Perhaps the story I am about to describe isn't nearly as crucial to the future of the republic as, say, the participation of Paris Hilton in our civic discourse, or the phony umbrage about underinflated car tires. After all, my story is merely about war and peace and the allegedly criminal misuse of executive power. Nothing sexy there.
But it's worth a few lines, anyway. Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who works closely with intelligence sources, charges in his new book, The Way of the World, that the Bush team has been far more deceitful than previously believed. Hard to imagine, I know. Yet according to Suskind (or, more precisely, according to the CIA sources who spoke with Suskind), the Bush team was so intent on finding a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorists that it ordered the CIA to concoct a fake letter making it so.
As Suskind writes in his book, the White House - lacking real evidence, in late 2003, that Saddam had ever sponsored the 9/11 terrorists - decided that fiction would serve its purposes just as well. So the spooks dreamed up a piece of correspondence, purportedly authored by Saddam's intelligence director, Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, and backdated the fake letter to July 1, 2001. This was quite a slap at Habbush, who had repeatedly insisted, in secret prewar meetings with western intelligence officials, that Saddam was essentially a toothless tiger with no WMDs.
Suskind then describes the fake letter: "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 Qaeda, something the Vice President's office had been pressing the CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq. There is no link."
Coincidentally or not, a letter linking Saddam and Atta did land in the hands of a Baghdad-based British reporter, who wrote it up as genuine in his conservative London newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph, on Dec. 14, 2003 (Headline: "Terrorist Behind Sept. 11 Strike 'Was Trained by Saddam'"). The front-page piece was promptly publicized on this side of the pond by - brace yourselves for this shock - Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, before it wound up on NBC with Tom Brokaw intoning.
Suskind's charge is obviously quite explosive - particularly since it's apparently a federal crime for the CIA (or for somebody ordering the CIA) to conduct any covert operations that are intended "to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media." Is it really possible that the Bush regime could be this mendacious? And is it possible that the Bush regime could be stupid enough to put such an order in writing - as Suskind claims, based on CIA sources who recall seeing it spelled out on "creamy White House stationery"?
Suskind, interviewed yesterday on NBC, was confident about his information: "The fact is that a lot of people know about this (forgery order)," which he says originated in the White House and was vetted by CIA director George Tenet, who in turn told his underlings to make it happen. Tenet denied the charge yesterday, calling it "ridiculous," but Suskind shrugged it off: "This is I think part of George's memory issue...Instead of going to George, I went to the people around George, close to George, who remembered because they were involved in the thing and they remember what George said to them."
And what George allegedly said to them was, "You may not like this, but here's our next mission."
So who do you believe: Ron Suskind (who says that "everything in the book is on the record, many sources"), or the Bush White House (which is assailing Suskind for "gutter journalism")? Unfortunately for Bush, we have an imbalance here.
Suskind, who won a Pulitzer while writing for The Wall Street Journal, has been watchdogging this White House ever since he worked with ex-Treasury Department secretary Paul O'Neill on the latter's tell-all book, and the administration has never been able to wreck his reputation. Suskind, in 2004, authored the now-famous New York Times Magazine article that quoted a Bush official voicing disdain for "the reality-based community," a comment that has come to epitomize the Bush regime's faith-based mindset. Suskind spoke to a wide range of Republicans for that article, and ultimately concluded that Bush's governing style was characterized by "a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners." Four years later, is there even a phrase in his conclusion that rings false?
On the other end of the believability scale, we of course have a White House long practiced in the art of deception. Bush oversold a slew of Saddam threats that turned out to be phony, ranging from an unmanned missile arsenal that was supposedly "targeting the United States" (the U.N. chief weapons inspector found no evidence of this) to Saddam's supposed attempts to restart his nuclear program (the Duelfer report found otherwise). Indeed, over the past several years, roughly six in 10 Americans have said that Bush deliberately misled us into war.
Tony Fratto, a Bush deputy press secretary, uttered the standard denial about Suskind yesterday ("The allegation that the White House directed anyone to forge a document from Habbush to Saddam is absurd"), but how would he know? When the alleged letter forgery was carried out in in 2003, Fratto was working for the Treasury Department, and we already know, from Scott McClellan's book, that Bush press secretaries are routinely kept in the dark anyway.
Undoubtedly, Suskind's potent allegation will affect the '08 presidential campaign with all the force of a pebble rippling a pond. Most voters made up their minds long ago that the Iraq war has been fought on false pretenses. Most probably won't be shocked by the forgery allegation because they are thoroughly Bushed already. Most are focused not on refighting the past, but on what can be done to best salvage the disaster - and which '08 candidate can do it better.
But most voters, on both sides of the partisan divide, undoubtedly would prefer that the next president bring an entirely different skill set to the job. Even if one is inclined to doubt the notion that the Bush war team would actually fake a document in the service of better propaganda, Suskind's broader theme has long rung true - that Bush has spent much of the last seven years seeking only the kind of evidence that would square with his certitudes.
He's still at it, by the way. Two nights ago, he was asked to comment about Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's recent endorsement of a 16-month U.S. withdrawal timetable. Bush's response: "That's not what I heard."
Or, as Paul Simon sang in "The Boxer":
"All lies and jest / Still a man hears what he wants to hear/ and disregards the rest."