By Louis Bayard
Aug. 06, 2008 | Ron Suskind is really good at burying a lede.
Diligent, linear-minded readers will have to ford through 370 pages of his alternately incisive and gauzy book, "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism," to reach the accusation that has set the nation's blogs abuzz. In September 2003, according to Suskind, CIA officials -- at the direct command of then-CIA director George Tenet and at the behest of the White House -- deliberately forged a backdated letter from Iraqi security chief Tahir Jalil Habbush to Saddam Hussein. The phony letter claimed that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had trained for his mission in Iraq and that al-Qaida had facilitated mysterious shipments from Niger to Iraq. The letter was the "slam dunk" the Bush administration had been seeking so desperately: evidence of a direct operational link between al-Qaida and Saddam's regime.
Leaked to conservative British journalist Con Coughlin, the letter was made public just as Saddam was captured in his spider hole near Tikrit. In the course of a single news cycle, the war against Saddam had been "vindicated," Saddam himself had been flushed from hiding, and the Bush administration's war had seemingly reached its triumphal and foregone conclusion. Or had it?
To further refine the question: Did nobody think it remarkable that an intelligence chief would commit such damning information to paper and then sign it in his own hand? Well, yes, some did. Among journalists, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball were particularly skeptical, citing FBI evidence that Atta was somewhere else entirely during the period in question. But none of those opposition voices made it into the über-narrative so skillfully managed by the White House.