Skip to main content

Ron Suskind Alleges War Fought On False Premises

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind says that the war in Iraq was based not simply on blunders but on lies. His book, The Way of the World, accuses the Bush administration of burying critical information and forging a letter that linked Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks.



TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: Ron Suskind talks about his new book "The Way of the
World," presenting new allegations about the Bush administration's
conduct in the lead-up to the war in Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for The Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest Ron Suskind's new book "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and
Hope in an Age of Extremism" has sent shock waves through Washington with
explosive allegations about the Bush administration's conduct in planning and
justifying the war in Iraq. One of the most controversial charges is that the
White House ordered the CIA to fabricate a document linking Saddam Hussein
with the 9/11 attacks. On Tuesday, the day the book came out, two of the
intelligence officials Suskind cites as sources for the story disputed his
account of their words and actions. We'll ask Suskind about that a little
later in our interview.

Suskind is the former senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street
Journal, where he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Among his earlier books are
"The Price of Loyalty" and "The One Percent Doctrine."

Well, Ron Suskind, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your new book, "The Way of the
World," has gotten a lot of attention for this remarkable story of the chief
of Iraqi intelligence and what he revealed in the months before the United
States invaded Iraq. And you have several on-the-record sources from American
and British intelligence confirming this. And the story really begins in the
fall of 2002 with what you call a liberating admission: `We don't know.' What
didn't they know?

Mr. RON SUSKIND: At that point, Dave, there was a recognition in the
intelligence, the operational part of these intelligence services in Britain
and America that was a lot of assumption, but there's not any hard evidence,
real hard evidence in terms of this case for war. And a couple of the
intelligence chiefs get together, the guys who head the Mideast divisions for
the US, for CIA and for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, and
they kind of put their heads together. And the British guy, Michael
Shipster's his name, he's quite a character, says, `Well, you know, actually I
know somebody. I have a relationship that might be helpful.' He's had a kind
of gentleman's relationship with a guy named Habbush, Tahir Jalil Habbush,
who's the head of Iraqi intelligence. He's their George Tenet.

And what they hatch is a plan. It's supported by the US. It's kind of almost
a joint effort. Our guy, Rob Richer of CIA, has a special relationship with
the king of Jordan. He helped with the king of Jordan's, you know, arrival in
office and they're buddies. And so it's set up in Amman, Jordan. That's
where they'll meet. And a secret mission, a secret back channel is opened in
early January of 2003 between Michael Shipster, representing the US and
America, essentially, and Habbush. They start to meet.

DAVIES: And Habbush is then the sitting head of Iraqi intelligence, right?
He is not a former head, right?

Mr. SUSKIND: Sitting head. Sitting head of Iraqi intelligence.

DAVIES: So they begin these meetings in Amman, Jordan. Does Saddam Hussein
know they're happening?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, that's a debate that goes on, and I share that
in the book. You know, generally they're not sure. Habbush may have inferred
he does know. But, you know, it's part of the debate that rages around
Habbush at the top of the British government and certainly at the top of the
US government. What's clear early on is that Saddam Hussein would never
authorize some of the things that Habbush is saying to Shipster and
essentially to the heads of both the US and British governments about Saddam.
Not just that there's no WMD, which he lays out. And, mind you, he's got a
special position as the head of Iraqi intelligence; he actually oversees the
biological program, which there isn't one since the mid-'90s. Beyond that,
though, after he lays out that part he brings us into the mind of Saddam
Hussein at this period. And everyone agrees that that is rich and at that
point unmatchable intelligence.

DAVIES: So when this head of Iraqi intelligence sits down with a ranking
British intelligence official prepared to relay this information to the United
States, he wants to make a deal. He wants to be taken care of in the event of
an invasion. And he gives them information about weapons of mass destruction.
How does the subject come up? What does he tell them?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, interestingly, he wonders if the US is serious about
invading. He said Saddam Hussein doesn't really buy it. He says, `Why would
anyone want this country? It seems like you guys didn't want it before
Islamic extremism, you know, especially armed with destructive weapons, which
seems to be the big issue after 9/11; that's not here. We don't really have
those kinds of extremists in Iraq. They're up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in
the tribal areas.' He can't figure it out.

Beyond that he's really fearful--Habbush tells Michael Shipster, the British
intelligence chief, who of course tells the rest of us, that Saddam is really
fearful of the Iranians and their nuclear program. And he doesn't want them
to know that he's a toothless tiger, that he doesn't have WMD. That's his
real fear. All this is expressed at that point. It's carried up the ranks in
the British side, and of course it's carried up to the White House on the US
side. In January of 2003--now, this is before the president's State of the
Union address with the famous 16 words, and it's certainly well before, a
month before Colin Powell goes before the UN.

DAVIES: And let's just be clear about this. You know that this is what
Habbush said and you know that it went to the White House how? From what

Mr. SUSKIND: There are many sources on this. But there are two
on-the-record sources of two people integrally involved in the book. One of
them is Rob Richer, who was head of our Mideast division. He was Shipster's
partner, essentially, in setting the thing up. He's a long-standing
intelligence professional with a long history. And also John Maguire, who is
in the book. And he's the head of all CIA operations in Iraq. He's head of
the Iraq operations group, so called. Again, a long-standing CIA
professional. And those two men are on the record. They're backed up by
folks off the record, but on the record they're quite clear about what we were
learning and how we reacted to it in the CIA and in the White House.

DAVIES: Did either of them personally brief either President Bush, Vice
President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell?

Mr. SUSKIND: I don't get into all of the who briefed whom, but the fact is
both men were regular briefers of the president, the vice president, folks at
the Department of Defense, NSC. They're two real stars at the CIA.

DAVIES: And so when this information comes to the White House, that the chief
of Iraqi intelligence is telling them Saddam has no weapons of mass
destruction but wants to make the Iranians think so, how do they react?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, at the start, when it first starts coming through,
there's great consternation. Now, some of these things are already widely
assumed or areas of suspicion. You know, the whole idea that everybody
thought there were weapons and nobody knew, that's shown in the book not to be
true. There was a lot of suspicion that there was nothing there prior to this
period coming through 2002. What happens at that moment is that Bush
essentially says, `Oh, gosh, he's saying there's no WMD. Why doesn't he give
us something we can use for our case?' That's his first reaction.

The consternation inside of the White House and inside of CIA is really quite
fascinating to watch and to see unfold, because on one hand you've got this
guy who is absolutely without peer in terms of providing a window, as John
Maguire and other folks at CIA say, into Saddam Hussein. This is a rare
opportunity because we can put disinformation through that window. We can
manipulate Saddam and, even, we might get Habbush armed with some people to
take Saddam out. As Maguire says, the CIA chief, he says, `We could walk to
Baghdad instead fight our way to Baghdad if we decide to go forward.'

Meanwhile, on the other side, the fact that he's saying there's no WMD is
creating great confusion and concern. Those two sides, really the left hand
and right hand of the United States at this point, are in a way in conflict
here with competing agendas.

DAVIES: The two sides being the White House and, what, the intelligence

Mr. SUSKIND: Being the intelligence operatives who want to essentially carry
forward the intelligence mission, to use Habbush no matter what to maybe help
US troops if we go forward, to manipulate Saddam, maybe have him taken out,
and the people who are quite sensitive in the White House, especially about
the fact that Habbush is saying there are no WMD. There are two camps, if you
will. And that second camp, the, `Oh my God, he's trashed our case for war,'
ultimately that half ends up triumphing.

What occurs here, Dave, is that in February, after many meetings in January,
phone calls between Shipster and Habbush, Richard Dearlove, the head of
British intelligence, flies to the United States to hand the report directly
to George Tenet. And he does his briefing. Dearlove is quoted widely in the
book as to the British reactions at this point. Tenet turns to Rob Richer...

DAVIES: And Tenet here is the head of the CIA at the time, right?

Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah, right. George Tenet, head of the CIA, turns to Rob
Richer, one of his deputies, the head of the Mideast division, says, `Wow,
they're not going to like this downtown.' And of course downtown means the
White House. And he's right. He brings it to the White House. Here it is,
the definitive report. Condoleezza Rice says, `What the hell are we supposed
to do with this, George?' She has no love for Tenet. And the president, vice
president, everybody are briefed.

DAVIES: You mention this fellow Richard Dearlove, who was a high ranking
British intelligence official.

Mr. SUSKIND: He's the head of British intelligence.

DAVIES: Now retired, right?

Mr. SUSKIND: Now retired, 2004.

DAVIES: Whom you interviewed at his office in Cambridge, as I recall, right?

Mr. SUSKIND: That's right. He's the master of Pembroke College at

DAVIES: So he personally goes to Washington. Is it his view, with that trip,
that this guy, Habbush, is serious, he is credible, we should believe what
he's telling us, that they don't have WMD.

Mr. SUSKIND: It's an intelligence mission. There's never anything that's
absolutely ironclad and definitive in missions like this. What Dearlove
believes--and what the British believe--is that this is a very, very credible
offering of unique intelligence that certainly should affect these issues of
whether we go to war. He says in the book, `This was a bit of a kind of last
chance for us to exert the intelligence function, find out what's known and
knowable, and defuse the situation,' as he put it. And there's hopes on the
British side. They're not anxious to go to war so much like we are. And
people talk about that.

DAVIES: And so when it goes to the White House, what happens to the whole

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, it's briefed up. And at that point the channel to
Habbush is cut off. Folks in the CIA operations area, folks who are dealing
with this run to war and how are we going to own this country, and maybe could
we take Saddam out, they're livid. Like, you know, `No matter what the guy
says about WMD, don't cut the channel off just because he's saying what you
don't want to hear,' meaning you, the White House. But they do cut off the
channel. Not that we lose touch with Habbush, because we've made a deal with
Habbush that when we invade, if and when, that he will make it safely out of
the country and into a safe house. And that's where it stands. In early
February we officially cut off the channel. But Habbush has his bargain to be
carried out.

DAVIES: Our guest is Ron Suskind. His new book is "The Way of the World: A
Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism." More after a break. This is


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist Ron
Suskind. His new book is called "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and
Hope in an Age of Extremism."

Now, we're in the early stages of the release of your book. And government
officials are reacting harshly and strongly denying this. And George Tenet
has released a statement--I'm sure you've seen it--and one of the things that
he says, he says this source that you describe, this Iraqi guy, Habbush, had
really nothing new to offer. And it also says that he failed to persuade his
British interlocutors that there was anything new here. Now, that seems to
directly contradict what you heard on the record from Richard Dearlove, the
chief British official.

Mr. SUSKIND: I would suggest people simply read Dearlove's comments and
Nigel Inkster's comments...(unintelligible)...Dearlove's deputy. They're on
the record. They remember vividly what was going on. Tenet has talked often
to reporters, even folks in Congress, that he doesn't remember anything, you
know. He's got a memory issue, obviously. And the people just shrug. Is it
convenient? Is it something else? In any event, you know, I think Tenet is,
you know, with the White House because I think both of them are a bit in the
same leaky rowboat on this one.

DAVIES: OK, but the question did occur to me that if the British, in fact,
found Habbush, this chief of Iraqi intelligence, believable in telling them
that there really were no weapons of mass destruction, wouldn't the British
have urged caution? Might they have backed out of the coalition? I mean,
didn't Tony Blair hear this?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, he did hear it, and there was some talk of that. There's
no doubt about it. And Rob Richer, our guy, head our our Mideast division,
says, you know, look, it was a bit of a trap. We were asking Habbush to prove
that weapons he said don't exist actually don't exist. It's a prove the
negative kind of nightmare. We kind of pushed him, Rob says, into that hole
and we fell in behind him. He says we weren't very creative in figuring out
ways that we could prove the things he was saying. And other people talk
about that too, that deep down there was a desire by the US to kind of run
away from this. This is the last thing we want to hear at this point.

Now, having said that, you know, part of the issue here is the nature of
doubt. Clearly Habbush at this point arrives in 2003, the whole case for WMD
was at that point a very, very rickety structure, you know, about to fall. It
was already teetering. Habbush kind of kicks it over at that point. And the
US government kind of says, `It's not pertinent to us. We're going forward.'
Interesting, Richard Dearlove says something that's quite incisive. He says
that he felt the information arrived about Habbush to the US at a time that
was too late for Cheney, because Cheney, he said, was so ferociously ardent
about going to war no matter what. But he says quite firmly, Dearlove does,
and this is the view I think of the British, it wasn't too late for Bush.


Mr. SUSKIND: It's really quite dramatic, actually. And I think...

DAVIES: Well, what does that tell you? That Bush didn't get this in the same
unvarnished way that Cheney did?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, I think it says that maybe Dearlove's opinion, and the
British opinion, was that Bush didn't stand up to Cheney in ways that the
British feel would be befitting a president.

DAVIES: There's one other little piece of this that I think we ought to
explore a bit that relates to the case for war and whether there were weapons
of mass destruction. And this was an entirely different Iraqi official, the
last foreign minister for Saddam Hussein, Naji Sabri. And the contacts there
were indirect, as I understand it. I mean, he met with US intelligence
officials, or I guess through an intermediary, had direct information.

Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah, not directly, no.

DAVIES: Right. And what was the story that he told?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, he was the foreign minister. And he sort of danced
around and he talked to an intermediary, saying he wants to tell us that
there's no WMD. He's more of a diplomat; he's not an intelligence guy like
Habbush. But in any event that sort of filtered report did come through to
the United States in the fall of 2002. What we did is we re-shaped it and
kind of turned it on its head. It ends up being almost the opposite of what
Sabri said, there were no WMD.

DAVIES: "We" meaning the American government. Yeah.

Mr. SUSKIND: We the US. That's right. By the time it gets to our best
friends the British, it's essentially 180 degree turn later. Michael Shipster
himself, the British James Bond on this, meets with CIA officials in 2006, and
he's quite aggrieved. He's about to leave the British service at that point.
And he says, you know, `Had you guys not faked us out on Sabri and told us
straight that Sabri was saying there was no WMD, by the time Habbush arrived
it would have been absolutely definitive and impossible for us to go forward
with those two guys together.' What's interesting about that is that the
United States, of course, knew about both men and what they were really
saying, as well as other parts that I lay out in the book.

DAVIES: And just to be clear about this. As in discussing this Iraqi foreign
minister, what you're saying is that the United States deliberately
misrepresented the information he had, however credible. And instead of it
being the message that Saddam Hussein doesn't have WMD, it went over to the
British as exactly the opposite, therefore limiting the context that they had
for viewing the later revelations.

Mr. SUSKIND: Precisely. And so when they see it all clearly by 2006, when
the Sabri disclosure comes out--again, it's only knee high to the Habbush
story, but still it's a little thing that niggled and upset them--they said,
my goodness, Shipster himself, `If we knew about Sabri, by the time Habbush
arrives it would have been essentially a no question issue. We wouldn't have
been able to go to war.'

DAVIES: And just maybe to belabor this point just a little bit, if you're the
Americans and you are in a situation where an Iraqi official is coming to you
offering something--obviously we know now there were no weapons of mass
destruction, but at the time there was doubt about it--why wouldn't they have
suspected that this was simply disinformation from Saddam Hussein? Should
they have known that it was credible?

Mr. SUSKIND: It's all laid out in the book: people debating that, `Is it
disinformation? Is is what they call D&D, denial and deception? Is he the
real McCoy?' It was a real hot potato going around the government. I think
what's important here, in terms of context, to notice, that this is
intelligence, you know. It's a lot of guesswork and shades of gray and all of
the rest.

And one of the things that's fascinating, though, is had we continued to dig
deep and maybe worked harder to prove whether Habbush was saying something
that could be proven and verified, you know, imagine if the president, at his
State of the Union address there in January of 2003, instead of offering the
16 words about uranium from Niger and British intelligence and whatnot, said,
you know, `We have recently learned that there may not be any WMD in Iraq.'
You know, at that point we would have had a real discussion about whether or
not to go to war. What are the good enough reasons? Are they good enough
reasons for both the US populace, especially, you know, as well as some of the
world community? That discussion was in a way the one that should have
happened at this point, and probably would have happened, I think, with most
previous presidents. But it doesn't happen here.

And now, years later, we look at the situation as we return to Afghanistan,
now boiling over, Pakistan, the tribal areas, bin Laden, Zawahiri still in
force, and a reconstituted al-Qaeda, people are saying now, `Why weren't we
given the real choice of what the government officials actually knew about the
case for war, about what was going through their heads so we, as an American
public, could decide?' now that there are 4,000 dead, 19,000 folks maimed,
amputees, you know, enormous blood and treasure spilt. And, crucially
America's moral authority in the world profoundly compromised now five years

DAVIES: Ron Suskind will be back in the second half of the show. You can
read the prologue of his new book "The Way of the World" on our Web site, I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

We're back with journalist Ron Suskind. In his new book, "The Way of the
World," Suskind reports that, months before the invasion of Iraq, Western
intelligence officials met secretly with Iraq's chief of intelligence, Tahir
Jalil Habbush. After the Bush administration ignored his statement that Iraq
had no weapons of mass destruction, Suskind says the US paid Habbush $5
million and helped him settle in Amman, Jordan.

So it's after this Iraqi intelligence chief, Habbush, has been resettled in
Jordan, and after the invasion of Iraq has occurred, and inspectors are not
finding weapons of mass destruction, that his name becomes associated with
this very troubling story that emerges in your book of a fabricated document
appearing to link Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. Tell us about this
document and where it came from.

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, this part of the story, there are a couple of folks who
are on-the-record witnesses to this part. And it's interesting, because
during the summer they're fearful that Habbush will pop up on the
screen--that's something John Maguire says in the book, who's a CIA Iraq
chief--because the case of war, based on WMD, is sort of unraveled in public,
and of course Habbush is their worst nightmare in that way. He told us ahead
of time. And so they pay him the five million. But then as the summer
progresses and we really don't do anything to Habbush, in the fall, September,
the White House figures out something that he might be useful for, some way to
use him. And that ends up being the Habbush letter, which people are very,
very interested in these days.

And what it is is basically a one-stop shop. You know, John Maguire calls it
a "check the box" for all the White House's problems. The letter, ostensibly
fabricated, would be from Habbush, backdated July 1st, 2001, to Saddam
Hussein, a handwritten letter which talks about the fact that Mohamed Atta,
the 9/11 hijacker, trained in Iraq months before 9/11. So that establishes a
Saddam-al-Qaeda link, which the administration is so interested in, and also
that Saddam is actively out buying yellowcake from Niger with the help of a
small group from the al-Qaeda organization.

This is an assignment--George Tenet, Rob Richer recalls, comes back at one
point from a meeting at the White House.

DAVIES: George Tenet, the director of the CIA, right?

Mr. SUSKIND: George Tenet, the director of the CIA. Richer recalls him
returning from--again, it's all in the record, and much of this is
taped--coming back from a meeting with an assignment. He remembers the creamy
stationary and whatnot. And Tenet says something like--he says he says
something like, `Hey, Maureen, you're not going to like this.' That's sort of
Richer's rendition. And Richer is sort of quizzical about it. You know, this
is certainly not the kind of thing CIA tends to do, but it's an order from the
White House to Tenet that he just passes down the chain.

Richer then turns to John Maguire at some point in this few days here. And
he's head...

DAVIES: And he's the other CIA...

Mr. SUSKIND: ...head of Iraq.


Mr. SUSKIND: But he's leaving at this point. But they discuss the letter.
And that's in the book, too, their discussion and what Maguire thought about
it. And then it simply goes down the chain, frankly. You know, Maguire's not
involved in the execution, but, again, these two guys recall this letter being
passed from the White House, and it's passed down.

DAVIES: Just to summarize here, Ron.

Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah.

DAVIES: So what we're talking about is a written assignment from the White
House on White House stationary.

Mr. SUSKIND: Right.


Mr. SUSKIND: Right.

DAVIES: To have a document fabricated which would be allegedly signed by this
Iraqi intelligence chief in the months leading up to 9/11, with all of this
false information about...

Mr. SUSKIND: Mm-hmm. Right. Right.

DAVIES: ...Iraq and 9/11 and attempts to acquire uranium from Niger.

Mr. SUSKIND: That's right. And then it will pop up somewhere in Baghdad,
and then it will go into the bloodstream of the global news cycle.

DAVIES: Now, before we get to that, let's go over exactly how we know that
this came from the White House. Now, your book has on-the-record statements
from these two former CIA officials...

Mr. SUSKIND: Right. That's right.

DAVIES: ...Rob Richer and John Maguire.

Mr. SUSKIND: That's correct.

DAVIES: And, of course, since the book has come out, they've released
statements. And I want to read this for our audience.

Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah. It's kind of a duck and back away. But, mind you, when
they hear the statement--this is a statement written by Richer, where he made
a call actually offering some misinformation to Maguire, who's off far away
now, and then Richer wrote up the statement. He clearly was under some sort
of pressure. And this is how it reads, and I guess you've got it there, Dave.

DAVIES: Yeah. Let's listen to this. This is Rob Richer, the guy who you
quote on the record in the book.

Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah.

DAVIES: He says, "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." And then the statement from John Maguire, the other CIA
official, is rendered through Rob Richer. And as Rob Richer reports, Maguire
says, "I never received any instruction from then-chief 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."

Now, I went back after these statements appeared and looked carefully at how
the story unfolds in your book. And it seems to me that the quotes that are
attributed to these gentlemen in the book and their statements now are
irreconcilable. Do you agree?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, it's--if you look at that second statement from Maguire,
actually Maguire was never--in the book, it's never suggested he's involved in
the fabricating of the letter or the execution of it. It says Maguire hears
about it, they talk about it; but Maguire's leaving. He's leaving his current
job to go back to Baghdad. And the book says all of the issues of the
logistics which, of course, Maguire says in the letter he never did. Well, of
course not. It went to his successor. That's what it does say in the book.
So what's interesting about it is that...

DAVIES: OK. But let me just cut in on this point, Ron.

Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah.

DAVIES: Because on page 380 you say that, looking back, Maguire shakes his
head, quote, "incredible arrogance in the face of facts and reality from start
to finish, and even making us create fabrications like that Habbush letter."
We have him quoted as acknowledging that he and the agency were forced to
create a fabricated letter. It sure sounds like he's now denying that.

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, what happened was that Richer relayed to
Maguire in an e-mail some things that were wild-eyed that Maguire never says
in the book: that he was the fabricator of the letter, he delivered it, it
was all his sort of thing. And Maguire, who's out there in the hustings, you
know, here he is because this guy is in a tough spot because he sees this
thing roiling the global news cycles. His name's in it, but he doesn't have
the book. He's far away. So Richer recounted that for Maguire.

John Maguire and I have exchanged some e-mails, and he realizes that this sort
of occurred. And he's getting the book. He's going to get a chance probably
to read it tomorrow, so he can see that in the book it's exactly what he said
to me. Which it is, in fact.

DAVIES: And have you communicated with Rob Richer about any of this?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, Richer is an interesting situation. Look, the fact is
these two guys are saying things that could result, going forward, in the
impeachment of the president. It's a very rare situations we have here. You
know, they don't have immunity. It's not under oath in front of some Senate
committee or House committee. And enormous pressure's been brought to bear,
clearly on Richer.

He was fine. He'd read the book--we'd talked about that--the morning after.
He got it on Monday night. It was out Tuesday morning for the rest of the
country. And we talked about it after he read the key sections. And, you
know, he was fine with it, frankly. We talked about the kinds of statements
he might make. He was getting calls from reporters. All was well. And he
sort of said, `I'll say, "No comment, but Ron Suskind is a fine journalist,"'
that kind of thing. Because he didn't want to elaborate on the things he says
in the book. He knows that I've taped a lot of the conversations and all the

But by the afternoon, something had occurred--other reporters who had been
talking to Richer noticed this, as well--that he was jumpy and not himself,
really. And at that point, he sent out this statement and sort of, you know,
dove deep after that. And that was the last time anyone, I think, has had
contact with him.

So I'm not sure who's talking to Richer in the late afternoon Tuesday before
he sends the statement. Frankly, it's the kind of thing some investigator in
Congress might some day want to look into, you know, as this thing unfolds;
because it's going to be, you know, contentious and tendentious politically,
especially in an election season. And ultimately you feel, you know, a kind
of humbleness as a reporter saying, you know, there are some things that books
can take you up to the gates of, up to the precipice of, but can't go all the
way just in terms of these issues of people having to testify under oath,
hopefully with immunity, and also threat of perjury. That's kind of the way
we go through these things. And some people in Congress, of course, are
getting ready to do that at this point.

DAVIES: Well, and one person that people are going to want to talk to is you.
Are you prepared to play recordings which substantiate what you have in this

Mr. SUSKIND: If it comes to that, of course. I would hope it wouldn't,
frankly. And my estimation is that everything in this book is true and
findable. And other reporters are out on the hunt right now. There are other
sources that, well, were near to the surface, let's just say. And I think
lots of these things will be moot fairly quickly. I have not a shadow of a
doubt, having spent hours with Maguire and Richer and others. You know, Buzzy
Krongard, the number three guy at CIA, talks also about some of these issues
of Habbush. Other people in the know know bits about it. I have no doubt
that everything in the book is absolutely accurate.

DAVIES: And before we move on--I want to get to the rest of the Habbush story
and this document, but as a journalist and, you know, you're not some hack
who's come up with the scoop here. You have a long record. You've won a
Pulitzer Prize. But if in one of the most controversial parts of the book,
one which, as you say, could have grave legal implications, two of the most
prominent on-the-record sources are saying it's just not true, what do you say
to those who say, `Why should we believe other parts of the book?'

Mr. SUSKIND: You know, this is actually, sadly, the way the world works.
These guys are under stress. This sometimes happens when that's the case, and
I think people are looking at it terms of the context of the situation.
Which, you know, I've been at this for a long time, and I have sources who
spend a lot of time with me. We tape their conversations. I put it in a book
or a magazine piece. And then the heat comes of public attention, and it's
startling for them. Especially at the beginning. You know, it's quite
jarring. I'm used to it, but for private citizens--even tough guys like both
of these are. And both of them, frankly, are big believers in the truth
process. And I've talked to both of them about, `Hey, you're never going to
feel heat quite like this.' And they said, both of them, Richer and Maguire,
`I'm ready to go in front of Senate committees and House committees. I'm
ready to have my moment.' They knew everything that was in the book. You
know, once they get there and the moment arrives, sometimes their knees
buckle. And then you kind of say, `All right, let's take a deep breath.' And
you get them upright, and they tend to often then walk forward.

So we're--it's dynamic. We're in the process now. They're reacting to that
first blast. And Maguire also is getting a chance finally to read the book in
the next few days, far away, so he can see in it it's exactly--and it
is--exactly as he expected it to be.

DAVIES: Our guest is Ron Suskind. His new book is "The Way of the World."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Our guest is journalist Ron Suskind. His new book is "The Way of the

When we left off, we were talking about Suskind's controversial allegation
that the White House ordered the CIA to fabricate a letter linking Saddam
Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. When the book was published Tuesday, two of his
named sources on that story publicly disputed Suskind's account.

Whatever the origins of the document which bore the name of this Iraqi
intelligence chief, Habbush, it's clear that the document was manufactured by
somebody. It did get, quote, "discovered" in Iraq. How did that happen?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, it's interesting because it pops up inside of the interim
government's files. They're going through documents at that point. And it
ends up in the office of Ayad Allawi, who at that point is a member of the
interim government, soon to be its first head. And one of his assistants, he
talks to a journalist named Con Coughlin from London, a journalist at the
Daily Telegraph, and tells him about this extraordinary handwritten letter.
And one of Allawi's assistants gives it to Coughlin, and Coughlin then writes
the story in the London Telegraph, which roils the global news cycles for the
coming week. You know, everyone is brought into it.

DAVIES: Yeah. How much...

Mr. SUSKIND: Tom Brokaw talks about it on "Meet the Press." William Safire
writes a column. Bill O'Reilly is out there flogging it for four or five
days. CNN, it's everywhere. And then after awhile people sort of look at it
and scratch their head and say, `Geez, this is an awful lot in one little
letter, isn't it? Solving several problems at once. It seems--even though it
does solve all of the White House's problems instantly in terms of, you know,
the connection to Saddam Hussein, between al-Qaeda and Saddam, and yellowcake
from Niger--it seems a little too perfect and convenient.' And that's when
people start to doubt it.

DAVIES: And was it publicly discredited eventually?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, it's sort of interesting. It just kind of
died. People sort of scratched their head and said, `Hm, this doesn't pass
the smell test.' And then it sort of listed along; and it pops up a little bit
here and there, but it lost its power there after that first week, when it was
front and center.

DAVIES: Now, the other issue that you raise in the book is that if this
document was indeed fabricated by the CIA, as your sources say...

Mr. SUSKIND: Right.

DAVIES: ...and it was intended to influence American public opinion, there's
a legal problem here, right?

Mr. SUSKIND: There is. There is. The statutes that form the CIA, that
created in 1947, and the amendments--key amendments in 1991, state
emphatically that the CIA cannot be used to run disinformation campaigns on
the American people. This would qualify as that. I even have actually Rob
Richer and John Maguire discussing this in the book. They talk about the
legal issues, you know, where the line is drawn. Richer says, `Well, it was
intended to affect Iraqi public opinion on WMD.' And, of course, Maguire
counters him rather forcefully, saying, `People in Iraq'--Maguire has been
there for years, 13 years in Iraq. He says, `No one cared about WMD in Iraq.
It was clearly to solve political problems in the United States.'

And beyond that, you know, frankly, the CIA is not much in the business of
solving the White House's political problems. And Maguire, again, in the book
calls it a "check the box" solution, checking each box that the White House
was concerned about all in one letter.

DAVIES: One more question about the origin of the fabricated document. Your
sources tell you that the assignment to fabricate this document was given to
the CIA on creamy White House stationery.

Mr. SUSKIND: That's Richer's memory of it as he stood with Tenet.

DAVIES: Right. And the question I wanted to ask was, is it clear who at the
White House conveyed this assignment to Tenet?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, it's interesting, because Richer sort of talks about the
fact that the vice president's office was throwing things at them, one after
another at CIA. `Prove this. Find that. Do this.' And he says in, again in
a quote, he says but this was different. This was a deception. I don't go
through the process of playing a name game inside of the white building on
this one. I say it's from the White House, that's clear, and it's for,
ultimately, I would imagine, investigators--again with subpoena power and
testimony under threat of perjury--to find out exactly how that would work
inside of the White House.

Now, mind you, importantly though, that George Tenet is not going to be given
an order for a mission--especially one like this that's so contentious and not
generally in the character of the CIA--he's not going to be taking an order
about a mission like that from anyone other than a senior-most official. It
simply won't happen. A third or fourth rung person does not order the
director of Central Intelligence to do anything. And that, of course, is how
it is remembered in the book by the participants, as an order from the White
House that was passed to CIA for execution.

DAVIES: You know, apart from the statements of these folks that you quoted,
the White House itself issued a statement and says, among other things, "The
idea that the White House had anything to do with a forged letter purportedly
from Habbush to Saddam is absurd." What do you make of that response?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, it's a kind of thing, actually, you know, when
you're in this business for a while, you start to get a feel for the way
statements really look and what they really mean. There's a lot of things
that are sort of subtly not quite right. And even in some of Rob Richer's
stuff that he pulled together, I think, as some reporters told me, kind of in
a panic, you know, it doesn't actually deal with the issue directly. It deals
with something that's sort of not being asked.

DAVIES: Do you mean by that that they don't actually say it didn't happen,
they instead say that it's absurd?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, it's not as clear as it seems. You know, Rob--the chain
of command is a complex issue. You know, Rob is not--`I didn't forge.' Well,
Rob is not a guy at the head of a division who would ever forge anything. You
know, you got to look at the parsing of the language, like lawyers do. People
in public don't. They say, `Oh, that's a denial.' But a lawyer constructing
something can make it seem like a denial, but it's not quite as hard and fast
as one might think. And all over town reporters, you know, have heard the,
`Oh, that couldn't be true. That's ridiculous,' especially in some cases when
reporters have called up to say--or their lawyers at news organizations--`Is
my reporter being wiretapped?' Frankly. `Oh, we would never do such a thing.
That's utterly ridiculous.' Well, that's not exactly the same thing as,
`Absolutely not. We've checked and we absolutely know that this never
happened.' That's a different thing.

DAVIES: Our guest is Ron Suskind. His new book is "The Way of the World."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist Ron
Suskind. His new book is "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in
an Age of Extremism."

I want to talk just a little about this fascinating episode you describe in
the summer of 2006, when President Bush is very anxious about some
intelligence briefings that he is getting from the British. What are they
telling him?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, in late July of 2006, the British are moving forward on a
mission they've been--an investigation they've been at for a year at that
point, where they've got a group of "plotters," so-called, in the London area
that they've been tracking, and it's starting to come to a bit of fruition, a
little forward progress in that late summer of '06, where it's clear
from--these guys are wired right down to their shorts. You know, they've got
piles of wiretap information. They can't do anything without being tracked.
But it starts to become clear that their plan is for planes to come from the
UK with bombs for the United States, at least that's what they're kind of
talking about.

Well, Bush gets this briefing at the end of July of 2006, and he's very
agitated. When Blair comes at the end of the month, they talk about it and he
says, `Look, I want this thing, this trap snapped shut immediately.' Blair's
like, `Well, look, be patient here. What we do in Britain'--Blair describes,
and this is something well known to Bush--`is we try to be more patient so
they move a bit forward. These guys are not going to breathe without us
knowing it. We've got them all mapped out so that we can get actual hard
evidence, and then prosecute them in public courts of law and get real
prosecutions and long prison terms.' That's the British way. And this is
really their emblematic investigation. They've really--thousands of people
involved in it on the British side.

Well, Bush doesn't get the answer he wants, which is `snap the trap shut.' And
the reason he wants that is because he's getting all sorts of pressure from
Republicans in Congress that his ratings are down. These are the worst
ratings for a sitting president at this point in his second term, and they're
just wild-eyed about the coming midterm elections. Well, Bush expresses his
dissatisfaction to Cheney as to the Blair meeting, and Cheney moves forward.

DAVIES: So you got the British saying, `Let's carefully build our case.
Let's get more intelligence.' Bush wants an arrest and a political win. What
does he do?

Mr. SUSKIND: Absolutely. What happens is that then, oh, a few days later,
the CIA operations chief--which is really a senior guy. He's up there in the
one, two, three spots at CIA, guy named Jose Rodriguez ends up slipping
quietly into Islamabad, Pakistan, and he meets secretly with the ISI, which is
the Pakistani intelligence service. And suddenly a guy in Pakistan named
Rashid Rauf, who's kind of the contact of the British plotters in Pakistan,
gets arrested. This, of course, as anyone could expect, triggers a reaction
in London, a lot of scurrying. And the Brits have to run through the night
wild-eyed and basically round up 25 or 30 people. It's quite a frenzy. The
British are livid about this. They talk to the Americans. The Americans kind
of shrug, `Who knows? You know, ISI picked up Rashid Rauf.' What happened...

DAVIES: So the British did not even get a heads-up from the United States
that this arrest was going to happen?

Mr. SUSKIND: Did not get a heads-up. In fact, the whole point was to
mislead the British. You know, what Jose Rodriguez was worried about slipping
into Islamabad is alerting the British, because we wanted this done and we
didn't want any fingerprints. And, of course, that's exactly what happens.
The British did not know about it, frankly, until I reported it in the book.
And I talked to some of them and they kind of said, `Oh, after all these
years, you know, we got a kind of shrug from the Americans. A non-denial
denial, if you will. And now we know the truth.'

What's interesting is that the White House already had its media plan already
laid out before all of this occurred so that the president and vice president
immediately--even, in Cheney's case, before the arrest, the day
before--started to capitalize on the war on terror rhetoric and political
harvest, which of course they used for weeks to come, right into the fall,
about, `The worst plot since 9/11, that has been foiled, and this is why you
want us in power.'

DAVIES: And did the British believe that the United States acting
precipitously damaged their efforts to combat terrorism in the UK?

Mr. SUSKIND: What's interesting is that now, years later, this trial of
these British plotters, the airline plotters, has just come to completion.
It's exactly what the British predicted, that the trigger was pulled too early
and the evidence was not yet ripe. And these plotters have claimed that they
weren't serious. They were doing a kind of demonstration, like a public kind
of protest of sorts, that they weren't actually going to go through with this
plot. All the sorts of things that undercut exactly what the British were
worried about, that they wouldn't have the evidence to carry through
meaningful prosecutions and put them away from a long time. That actually
unfolded just this summer.

DAVIES: Well, Ron Suskind, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SUSKIND: My pleasure, Dave.

DAVIES: Ron Suskind's new book is "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth
and Hope in an Age of Extremism." You can read the prologue to his book on our
Web site,


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditr─âu, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue