RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We know now that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. A new book alleges that it was possible to know that even before the U.S. invaded. In fact, journalist Ron Suskind suggests that President Bush sent the nation to war knowing there were no weapons to find.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The book is called "The Way of the World," and as we're going to hear, the White House is dismissing its conclusions. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind contends his reporting changes are understanding of what went wrong.
What evidence do you think you've uncovered that suggests that the problem with WMD intelligence in Iraq was more than an honest mistake?
Mr. RON SUSKIND (Author, "The Way of the World"): What we now know from this investigation is that a secret mission was conducted in which a British manager, intelligence agent, met with the head of Iraqi intelligence in a secret location in Amman, Jordan. And what the Iraq intelligence chief told the British and essentially the Americans - 'cause we're all in it together - is that there were no WMD in Iraq.
And what that meant is that we knew everything that became so obvious by the summer after the invasion and the president made a decision essentially to ignore that intelligence.
INSKEEP: I want to figure out what made this seem so credible to you. Because we are still in the neighborhood of trying to prove a negative. You're trying to establish that Iraq doesn't have any weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. SUSKIND: That was discussed. It was a great controversy that roiled in the upper reaches of Washington, D.C. The president, the vice president, Condi Rice, they talk about the difficulty of the Iraq intelligence chief having to prove that weapons that he said didn't exist were in fact not there. They also recognized how credible he was, and largely that he was telling them things that clearly Saddam Hussein would not authorize.
INSKEEP: Do you know that President Bush personally was apprised that there had been this meeting with an Iraqi intelligence chief and that he had given this credible-sounding explanation of how Iraq had no WMD?
Mr. SUSKIND: Absolutely. It's all on the record from the participants.
INSKEEP: Are you alleging that the president didn't just screw up, or that his people didn't just screw up, but the president himself knowingly lied about what Iraq's situation was?
Mr. SUSKIND: The evidence is clear that the president knew that there were no weapons or certainly had plenty of evidence that there were weapons in Iraq prior to the invasion.
INSKEEP: Let me ask, though, you're talking about one high-level Iraqi official - very high-level, credible sounding - but he's one official, and I wonder if you as a reporter would be willing to base your entire book, say, much less a matter of life and death, on a single source like that?
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, what's interesting about this, Steve, as one of the folks involved said, you know, we probably should've pressed harder. Ultimately though what's clear is that once the final report is briefed to the president, Condi Rice and others, the United States then cut off the channel to Habbush, the Iraqi intelligence chief, and then we move forward.
INSKEEP: What other interactions did the U.S. or the British governments have with this man in these crucial months before the war or after?
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, here's what happens in sum: We have the back channel meetings with Habbush; he tells us there are no WMD; we agree to resettle him and we agree to pay him $5 million that I think almost anyone would consider hush money. And then in the fall we make a decision...
INSKEEP: This is the fall of 2003 now.
Mr. SUSKIND: That's right - the White House, they decide that a letter should be fabricated, dated July 2001 - a handwritten letter from Habbush to Saddam Hussein. And the letter should say that in fact Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, trained in Iraq prior to 9/11, showing a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, and the letter should as well say that Saddam Hussein has been actively buying yellowcake uranium from Niger with the help of al-Qaida.
INSKEEP: Are you saying the White House ordered the CIA to fabricate evidence, even after the invasion of Iraq, fabricate evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 in effect?
Mr. SUSKIND: Absolutely. George Tenet comes back from a White House briefing and he's got it.
INSKEEP: CIA chief.
Mr. SUSKIND: CIA chief. Folks at CIA remember seeing the creamy White House stationery. Tenet says we want a letter fabricated and we want this letter to essentially emerge, this handwritten letter from Habbush to Saddam, which essentially is a checking of the box on all the controversies on WMD that are unfolding, that in fact America may have taken the nation to war under false pretenses.
INSKEEP: Who in the White House ordered this fake letter to be made?
Mr. SUSKIND: You know, it is from the highest reaches in the White House.
INSKEEP: Meaning that you don't have someone on the record saying this was President Bush, this was Dick Cheney, but it appears that that's where it would have to come from. That's what you're saying.
Mr. SUSKIND: It would have to come from the very top.
INSKEEP: And again, you say that you've got everybody in the chain of this. Are you saying George Tenet told you, look, I was given this order to lie and I fulfilled that?
Mr. SUSKIND: There are off-the-record sources in the book but there are on-the-record sources who are right in the thick of this operation. Rob Richer, the head of the Near East division, just a notch or two below Tenet - Tenet turns to Richer, as he remembers it, he says, listen, Marine - Richer's a former Marine - you're not going to like this, but here goes. Richer then takes it, he turns to John McGuire, who runs Iraq for the CIA, another senior manager, and Richer talks to McGuire, old intelligence hands, and they say, oh, goodness gracious. All right, well, an order's an order, and it goes down the chain.
It ends up in Baghdad in the middle of December. It's released a few hours before Saddam Hussein is captured. But what's fascinating is that this in fact is a violation of the laws that authorize the CIA. The CIA cannot run deception operations on the American public.
INSKEEP: Ron Suskind, I wonder if the title of one of your previous books might almost stand as the administration's response to your suggestion, or accusation, really, that they knowingly lied about weapons of mass destruction. You called the book "The One Percent Doctrine," the idea being that if there were even a one percent chance of a problem with weapons of mass destruction, you had to go after it.
Weren't they in a mindset where no matter how strong the evidence was that was brought to them, that they were going to sincerely think there was a problem there?
Mr. SUSKIND: You know, what's fascinating about the one percent doctrine is how it leads right to a kind of ends/means philosophy. That the ends justify virtually any means, including maybe misleading in this case the American public. This philosophy has bled away so much of America's key asset, which is moral authority, at a time where frankly the world needs us to have moral authority.
INSKEEP: We've been talking with Ron Suskind. He's author of a book called "The Way of the World." Thanks.
Mr. SUSKIND: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And we have called key players in Ron Suskind's account. One is former CIA Director George Tenet, who says it's, quote, "ridiculous to think he planted false evidence." He says the White House never gave such an order. Tenet says his agency resisted efforts to find bogus links between Iraq and al-Qaida, and a White House spokesman calls all of this another of those, quote, "bizarre conspiracy theories that Ron Suskind likes to dwell in."
There's the claim that an Iraqi intelligence official said before the war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction; George Tenet says the Iraqi failed to persuade. And a White House spokesman adds that any information the Iraqi may have provided was, quote, "immaterial to the decision to use force."