Ron Suskind has written another book. It's getting lots of attention. And the main charge is almost certainly false -- which is the same thing that happened the last time Ron Suskind wrote a book.
In his new book, Suskind claims that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a document reporting that Mohammad Atta had trained in Iraq in the summer of 2001, and that the CIA did so. On its face the claim is suspect, as anyone who has been paying even casual attention to White House-CIA relations over the past several years understands that the relationship has been frosty. The CIA resisted even minor requests from the White House regarding Iraq and terrorism -- including one instance in which the agency refused, for months, to label as "al Qaeda" the al Qaeda operatives in Baghdad in 2002. The Agency insisted on calling them "Egyptian Islamic Jihad" operatives despite the fact that EIJ and al Qaeda had formally merged years earlier and that EIJ had been the trunk of the al Qaeda tree for more than a decade. So this same CIA that for months resisted the more accurate description of these operatives in order to deny the Bush administration a political argument is suddenly acting on White House orders to forge documents? Um, that's unlikely.
And then there are the specifics of the forged document. The letter has Mohammad Atta training in Iraq at a time when he was shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Spain. There are still gaps in the government's timeline on Atta's whereabouts, but not gaps that would allow him to go through serious "training" in Iraq for any extended period of time. And according to the original report on the letter, the missive not only included the report that Atta trained in Iraq but also advanced claims that al Qaeda operatives facilitated a shipment from Niger to Iraq. So this letter purports to provide evidence on two of the most contentious issues of the war...in three pages. It was clear to me, without ever laying eyes on it, that it was not only a hoax but a really bad hoax. It was so bad, in fact, that I never even made any phone calls to White House or CIA sources to check it out. (I recall laughing about it with one White House source over lunch.)
To believe Suskind's account, then, you would have to believe: 1) that the Bush administration ordered the CIA, in writing, to forge a letter that was a rather obvious hoax; 2) that the CIA, hostile to the Bush administration and leaking against it at every turn, eagerly complied.
Politico's Mike Allen, who broke the story, reported that Suskind "claims that such an operation, part of 'false pretenses' for war, would apparently constitute illegal White House use of the CIA to influence a domestic audience, an arguably impeachable offense."
Sounds damning. But it's hard to take the country to war on such "false pretenses" in March 2003 when the first report of the letter's contents doesn't appear until December 2003. And if the Bush administration went to the trouble of manufacturing such evidence isn't it likely they would have used it? That never happened.
In a passage that is either wrong or misleading, Suskind also writes about Dick Cheney, Watergate and the "complex strategies" -- including a "signaling system" that Cheney supposedly employed to manipulate and protect the president.
"After the searing experience of being in the Nixon White House, Cheney developed a view that the failure of Watergate was not the break-in, or even the cover-up, but the way the president had, in essence, been over-briefed. There were certain things a president shouldn't know - things that could be illegal, disruptive to key foreign relationships, or humiliating to the executive.
"They key was a signaling system, where the president made his wishes broadly known to a sufficiently powerful deputy who could take it from there. If an investigation ensued, or a foreign leader cried foul, the president could shrug. This was never something he'd authorized. The whole point of Cheney's model is to make a president less accountable for his action. Cheney's view is that accountability - a bedrock feature of representative democracy - is not, in every case, a virtue."
It's hard to tell from this passage if Suskind understands that Cheney was a relatively low-level bureaucrat in the Office of Economic Opportunity and later the Cost of Living Council and, more important, that did not serve in the Nixon White House during Watergate. The experience taught Cheney much about economics, but there was nothing "searing" about his time in the White House that relates to Watergate since he was already gone by the time the break-in took place.
Suskind doesn't have a very good record on such matters. George Tenet, one of the main sources for Suskind's last book, The One Percent Doctrine, refuted the anecdote that produced the book's title and shaped its entire narrative. Bill Kristol wrote about it at the time Tenet's book was published:
Tenet defends Dick Cheney against the ridiculous claim made in Ron Suskind's book, The One Percent Doctrine, that Cheney urged his colleagues to ignore evidence that did not serve his war- mongering purposes.
Tenet says Cheney asked a CIA analyst named "Kevin K." if Langley thought al Qaeda had already acquired a nuke. Kevin responded, "Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qa'ida nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can't assure you they don't."
Cheney, according to Tenet, "then made a comment that in my view has since been misinterpreted." Tenet's Cheney replies to Kevin: "If there's a one percent chance they do, you have to pursue it as if it were true."
Suskind twists this to mean that Cheney was instructing others to ignore contrary evidence. Tenet doesn't buy it.
the vice president understood instinctively that WMD must be managed differently because the implications were unique--such an attack would change history. We all felt the vice president understood this issue. There was no question in my mind that he was absolutely right to insist that when it came to discussing weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, conventional risk assessments no longer applied; we must rule out any possibility of terrorists succeeding in their quest to obtain such weapons. We could not afford to be surprised.
So much for the One Percent Doctrine.