Wednesday’s The Situation Room aired an interview of author Ron Suskind, who alleges in his new book that the Bush administration engaged in a "disinformation campaign" by forging documents in the lead-up to the Iraq war. This came a day after host Wolf Blitzer made the allegations in the book lead items on the program.
Blitzer’s interview of Suskind aired in two separate segments in the 5 pm and 6 pm Eastern hour of the CNN program. In his introduction to the first segment, Blitzer referred to "bombshell allegations against the Bush White House. A new book claiming, among other things, that it ordered -- yes, ordered the CIA to forge a letter drawing connections between Iraq and al Qaeda to justify the 2003 invasion."
In his first question to Suskind, Blitzer referred to the author’s charge that the "the alleged crimes of President Bush and Vice President Cheney are worse than Watergate." Suskind explained that "if, ultimately, in congressional hearings and whatnot -- if they're able to show that the White House directed the CIA -- as I show in the book with lots of testimony -- that the CIA was directed by the White House to do this disinformation campaign on this letter, there will be issues of legality that will be debated in terms of high crimes."
Blitzer did press Suskind to address denials made by CIA officials such as George Tenet with regards to the forgery charges: "Here's what George Tenet says, because this is a very specific charge that you make.... Someone at the White House told him to get a letter forged, making this alleged connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Tenet 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.' Who ordered him to do so?" The CNN host also tried to get a direct answer out of the author to name who at the White House gave the supposed order. Suskind never got specific, and was generally vague as to the sources of his information.
One of Blitzer’s questions did end up exposing Suskind’s vehement anti-Bush viewpoint. Blitzer asked, "Why would anyone at the White House be dumb enough to write down on a piece of paper for George Tenet to go ahead and commit an illegal act?" Suskind answered, "At this point, in the history of this White House, frankly, Wolf, I'm not sure how you can even ask that question. There's a lot of things that happened in this White House over this period that people look back and say, 'exactly what were they thinking?'"
Despite Blitzer’s direct questions to Suskind and pressing him at times, his program gave significant time to Suskind’s allegations, giving them air time and credibility without checking their validity. MRC’s Rich Noyes pointed out thie media's (including CNN's) significant coverage and hype of Suskind's allegations during his appearance on Thursday’s Fox and Friends.
The full transcript of Wolf Blitzer’s interview of Ron Suskind from Wednesday’s The Situation Room:
WOLF BLITZER: Bombshell allegations against the Bush White House. A new book claiming, among other things, that it ordered -- yes, ordered the CIA to forge a letter drawing connections between Iraq and al Qaeda to justify the 2003 invasion.
BLITZER (from videotape): And joining us now, the author -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Ron Suskind. The book, entitled, 'The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope In An Age of Extremism.' Ron, thanks very much for coming in.
SUSKIND: My pleasure.
BLITZER: You've caused quite a stir. But let me get you to explain why you think the alleged crimes of President Bush and Vice President Cheney are worse than Watergate.
SUSKIND: Well, the way it's framed legally, Wolf, is that the CIA's charter says you cannot run disinformation campaigns on the American public. It's an amendment in 1991. It's in the statute. So that if, ultimately, in congressional hearings and whatnot, as they go forward -- and there's talk of that in Congress now -- if they're able to show that the White House directed the CIA -- as I show in the book with lots of testimony -- that the CIA was directed by the White House to do this disinformation campaign on this letter, there will be issues of legality that will be debated in terms of high crimes.
BLITZER: And what you report in the book is that George Tenet, the then-CIA director, was at the White House after the war started. He was directed to go back to the CIA and forge a letter from the former head of Iraqi intelligence alleging that Muhammad Atta, one of the 9/11 ringleaders, was directly involved with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, which was a lie.
SUSKIND: Absolutely, and also, that Saddam was actively buying yellowcake from Niger with the help of al Qaeda. That's the Habbush letter --
BLITZER: Habbush, the former Iraqi intelligence chief?
SUSKIND: Exactly, and it popped up publicly. Tom Brokaw, William Safire -- they all read stories or talked about it. And what's interesting is that that letter comes at the end of 2003 after all the explosions -- Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame during that year, and the testimony of those involved in this book -- and there's much of it in the book, on the record, much of it taped, is that George Tenet came back from a briefing at the White House, had it in his hand, the essential mission sheet, a memo, which said the CIA would carry forward the Habbush letter. Rob Richer remembered talking to Tenet about it --
BLITZER: A former CIA officer --
SUSKIND: I'm sorry, top official at CIA, used to be a deputy head of the clandestine service, head of the Mideast or Near East division. He remembers talking to Tenet about it. He also talked to John Maguire about it, who is also in the book, head of Iraq for the CIA.
BLITZER: All right. Let's hold on for a second. Here's what George Tenet says, because this is a very specific charge that you make. He was at the White House. Someone at the White House told him to get a letter forged, making this alleged connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Tenet 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.' Who ordered him to do so?
SUSKIND: In the book, it says simply, it comes from the White House. There is some speculation in the book by Rob Richer, as to where things were coming from at that point. But the specificity of the testimony in the book -- and there's a lot of it, is that it came from the White House, and frankly, at the White House, nobody accept senior-most officials give this sort of order.
BLITZER: So, in terms of a specific person at the White House, you don't know who allegedly ordered George Tenet to forge this document?
SUSKIND: What's in the book is direct testimony from the participants and that direct testimony says from the White House, and frankly, no one except senior-most officials at the White House would give George Tenet an order certainly like this.
BLITZER: Why would he deny that flatly, George Tenet, as he does in this statement?
SUSKIND: Well, what he says -- 'to the best of my knowledge.' I'm not sure what's going through George's head, frankly --
BLITZER: Well, he said there was no such order from the White House to me.
SUSKIND: To the best of my knowledge.
BLITZER: Nor to the best of my knowledge --
SUSKIND: There you go.
BLITZER: -- was anyone from CIA ever involved in such effort.
SUSKIND: Okay. Now, the fact is that what I dealt with were the people who were actually involved directly in this situation, period.
BLITZER: What do you mean, in drafting, in creating this document?
SUSKIND: People have direct memory of receiving the letter, talking about it, discussing it, and passing it forward.
BLITZER: Because Richer, in a statement that he released -- and I'll read it to you: 'I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbash [sic] as outlined in Mr. Suskind's book. Further, today, (5 August 2008) I talked to John Maguire who has given me 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 as to how it circulated in Iraq."'
SUSKIND: Okay. That is in accordance -- what Maguire says with what is actually in the book. Maguire was leaving on his way back, so it wasn't in his chain of command. It was his successor who handled the letter. What's important to know is that, in terms of Maguire, he is not carrying through the letter to fruition. The book is absolutely in accord with what John Maguire said, and that statement doesn't even really deal with what's in the book about John Maguire. Now, when it comes to Rob Richer --
BLITZER: This is an illegal act if it's true. Why would anyone at the White House be dumb enough to write down on a piece of paper for George Tenet to go ahead and commit an illegal act?
SUSKIND: At this point, in the history of this White House, frankly, Wolf, I'm not sure how you can even ask that question. There's a lot of things that happened in this White House over this period that people look back and say, 'exactly what were they thinking?' In this case, the reason it's in the book, as it is, it's from hour after hour of direct testimony from people who had first-hand knowledge of the situation. Otherwise it wouldn't be in the book, among the many disclosures. That's why it's there. Now, mind you, the reason the White House is so interested in this one disclosure, it's like a bridge between the CIA and the White House, and if that bridge isn't blown, there will be consequences, legal consequences potentially, and that's why their focus is really solely on that, not in the many other disclosures in the book.
BLITZER: Because potentially this is a crime.
BLITZER (live): And we're going to have a lot more of this interview with Ron Suskind coming up here in The Situation Room in the next hour. His explosive taped interviews -- will he make them public? I'll ask him, more in the interview, that's coming up.
BLITZER (from videotape): Another explosive allegation or charge in the book is that the President of the United States knew for sure, based on what the head of Iraqi intelligence, who was working with the U.S. secretly --
SUSKIND: Right. We paid him $5 million, right --
BLITZER: -- covertly, that there was absolutely no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Yet, the President of the United States used an expletive, according to your book, and said, we're going to war anyhow.
SUSKIND: I never say the President knew, by virtue of Habbush, the Iraqi intelligence chief, meeting with the British and essentially the British and the Americans for his information. What I show in the book is that the case for war was already a rickety structure by early 2003, in January, when Habbush...
BLITZER: And the war started in March.
SUSKIND: In March -- the Iraq intelligence chief arrives. We handled a secret mission. We conduct -- the Brits are the point of the spear. We set it up, and he meets again and again with the British intelligence leader chief and they talk it through, many meetings, many phone calls. What does Habbush say in January of 2003? He says there are no weapons of mass destruction. Now, there's debate in the CIA. Can we verify it? Is it denial and deception? All that is in the book.
BLITZER: But that is what the Iraqis were saying publicly at the time. I remember interviewing Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister. He said they didn't have any weapons of mass destruction. Why would they believe the Iraqi intelligence chief, because he was saying secretly to the U.S. what Iraqi leaders were saying publicly?
SUSKIND: Well, you know, he was certainly a more credible witness, by far, than anyone who had spoken publicly or privately to the United States. He is their intelligence chief. He himself overseas whatever the biological program would be in the country [sic]. That's the way it works there. As well, he is in a secret back-channel mission with us to inform us. Now, what's interesting about it is, it's not just his information that there's no WMD. It's also -- and Richer talks about this, Maguire, too, and others -- he gives us the mind of Saddam Hussein, something we really didn't understand. The British talked about this, too, because the British head of intelligence and deputy head of intelligence...
BLITZER: What Tenet and the others are saying now is, they say, you know what, he didn't have any evidence to back up what he was saying, that there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
SUSKIND: Well, Richer deals right with that question in the book, because, of course, I asked him. He said, well, the problem was is that we essentially have Habbush having to prove the negative, prove that weapons he says don't exist actually don't exist. He says, we weren't very strident in helping him prove that point. Beyond that, what you have here is a situation, as Richer says, where we -- we helped them prove the negative -- we didn't help them, and we fell in behind them.
BLITZER: All right. It looks like there's high interest on Capitol Hill right now, once they get back from their recess, opening up some investigation, some hearings. Will you cooperate? Will you release the audiotapes that you have from your various sources and help them get to the bottom of what's going on?
SUSKIND: At this point, as a reporter for 25 years, I have never dumped tapes or notes to anybody. I am hesitant to do that. If someone were to call, I will deal with that at that moment. What's going to happen first, almost assuredly, is that people will be put under oath, with threat of perjury, in front of Congress to deal with all of these issues, all of the issues of Habbush, as well as other issues in the book.
BLITZER: And if you're subpoenaed to make all your documents and stuff available, what do you do then, as a reporter?
SUSKIND: Well, first, you talk to your lawyers and say, what should I do? And then you look at the broader national interests of the country, I suppose.
BLITZER: You know, the question I have is, some of these people are now questioning your integrity, your reliability as a journalist. But you say you have the audiotapes to prove what you wrote in this book. Isn't it -- wouldn't it be in your inclination to just go ahead and release these audiotapes and say, you know what, here's the evidence?
SUSKIND: I have worked with confidential sources, on the record, off the record, for many, many years, and I have always hesitated, and still hesitate to ever dump tapes. I deal with many people in background information, all sorts of things. I simply don't want, and, understandably as a reporter, people to go into that closed room.
BLITZER: Based on everything you know, should the president be impeached?
SUSKIND: Based on everything I know, based on the evidence in this book, and the direct testimony of people involved in many, many instances, there, I believe, should be further investigation, with the powers of government, subpoena power, congressional authority, which is something people have been asking for, for a very, very long time.
BLITZER: Ron Suskind is the author of 'The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.' Ron, thanks for coming in.
SUSKIND: My pleasure.