CBS, NBC, MSNBC and CNN all jumped Tuesday to publicize the claims in a new book by a left-wing journalist, Ron Suskind, that President Bush knew before the war Iraq had no WMD and that to justify the war the administration forged a letter to prove a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaeda. The journalists were unfazed by denials from former CIA Director George Tenet, which they dutifully cited, nor the fact the letter couldn't have impacted the public before the war since it didn't become public until nine months into the war.
In the morning, NBC's Today showcased an “exclusive” interview with Suskind as Meredith Vieira trumpeted the “new bombshell book that claims the White House deliberately misled the American public about the case for war in Iraq. The author, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.” (Geoff Dickens' NB post on that interview.) CBS's Early Show ran a full story and Wolf Blitzer made it his lead on CNN's The Situation Room.
In the evening, the NBC Nightly News aired a full report while MSNBC's Countdown, not surprisingly, led with Keith Olbermann's “cable exclusive” with Suskind on what MSNBC described on screen as “WAR CRIME” -- followed by John Dean on the imagined prosecutorial implications. NBC anchor Brian Williams saw “gasoline” being “thrown on a fire that's never really gone out,” as if the media aren't pouring it:
Tonight, gasoline has been thrown on a fire that's never really gone out. The accusation that the Bush administration badly misled the American public about the case for war with Iraq. In a new book, journalist Ron Suskind claims he has new evidence to show the case was more than a failure of intelligence -- it was, he writes, an out and out deception.
David Gregory proceeded to recount “the strongest accusation against this President, that he misled the American people about the case for war in Iraq” as well as the “explosive charge” that “the White House ordered the CIA to write a fake letter.”
Blitzer, who will have Suskind on his program Wednesday, opened the first (4 PM EDT) hour of Tuesday's The Situation Room:
Shocking allegations about the President's determination to invade Iraq. A brand new book claims the White House forged a key piece of evidence and turned a blind eye to another. This hour, the book's bombshells and the administration's adamant denials.
Unmentioned by Olbermann: That the book, 'The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism,' is published by HarperCollins, owned by the evil right-winger Rupert Murdoch.
The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes undermined Suskind's allegations as he observed, on the magazine's blog:
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.
To believe Suskind's account...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.
ABC's Good Morning America and World News had the good news judgment -- at least on Tuesday -- to not hype and give plausibility to the book's charges.
On Tuesday's Early Show, the MRC's Kyle Drennen noticed, news reader Russ Mitchell set up a full story:
A new book out this morning accuses the White House of trying to manipulate the intelligence used to support the war in Iraq. CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante has more. Bill good morning to you.
From the White House, Plante began:
Morning to you, Russ. The book, by author Ron Suskind, charges that the Bush White House ordered up a fake letter from Saddam Hussein's chief of intelligence linking Iraq with the 9/11 attack and with an ongoing nuclear program, neither of which was true...
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide this transcript of the story on the Tuesday, August 5 NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Tonight, gasoline has been thrown on a fire that's never really gone out. The accusation that the Bush administration badly misled the American public about the case for war with Iraq. In a new book, journalist Ron Suskind claims he has new evidence to show the case was more than a failure of intelligence -- it was, he writes, an out and out deception. Our chief White House correspondent David Gregory has more.
DAVID GREGORY: It is the strongest accusation against this President, that he misled the American people about the case for war in Iraq.
GEORGE W. BUSH, October 7, 2002: We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun. It could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
GREGORY: In his new book, "The Way of the World," journalist Ron Suskind argues there was evidence before the war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The source, Iraq's intelligence chief, Tahir Jaheel Habbush, who Suskind writes first met with British intelligence early in 2003, months before the invasion was launched.
RON SUSKIND, THE WAY OF THE WORLD: He clearly is offering the kind of evidence, the kind of testimony as to the mind of Saddam Hussein, as to the fact that there's no WMD.
GREGORY: Why didn't the administration heed the warnings?
SUSKIND: The President wants to go to war from the very first National Security Council meeting of his presidency. It was always a matter of how do we make the case.
GREGORY: Then-CIA director George Tenet said today the author is wrong. In a statement, Tenet insists that Habbush was considered unreliable. He, quote, "failed to persuade his British interlocutors that he had anything new to offer in the way of intelligence." There is another explosive charge in the book. In order to bolster the connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, Suskind says the White House ordered the CIA to write a fake letter from the Iraqi intelligence chief, Habbush, claiming that 9/11 ring leader Mohammad Atta trained in Iraq prior to September 11. Tonight, the White House calls that allegation absurd, and denies, as the President has repeatedly, ever misleading the public about the need for war. David Gregory, NBC News, Washington.
A longer excerpt from the blog post quoted above from Stephen Hayes:
....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....