Investigative journalist Ronald Suskind’s allegation that the White House had the CIA forge a letter linking 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta to Saddam Hussein and also reviving the claim that Iraq had sought Niger yellowcake has been denied by former Agency officers, but in curiously nuanced language.
Per Suskind, in the fall of 2003, after it became clear that there were no WMD, the White House ordered the CIA to carry out the deception, creating a handwritten letter providing the relevant details dated July 2001 ostensibly coming from intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush to Saddam. The forged letter surfaced in Baghdad in December 2003, convincing even veteran journalists like Tom Brokaw that it was authentic.
Two senior Agency officers named as having carried out the deception – John Maguire and Robert Richer – deny involvement in an e-mail they sent to The Washington Post, though the language they have used is peculiar, something like Bill Clinton claiming that “There is no sex with that woman.” Richer wrote “I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind’s book.” Maguire added, “I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter.” Lots of wiggle room in both disclaimers, one notes.
The Agency does, of course, have the ability to forge documents and has done so frequently in the past in support of various objectives. It would almost certainly respond to a request from the White House to produce a false document. It would, however, be illegal to forge a document intending that it be replayed in the US media. In this case, as the story surfaced in Iraq, it might just be possible to deny any intention to deceive the American media and public.