By Clive Crook
The response in the US to startling new allegations that the White House directed the forgery of evidence to support its case for the war in Iraq has been surprisingly muted so far. The charges may be false, of course, but if they are seriously examined and turn out to be true, this is - or ought to be - a Watergate-sized scandal.
Ron Suskind is a heavyweight: a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and the author of a well-regarded book on the administration's security policies, The One Per Cent Doctrine. His new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, which was published last week, contains the extraordinary new charge. It says that late in 2003 the White House ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to forge a memo dated July 2001 from Tahir Jalil Habbush, Saddam Hussein's intelligence chief, to Saddam himself, affirming that Mohammed Atta, the September 11 2001 bomber, had contacts with the regime and that Iraq had an ongoing weapons of mass destruction programme.
This document has long been known about. It was splashed in the British press in December 2003, when The Sunday Telegraph reported on it.
That story briefly entertained the possibility that the memo was phoney but insisted it was well vouched for by Iraqi sources. Reports in the US subsequently cast further doubt on it and the memo came to be seen as a fake. But up to now there has been no supported allegation from a reputable author that the White House and the CIA were behind it. That is what Mr Suskind alleges.
He says he has two senior CIA agents on tape confirming the story.
They are now denying it. George Tenet, then head of the CIA, has denied the story as well: "There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from the CIA ever involved in any such effort." The White House has denied it too, in effect: "The idea that the White House had anything to do with a forged letter purportedly from Habbush to Saddam is absurd." But parts of the White House statement seemed, to me at any rate, a little hesitant and evasive.
In an interview, Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, twice seemed to correct herself, saying that the White House could not have been involved after first referring to "the government" or "the United States".
And it was perhaps less than reassuring to hear her say this: "Look, the United States ... the White House was not going to ask somebody to forge a letter on something of this importance." On matters of less importance, it seems, greater vigilance might be warranted.
If Mr Suskind is correct, laws have been broken and President George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney, his deputy, are implicated. And yet, as I say, the outcry is not exactly deafening. Mr Suskind did his tour of the television studios, repeating and even sharpening his attacks on the administration - and, so far, that is about it.
Washington goes to sleep in August..
Congress is out of town. Time is running down on this administration, and the focus of political attention is on Barack Obama and John McCain.
Most Americans divide into two camps: those who believe that the Bush White House cannot speak without lying, and who thus regard this new charge as no surprise; and those who are contemptuous of the administration's critics and stopped listening way back. Yes, but still: an order not merely to spin evidence, or suppress evidence, but to manufacture it tout court? To those who see this administration as misguided and incompetent, but who retain a residue of belief in its integrity and good faith, this charge is grave and shocking. Despite the distractions of the presidential campaigns and the pressures of being on vacation, Congress ought to look into it urgently, with witnesses on oath.
Other episodes discussed in the book are of particular interest to British readers. Mr Suskind relates that Mr Habbush told British intelligence before the war that Iraq had closed down its WMD programmes. This was regarded as unhelpful by Washington, Mr Suskind says, and so was buried. Previously, the same information from another high-level Iraqi source, this time to the Americans, somehow got scrambled and was relayed to the British as evidence instead that WMD were there. The picture of blundering malfeasance that emerges from this book is deeply depressing.
And yet it must be added that the book is an ordeal in other ways too.
Its amazing accusation is buried near the end. For 400 pages, the tale meanders hither and yon, in its bloated "multilayered" fashion, with a recurring sideline in cloddish pseudo-philosophy. This is how it starts, and there is much more in the same vein, so do not say you were not warned: "From the dawn of time, human beings have been attentive to signs of distinction - the approach of a tribe with a different manner or dress, posture or skin color. The swift sizing-up of friend or foe, and acting upon it - upon suspicion - was often a matter of survival. Those faculties became finely tuned over thousands of years. Now, in a world of vivid, colliding images and technology's bequest of awesomely powerful weapons, we struggle to leap forward, to reshape instinct enough to reach across the divides of us and them, peak and valley. And to do it in time." Oh, please. Did I mention, by the way, that the White House told the CIA to manufacture evidence on Iraq and lie to the country about a war that cost many thousands of lives?