This book pulls no punches, claiming that President Bush knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction but ordered the invasion anyway. It is a controversial look at administration decision making but the former director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, telling NBC News, that the charge against the President, is quote, "Just wrong." It is the lingering question about the war. If the President knew then what he knows now, would he have ordered the invasion of Iraq in the first place?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

GREGORY: But in his new book, The Way of the World, journalist Ron Suskind claims there was a smoking gun of a much different kind, Saddam's own intelligence chief Tahir Jalik Habbush. Suskind reports that in early 2003, in secret meetings with British intelligence, Habbush revealed that Iraq, in fact, did not have weapons of mass destruction. That information was passed on to the CIA. Suskind claims the President wasn't interested in information that contradicted the case for war. After the President was told about Habbush, Suskind quotes Mr. Bush telling an aide, "Why don't they ask him to give us something we can use to help us make our case?" Suskind writes that Mr. Bush later dismissed Habbush and cut off the channel of communication to the Iraqi intelligence chief. The book makes another incendiary charge. In order to bolster the connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, the White House ordered the CIA to write a fake letter from the Iraqi intelligence chief, Habbush, claiming that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta trained in Iraq, prior to September 11th. This book follows a series of accounts that question whether the administration manipulated pre-war intelligence and otherwise misled the country to justify going to war. It's a charge officials deny.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: But the one thing that does get under my skin is the notion that we somehow just wanted to go to war. Nobody wanted to go to war. Nobody wants to go to war.

GREGORY: CIA Director Tenet, in a statement insists that, that former Iraqi intelligence chief Habbush, did not provide the kind of intelligence that Suskind claims he did, saying that he was, "unreliable." As to the letter that is reported in the book, one intelligence official, at the time, confirms that it did exist but cannot say who actually ordered it. Intelligence officials do, however, insist that the CIA never believed in a link between al Qaeda and Iraq prior to 9/11. As for the White House this morning, they're dismissing this book as "gutter journalism." And they deny that they ever ordered a forged letter. Meredith?

VIEIRA: Alright David Gregory, thanks very much. Ron Suskind is the author of The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Ron, good morning to you.

RON SUSKIND: Nice to see you.

VIEIRA: Nice to see you. Your book is full of some very serious charges that the White House deliberately misled the American public. In the book you call it, "One of the great lies in modern American political history." That it ignored intelligence from the chief, chief of intelligence in Iraq, that there were no weapons of mass destruction. So how were you able to confirm all of these elements?

SUSKIND: Well you know the, I've done this sort of thing for a while and in here the way it worked is there were off-the-record sources who laid out the story and then I went to people actually involved. They were freed up because they're not the original source, if you will, to sort of talk about the context. What they felt, what they did. People actually involved. And of course they're all through the book, on the record, talking about how it all worked.

VIEIRA: But why were they willing to talk now, Ron?

SUSKIND: Well you know a lot of them had been walking around with this lump in their chest for a couple of years, five years now. And because they're essentially free, they're not the source, the original source, they said, "Look why, why hide now? Let's trust the truth."

VIEIRA: You know you talk about the smoking gun evidence, that the White House tried to manipulate the intelligence. That it ignored this intelligence chief from Iraq, Habbush. But they had a lot of information that they were gathering at the time, some of it contradicting what he was saying. So what convinced you that he was a more reliable source than anyone else?

SUSKIND: Well at this late date, in this administration, people are finally saying, "Let's step up in sunlight." And I lay out, step by step, how there was really very little in the way of the case, actually, at the point when Habbush pops up in early January of 2003 and says there are no WMD. And, and beyond that Meredith he went through, in the meetings in January with the British intelligence chief, he went through the mind of Saddam Hussein. Why he's acting the way he did, all the things that came out later.

VIEIRA: Yeah but you heard David Gregory, just say the British intelligence eventually wrote him off, said he was not reliable.

SUSKIND: Well that's not exactly the way it worked. And, and in the book you'll see people who were involved in it, talking about the debate. And it was quite a fierce debate at the very highest levels of the government that is Habbush reliable? What's he saying? How can we check it? And a lot of people, at the end of the day, said it was hard for him to prove the negative, that what he said were no weapons, were actually not there. That's hard to do.

VIEIRA: You know you say that this is worse than Watergate in, in large part because of this letter that you claim the White House ordered the CIA to forge, that would link Iraq with 9/11, Mohamed Atta and with al-Qaeda. And CIA agents, that you quote in the book, agree that there was a letter-

SUSKIND: Sure.

VIEIRA: -but what has convinced you that the White House was behind it? What evidence do you have that the White House ordered it?

SUSKIND: Well the CIA folks involved, in the book, and others talk about George coming back, Tenet, coming back from the White House with the assignment, on White House stationary, and turning to the CIA operatives, who are professionals, saying, "You may not like this but here's our next mission." And they carried it through, step by step, all the way to the finish. And, and ultimately people even talked about it, after the fact. It was a dark day for the CIA. It was the kind of thing where they said, "Look this is not our charge, we're not here to carry forward a political mandate," which is clearly what this was, to, to solve a political problem in America. And it was a cause of great grievance inside of the Agency.

VIEIRA: But you heard what Tenet said. We asked for a statement from him-

SUSKIND: Yeah.

VIEIRA: -and this is what he said, "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. It is well established that, at my direction, CIA resisted efforts on the part of some in the administration to paint a picture of Iraq-al Qaeda 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." He calls it "ridiculous."

SUSKIND: Well you know this is, I think, part of George's memory issue. He's dealt with this before in front of Congressional investigators and others.

VIEIRA: You don't think he'd remember this letter?

SUSKIND: Well he seems not to remember it and, you know, that's at least what he claims. And the fact is a lot of people know about this. I know about it from my last book. And so, in this book Meredith, instead of going to George I went to all the people around George, close to George who remember because they were involved in the, in the thing and they remember what George says to them.

VIEIRA: You stand by everything in the book Ron?

SUSKIND: Well it's all on the record, it's not off the record. It's on the record, it's in the book. And people can read it for themselves.

VIEIRA: Alright we're gonna continue this conversation tomorrow. Thanks for joining us here in New York.

SUSKIND: My pleasure.

VIEIRA: The book is The Way of the World.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.