Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind joins us for part two of an interview on his new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Suskind reports that in 2003 the White House ordered the CIA to forge and disseminate false intelligence documents linking al-Qaeda and Iraq. While much of the attention on the book has focused on the forged letter, Suskind also reveals that the Bush administration and the British government knew prior to the war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. We also speak to Rep. John Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating some of the explosive findings in Suskind’s book. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind joins us again today to discuss his explosive new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.
Suskind reports that in 2003 the White House ordered the CIA to forge and disseminate false intelligence documents linking al-Qaeda and Iraq. The CIA allegedly forged a letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence to Saddam Hussein. It was backdated July 1, 2001 and stated 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta was trained for his mission in Iraq.
While much of the attention on the book has focused on the forged letter, Suskind also reveals that the Bush administration and the British government knew prior to the war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind interviewed Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service. Dearlove said Britain received intelligence in the beginning of 2003 about Iraq’s lack of WMDs, but the Bush administration buried the information. Dearlove told Suskind, “The problem was the Cheney crowd was in too much of a hurry, really. Bush never resisted them quite strongly enough.”
Ron Suskind joins us again here in our firehouse studio. We’re also joined on the phone by Congress member John Conyers, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Congressman Conyers has said his committee will review some of the explosive findings in Suskind’s new book, The Way of the World.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
For those listeners and viewers who didn’t get a chance to hear you lay out the allegations, Ron — well, first, many people wrote in through the day, and we’re going to be reading some of their questions to you. But why don’t you lay out the kernel of the key allegation you have made about this letter?
RON SUSKIND: The Iraq intelligence chief is a one-year saga that started in January of 2003. The United States and Britain get together. They open a secret back channel to this man. He slips out of Baghdad, meets with a British intelligence official in Amman, Jordan. The information flows up through the White House. They’re the real customer here. And he says, from the start, there are no WMD. He of course has real credibility here as the Iraq intelligence chief, the number one man. He oversees the biological program himself, and he said it’s over.
He also said the mind of Saddam Hussein is something you all don’t understand. He’s really afraid of the Iranians and their nascent nuclear program. He doesn’t want them and others in the region to see that he’s a toothless tiger, that he has no weapons. He doesn’t even believe the United States would ever want Iraq.
All of this ends up being made very public later. It’s all briefed right up to the White House to the President starting in January of 2003. The final report’s delivered in February. At that point, we cut off the channel to Habbush. But, of course, we already have an arrangement with him, the United States. We resettle him in Amman, Jordan. As the summer unfolds, it becomes clear to the world, the things that Habbush told us ahead of time. We pay him $5 million, the United States. We hide him.
And then the letter. In the fall of 2003, when the White House is facing the most serious charge of the Bush presidency, that we went to war under false pretenses, they come up with a plan of how they might use Habbush, the White House. They order the CIA to have a fabricated letter created ostensibly in Habbush’s hand, backdated July 2001, solving all the White House’s political problems. As one of the key on-the-record sources says, it was a check-the-box for all of the problems politically the White House was facing in the United States.
That, of course, is illegal. You cannot have the CIA run disinformation campaigns on the American public. Just imagine the havoc that would ensue if that were not a law. That’s why right now Congress is investigating.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the information, though, that he provided initially, obviously British intelligence, as you say, was involved, so this would have an impact on the knowledge that Tony Blair and the British government, as well, had about the reality of whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
RON SUSKIND: Absolutely. You know, it’s interesting, because in the extensive interviews with both Richard Dearlove, who was the head of British intelligence in this period, now he’s at Cambridge University, and Nigel Inkster, who was the number two British intelligence chief, they talk about the fact that this was, in a way, sort of a last chance for the British. They didn’t want to go to war with the ardor that the Americans did, as Dearlove’s comment reveals. And they said, “Let’s exercise real intelligence.” As Dearlove says, “We’re better at this than you people. We have relationships where you often have none. Let’s try to exercise the known and the knowable here, so that we can bring at least some clarity to this debate,” which, of course, the British understood was gusty, full of assumption, without real evidence. That’s why the meeting with Habbush was set up.
AMY GOODMAN: Our first question from a listener and viewer that has been emailed into us was: Have you actually seen this letter? And you have said $5 million was the money that the US government paid to Habbush as hush money. How exactly do you know this?
RON SUSKIND: There are extensive conversations with people inside of CIA, again, many of them on the record in the book, not just about the $5 million, but about when the payment was made, about how the figure was arrived at, discussions, again, with senior officials on the record, and sort of saying $5 million figures, where, in the broad context — after all, we paid the guy who turned in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed $25 million. And so, they discussed with some openness how we arrived at the $5 million figure. It was not and is not in dispute.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we also have Congressman John Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, with us. Congressman Conyers, you have been looking at a lot of issues dealing with the Bush administration. To what degree do these revelations, if they prove to be true, affect the — will affect the outcome of your investigations?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, that’s what we’re investigating now. Top of the morning to three excellent investigative reporters.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Good morning to you, sir.
REP. JOHN CONYERS: It’s going to have a great effect. That’s why I’m investigating.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Ron Suskind, about what it would mean for Congress to investigate? We now know the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers is talking about investigating, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. What were you able to gather? What could they gather?
RON SUSKIND: The fact is, the book, as readers now around the country know, lays this out, letter and verse, with great clarity, again, with on-the-record sources, and a great number of off-the-record sources, as well, were helpful in the overall project.
What you can see now, I think, is Congress having an opportunity to exercise some of its constitutional mandates, which has been very difficult during the history of this administration, as Chairman Conyers and certainly even more people on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence know. They have not been briefed on key issues, as well as key issues in and around this matter of Habbush. You know, the fact is, is that the administration has consistently, consistently undercut Congress’s role of oversight, which of course is statutory in its clarity and its legal strength, to oversee what the administration does, especially in matters of secrecy. This was all set up very, very carefully so Congress will be briefed so they’ll know what’s happening so we don’t have essentially a secret foreign policy carried forward by any president. This is an opportunity for them to finally exercise, essentially, their obligations in Congress.
For instance, there are many things laid out in the book that the administration has not in any way either commented on or denied. They’re focusing on this specific letter because it means illegality, which could, you know, go right up to impeachment hearings, ostensibly, in the next couple of months. However, this Habbush matter, from beginning to end, is an extraordinary array. For instance, Congress simply now should be saying, tell us exactly why the entire Habbush report, from British intelligence to the CIA and briefed to the President — what is the justification for that being secret at this juncture?
You know, time and again, the administration basically says everything that’s classified is classified, and frankly, we have to give you no reason why. Those even involved inside of the administration say that process of classification is woefully broken. The fact is, is that for all this period of classification, from the concept starting, the line between national security, which is what it’s supposed to be about, and national embarrassment has been one that people in administrations have tried to draw, because they said if it’s not justifiably national security, someone should really be looking at that, and if it is a matter of national embarrassment, it should be revealed. This is clearly in the category of national embarrassment and not national security, the entire Habbush mission, now that it’s public.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you go through your conversations with Dearlove, the head of MI6, telling him that you — well, you didn’t have this letter, but you knew of this letter.
RON SUSKIND: Well, when I get to Richard Dearlove, as I point out in the book, I first, just simply knowing about Habbush — Habbush, our secret source, has been kept quiet for five years as essentially, you know, the most portentous secret that the United States is holding — when I first see Richard Dearlove, I know about the mission with the Iraq intelligence chief, and he’s shocked that I know.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s in the playing cards — wasn’t he? — that they gave out to soldiers in Iraq.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah, he’s the jack of diamonds, I guess, which would befit his financial arrangement, as opposed to hearts or clubs. But, you know, Habbush also is somebody that the United States claims publicly to be someone they’re seeking. There’s a million-dollar reward out for his capture.
AMY GOODMAN: That the US government is giving?
RON SUSKIND: Well, it’s on —- yeah, it’s on -—
AMY GOODMAN: But they’ve given him $5 million.
RON SUSKIND: Right. So I guess the $4 million would be the net there, but, you know — but ostensibly, this is a matter of a vast disinformation campaign about the Iraq intelligence chief. The United States should have known about this in present tense, frankly. You know, imagine just if the President, for his sixteen words at the State of the Union address, did not say, “We have recently learned about British intelligence finding Niger documents on uranium.” Imagine if he had said, “We now know that there may be no WMD in Iraq.” Imagine the debate that would have gone forward from that point. An actual debate, as I think is constitutionally mandated when it comes to an act of war, would have actually occurred at that time with Congress and the American public. I submit that virtually every president of the twentieth century would have said we have to have a real debate, as something as portentous as going to war.
Dearlove is startled that I know anything about the back-channel mission with the Iraq intelligence chief. He says, “Well, only a few people know about this. I don’t understand how you know. Clearly, you do. Do you want me to talk about it, confirm it?” I said, “Well, I don’t really need it confirmed.” But we chat, and he lays it out, letter and verse, what the thinking was, what the British thinking was, what Tony Blair’s thinking was, and ultimately the reaction, when the Americans said, “Thank you very much, but no thank you.”
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “Thank you very much”?
RON SUSKIND: Well, we — the report goes in. Dearlove said, “We did our best.” Obviously there were doubts. It was never, you know, to use that overused phrase, a slam dunk. You know, the fact is, should we believe this guy? Should we not? How can we check what he says? All of those were things that were roiling through both Britain and America at that point. I think, as Rob Richer says clearly, or even better, Buzzy —-
AMY GOODMAN: Top CIA.
RON SUSKIND: Top CIA guy -— or the number three guy at CIA, Buzzy Krongard, he says, “Look, 25 percent of us thought it was denial and deception. 25 percent said he’s the real McCoy. Others said, ‘Ooh, I don’t know how to touch this,’” because ultimately this is a hot potato inside of the government. Ultimately, what’s clear is the United States government didn’t want to know, frankly, almost anything that it didn’t have to know at this moment. It was moving forward, as Dearlove says and as Nigel Inkster says, his deputy — he says the United States, at this moment, was like a runaway train.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan, let’s get to your next question after break. We’re talking to Ron Suskind. And we also have on the line with us the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers. Ron Suskind’s explosive book is The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. We are talking about where the findings in Suskind’s book go from here. Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind — his new book is out, it’s called The Way of the World — we’re also joined by the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers. He says he’s looking into investigating the findings of Ron Suskind’s book. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressman Conyers, I’d like to ask you, would you consider trying to get the former Israeli intelligence chief — I’m sorry, Iraqi intelligence chief to come and testify before Congress and get to the bottom of — because, obviously, he would have quite a bit of information on the allegations in Ron Suskind’s book?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, he does, and so do a lot of other people. But, dear friends, I’m in the third day of an — I’m not considering an investigation. I’m investigating.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: What do I mean, I am investigating?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, what does it mean to be in the third day of that investigation? How do you begin?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: What do you think that means? You’re an investigative reporter. What do I mean, I’m investigating? You know what? You’re asking me to tell you what I’m investigating. I didn’t ask Ron Suskind when he was taking months to put the book together, I didn’t start investigating him. How can I tell you three days into an investigation? And you say, what do I mean?
RON SUSKIND: I’m sympathetic to you, Chairman Conyers. You know, people maybe shouldn’t see how the sausage is made, really just how it tastes and how you get to the finish.
I mean, one of the things, though, that I think we’re talking about here, which is interesting, is what powers Congress has to get many of these documents declassified. You know, the fact is, throughout this Habbush mission, from beginning to end, especially this year from January 2003 until December, when the letter comes out, there are, I’m certain, a pile of documents that are stamped “classified” inside of the government that I can’t imagine have any actual justification at this point for remaining classified. And I guess one of the questions is, what powers Judiciary or other committees in Congress, both House and Senate, might have to get these documents immediately declassified. Obviously, no one in the government, frankly — and I’ve said this before — there’s virtually no one inside of the executive branch that pushes for the declassification of documents. It’s certainly Congress’s role, though, to say this must be made public. And throughout the chain here on Habbush, there are many such documents. What powers do you think Congress will have to get these brought into daylight?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, you’re talking to maybe the most frustrated person attempting to exercise the oversight responsibilities that I have on Judiciary. There’s nobody who’s been trying harder than me to get to access all of the things in the Department of Justice, the executive branch, the FBI, the CIA. No one has been more zealous in that than I.
RON SUSKIND: Chairman, I —-
REP. JOHN CONYERS: But for me to get engage in a discussion this morning, the third day into the most critical investigation of the entire Bush administration, is a little bit much, I think.
RON SUSKIND: I’m just trying to get a sense -— I think the viewers here are sort of trying to get a sense of the barriers. I know you’ve been the most ardent of anybody. But what sort of barriers do they throw up, in terms of saying, well, either “No, we can’t” or “It’s difficult to declassify documents” or “Well, we’ll look for that one, and we’ll get back to you.” I know they’ve offered you virtually every dodge and fake and excuse. I think it’s something I understand, but I think viewers may not understand how difficult it is to get them to cough this stuff up.
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, Ron, look, let’s — the past is already history. The present is going on right now.
RON SUSKIND: I hear you.
REP. JOHN CONYERS: I’m not here to tell you my troubles with the administration or — I’m happy to be on the program, because I’ve already read 96 percent of the book, and we’re investigating, but for me to start telling you what might be available and what the problems are and what the challenges are going to be, I think, is very unprofessional in an investigation of this seriousness.
RON SUSKIND: I agree.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congressman, I’d like to ask you, as a veteran member of the Congress, you recall another investigation that occurred decades ago in the waning days of another administration: the Iran-Contra scandal. And when quite a bit of information was dug up about what President Reagan and the administration knew or didn’t know about the lies to the American people around Iran-Contra, and the general thrust of a lot of the people those days was, “Hey, these are the last days of this administration. It’s over. Forget it. What’s the use of continuing the investigation?” The lessons you learned from that investigation and how it might affect the way you proceed in these waning months here?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: I don’t want to make that comparison. I was there, and you were on the case, as usual. And this is not — this is not a retrospective. The 110th Congress isn’t over. We’re starting our work, and then we’re doing it in a period where the Congress is in recess. I’m calling everybody back. We’ve got a huge amount of work to engage in. And because I don’t have the appropriate radio to hear the program at 8:00 in the morning, I am happy to be invited on, because I don’t have to wait ’til this evening until the releases come out at 11:30 to read what all of you said. So this is a wonderful service to me, and I’m grateful to you for it. But I am not here to tell you what was — it was like with Iran-Contra, as I know you know it well. But this isn’t a history lesson we’re in.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me put this question to Ron Suskind. Yesterday, we went through the responses of everyone from Condoleezza Rice to George Tenet to Rob Richer. And I want to know what he would have to say if he was put under oath. Now, he responded to your book — he was one of the people you interviewed — by saying — he’s former head of CIA’s Near East Division — "I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind’s book." So, tell us about what he actually said to you.
RON SUSKIND: Richer went through letter and verse on the Habbush mission, the reaction of people inside of CIA, his recollection specifically of Tenet getting the assignment, turning to him. He talks about “Hey, Marine, you’re not going to like this.” Tenet clearly is sort of holding it out like a fish that’s rotting. He passes it to Richer. He knows that this is something that down the ranks they’re not going to be too pleased with. Tenet is following orders. That’s certainly the take that Richer has at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: He says he remembers a cream-colored letter, like stationery from the White House?
RON SUSKIND: Absolutely. I said, “Talk about what exactly you remember.” And I put that on the transcript, which I put up on the internet, so people can see. As I’m pressing him, not for what he thinks or not over what he supposes, but exactly what he remembers, he says he’s sure it’s from the Vice President’s Office. I said, “Why?” He says, “I’d bet my career on it. Everything was coming from those guys at this point. ‘Go check this. Go do this.’ Some of it fanciful.” I said, “Well, certainly, in terms of specifically disinformation, a lie, they hadn’t done the deception.” He says, “No, that’s what made this different.” I said, “But do you know specifically it was from the Vice President?” He says, “No, what I know is it was from the White House.”
AMY GOODMAN: George Tenet, the CIA director.
RON SUSKIND: George Tenet. Richer saw the stationery. You know, and the fact is, is that Richer then talked to others inside of CIA about this specific mission, including one of the deputies who ran the Iraq Division, who — John Maguire, who of course is in the book, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Who gives the same kind of comment —-
RON SUSKIND: Of course.
AMY GOODMAN: —- “Not within my chain of command was I told to fabricate...”
RON SUSKIND: Right. But the fact is, is that it’s never within Maguire’s chain of command, so he’s answering something that’s not being alleged. When it comes to Richer, there’s fuzzy words about who fabricates. Well, the fabrication happens way down the ranks. That’s actually a specific act. The chain of command issues are very legally narrow. Ostensibly, this is the kind of thing written very, very carefully, with a lawyer involved, which doesn’t really answer, well, the many, many things that are in the book. As to the specifics of what is not alleged, the evidence is in the book.
And the fact is, is it’s not a matter of a passing conversation. We had many conversations on this specific issue, on the Habbush matter, with all of the key sources. There was never any mystery about what it was, what the Habbush letter was, what the Habbush mission entailed, in terms of the setup with the Iraq intelligence chief. I mean, exhaustive, hour after hour. And the way I do it as an investigative reporter, is you go back again and again and again.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they get Habbush to sign it?
RON SUSKIND: No. Interestingly, Maguire talks about this. He’s really the expert on Iraq. He’s a real American hero guy. He’s been to Iraq many times, and he’s —-
AMY GOODMAN: He’s in Iraq now?
RON SUSKIND: Well, he’s not in America right now. But, you know -— but the fact is, is that he talks about the fact that in his discussion with Richer, he’s like, “It’s ridiculous. Habbush isn’t going to want to sign this thing. He’s too smart for that. You know, he’s the intelligence chief of Iraq. He’s a guy like us.” He knows if he were to sign a letter that was truly authentic, alright, in his own hand, if you will, that his family could face real trouble. You know, he has relatives, extended family, still back in Iraq. If he’s seen as actively supporting the United States — at this point he’s seen as missing — you know, his family could be in trouble. You know, and he wouldn’t do anything, you know, that disastrous for him, even though we paid him the $5 million.
The sense from Maguire — again, he’s not handling it, he’s just discussing it with Rob when he first hears about it. And then Maguire is going off to a new assignment. It’s passed down to his successor, who runs Iraq for CIA. Maguire says —-
AMY GOODMAN: Richer’s new assignment, of course, is vice president of Blackwater.
RON SUSKIND: Well, he’s actually now working mostly with King Abdullah of Jordan as his main job. But, you know, he’s a guy with connections all through the government and has briefed Congress many times. He’s a credible guy. He has been around. He was also a character, a minor one, in my last book, The One Percent Doctrine. I’ve known him for many years.
But interestingly, Maguire says, “We’re probably just going to have to fabricate it ourselves, get someone to write it and then just deliver it.” And John Maguire and I talked at length about that. Now, Maguire is not involved in the actual fabrication and execution of this, but Maguire is a pro, you know, very good at this. And he looked at the optics of it, so to speak, right at the start, and said, “Well, we’ll probably just” -— you know, to Richer — “We’re probably just going to have to, you know, have somebody do it.” And Maguire, of course, is delighted he’s not going to be the one who has to do this ugly work.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But what does that say about — even about the quality of the work that was done, that they produce a letter that the principal has not signed and that other reporters then — they leak it to reporters, who then —-
RON SUSKIND: Well, of course, the principal -— they’ll have someone sign it as Habbush. You know, it’s someone else will do the handwriting. You know, but the —-
AMY GOODMAN: And Habbush is paid $5 million to be silent, not to comment on this.
RON SUSKIND: Of course not, of course not. And that’s the sense. Habbush will stay silent. He’s not going to give us any trouble.
But mind you, what’s interesting is that, you know, Maguire’s view -— and we talked at length about this — is that, you know, this was amateur hour, you know, an order from the White House. And he says, Tenet should have pushed back. Tenet, remember, George Tenet, is not an intelligence man; he was a staff man in the Senate. He’s really sort of a staffer politician sort of guy. And inside of CIA, even though he became the director of CIA, there’s a separation between people who really have done CIA operations for decades and Tenet, who really doesn’t have real acuity for that. So Maguire talks, in the book — and there’s a quote, people who read it —- he’s, “I wish George had more experience in actual operations, like some CIA directors, because he could have told his bosses in the White House, ‘This is a bad idea. Habbush is never going to sign it. We don’t think this is such a good plan.’” But Tenet doesn’t push back. And as he said, “That’s one thing,” Maguire says, “we blame George about.” Other directors might have pushed back. George didn’t. Instead, he took the assignment, passed it down the ranks, and CIA executed.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, George Tenet denies this and has responded to your book, saying that it is not true. But -—
RON SUSKIND: Well, he says, “to the best of my recollection,” and that’s something reporters in Washington know is a classic George move.
AMY GOODMAN: And now say what exactly the letter says.
RON SUSKIND: The letter says that — it’s a letter, sort of a personal letter from Habbush to Saddam, again, dated July 1, 2001, and it talks about the fact that Mohamed Atta has been in Iraq training for the upcoming mission, which is not named, but sort of suggested — obviously it’s 9/11 that they’re suggesting — and he has trained, you know, in and around Abu Nidal, who of course is ostensibly hiding in Iraq at this point. There’s some talk, sort of flowery language, about the great mission ahead, you know, and its righteousness. That’s one major part of the letter. And again, it’s only altogether really in, you know, just a very short space of a few paragraphs. And then, there’s talk about Saddam buying yellowcake uranium from Niger with the help from a small team from the al-Qaeda organization, which they throw in ostensibly for good measure.
What’s interesting is that what really undid them here was the overreach of the assignment from the White House. Again, as Maguire says — and others in CIA, I’m sure, agree — it was amateur hour. You know, CIA wouldn’t have come up with an operation like this. It was clearly something they were ordered to do from the White House, which had a kind of ham-handedness to it. That overreach, the desire of the White House to solve all of its problems, really doesn’t fit with how actual deceptions are run. CIA actually does this sort of thing. You know, we would never put all of that in one letter. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t pass the smell test, which it doesn’t after a week in the global news cycles, where people are writing about it and reporting about it and going, “Jeez, this is an awful lot in one letter.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, not only that, but it sounds like the talking points for Dick Cheney on all the Sunday shows. These were the main things that he was constantly raising.
RON SUSKIND: Precisely. Look — and again, Maguire and I talked a lot about this. I said, “How does this fit in what CIA generally does?” He says, “Well, actually, you know, this is not the kind of thing that we would do on our own.” If you really want to do a deception, he explained to me, what you do is you get something a little off. You put in things that are clearly true, and then there’s one part that you’re interested in, and you twist it just a teeny bit. Then maybe there’s one other thing that’s brand new, again, so it has plausibility, instead of this, which is really, as he said, a check-the-box for all of the major political issues that the administration is facing at this moment about the march to war and false pretenses being under our Iraq case.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the head of MI6, Richard Dearlove —-
RON SUSKIND: Yes, that’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: What exactly does he say about the letter? First, you say, he’s startled that you even know about it.
RON SUSKIND: Well, he and I are not discussing the letter. He’s discussing the front end of it. He’s discussing the Habbush mission and all of the British engagement, their hopes, in some cases their fears, and their reaction, when the United States, after -— he says, this very dangerous mission — he says this is a high-risk mission here, and there’s fear at the start that maybe it’s a trap. Maybe the British intelligence manager or an extraordinary agent, Michael Dearlove, who runs the Mid-East for the British, that, you know, he might die.
And one of the reasons it’s in Jordan is that we have leverage in Jordan, again, through Rob Richer, the CIA intelligence official, because he is so close to the Jordanians. He is a very close associate of King Abdullah’s and others in Jordan intelligence. That’s why it’s set up in Jordan. That’s why everybody is on tinder hooks, as it unfolds.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And presumably Saddam Hussein was aware that all this was going on.
RON SUSKIND: It’s a debate inside of the government, you know, and there’s back-and-forth on that. Again, in the exhaustive reporting on this — and it was exhaustive — I talked to many officials. Does Saddam know, or does he not? All the way from the British to the Americans, there’s debate. It’s not clear Saddam knows. There’s a sense he does. And, you know, and the fact is, is that at the end of the day, what everybody says is that it’s clear, no matter if Saddam knew or not, that much of the intelligence provided by Habbush, especially about the mind of Saddam Hussein, is something he never ever would have authorized being revealed, because it shows Saddam is addled, isolated, his fears, and ultimately, that Saddam is not really exactly who we think he is at this point. All of that, as Richer says, is the most valuable intelligence we get from the Habbush mission. It really gets us into the mind of Saddam Hussein.
Also, fascinating, the operators inside of CIA were delighted that a window had been opened to Saddam Hussein. All the folks in the Iraq Operations Group, which is a vast group of operatives who are actually working Iraq — of which many of them had worked operations in Iraq for years, they’re saying, “This is a golden opportunity. We have a window right into Saddam’s inner circle through the intelligence chief, Habbush. We can put anything through that window. We can put misinformation through that window. We can turn Saddam in various directions. We even can send Habbush in with a team to take Saddam out.” As Maguire says, I think with great clarity, “Imagine, then we could walk to Baghdad instead of fight our way to Baghdad, something that could save many American lives.”
That debate is going on in January between the operators who are saying, “Golden opportunity, this channel has been opened,” in January of 2003 and folks who are very anxious about the case for war, most of them from the White House — two teams fighting. When it’s clear that the evidence from Habbush is that there are no WMD, the White House gets spooked, and the White House cuts off the channel. Operators inside of CIA are livid. They’re saying, “My goodness, American lives are at stake here! You’re cutting off the channel because you don’t want to know more? And we have to now go forward without the advantages and opportunities that Habbush might have provided?”
Meanwhile, of course, we had made our arrangement, and we resettled Habbush. But nonetheless, operationally, when it comes to Iraq, this is kind of an abomination, to be frank.
AMY GOODMAN: And who does Dearlove say, head of MI6 —-
RON SUSKIND: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- British intelligence, who does he believe in the White House wants this to go forward? Does he feel that Bush wanted it from January and before that? Was it Bush?
RON SUSKIND: From the beginning — I have reported in a previous book, The Price of Loyalty, that it was from the first National Security Council meeting of this presidency. The President said, “How are we going to do this?” Not “whether” or “why” but “how.” The fact is, inside of CIA, many people now echo that. They talk about that in the book. It was from the first Bush —- it was -—
AMY GOODMAN: This was about Paul O’Neill, the Treasury secretary, that you write the book.
RON SUSKIND: Right, but throughout CIA, people involved in this say the same thing. It was about the very first meeting that the President wants to get Saddam Hussein.
Now, mind you, Dearlove says, I think with real interesting clarity here — he talks about the fact that Cheney was pushing so ardently, so fiercely for war that Bush ultimately almost hands over the basic responsibilities of the presidency. He says — Dearlove says, in a sort of a grave finish to this interview, where he says it wasn’t too late for Cheney — it was too late for Cheney when the intelligence comes, because he was going, no matter what. But it was not too late for Bush to say, “Now, hold on a minute” — hold on, the American public, wait, in terms of the whole world, that is now behind us on this case for war. And I think that is where historical judgment may be harshest.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a lot to take in, Chairman John Conyers, a lot of big scope for your committee, for the House Judiciary Committee. Is there a chance that you would join together with the Senate? Is there a way the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — maybe actually, Ron Suskind, you could tell us — Jay Rockefeller is the head of that — what exactly are their intentions? There are joint House-Senate committees.
RON SUSKIND: Generally — and I’m sure Chairman Conyers would echo this — generally, the way it has worked before is that there are joint engagements between the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, because, remember, they’re very carefully constructed, where they have staff and of course congressmen, congresspersons, who have security clearance opportunities. They get to see things that the American public doesn’t get to see. Sometimes there are small groups who get to see the most precious stuff, because the administration, any administration, is afraid of leaks. But generally, a joint effort between those two intelligence committees is the way it has worked in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: And what would that mean? What could Senate intelligence do? Jay Rockefeller?
RON SUSKIND: Senate Intelligence can move forward in ways that, frankly, even Congressman Conyers, with his greatest ardor, would have trouble doing, again because they can go into the shadows. They can talk directly to CIA and say, “We understand this is classified, but we have people here who are charged to look at classified information in a kind of lockbox.” CIA — you know, traditionally, CIA says, “Well, let’s look for what you need.” They tend to drag their feet. Sometimes they say it is problematic to even get this information to some people in Congress, because they’re ongoing operations. There are all manner of ways the CIA over these past few years has basically said, “We’ll give it to you when we’re good and ready.”
This is not an instance, I don’t think, of that, though, because if you have a violation of law, things do change. And if there is a stated violation of law — and the book seems it does indicate in its evidence that they’re in that realm here — then Congress has more powers to say, “Your executive privilege claims,” which the White House often makes, “they don’t hold water in courts when there is the issue of wrongdoing.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to — I mean, you’ve written now several books, as you say, on this administration. And I’d like to ask you, for those who, looking at American history, say this is not the first time that presidents have fabricated reasons to go to war — John Quincy Adams accusing President Polk of fabricating reasons to go to war with Mexico, obviously the Gulf of Tonkin — what, in your view, makes this administration unique or distinct compared to the other lies that have been foisted on the American people in the past?
RON SUSKIND: You know what? The fact is that we are ever in a pull and tug, an ebb and flow, when it comes to these issues, in terms of what the public says. We have a right to know in a democracy, especially on issues of greatest import, where young and women may die in battle. And what an administration often will say, a president will say, “This is my business. You’re on a need-to-know basis. I’ll tell you what I believe you’re supposed to know.” This back-and-forth has gone on for many years.
I think it’s clear in these past few years that we’ve had a kind of hammerlock here between the cult of message, where, frankly, people are not having discussions that are real ones, certainly not in the Fourth Estate, as we might have in previous decades, with senior officials, even with a president, where they’re giving the good enough reasons that underlie action A and B.
Combine that with an extraordinary spread of secrecy. You know, they are classifying everything down to the most minor documents. And I’ve looked at documents that are classified, and you say, “That is impossible that you would think that is an issue of national security.” That is a core problem of this period. You know, and frankly, some people inside of the administration, you know, and some wise heads who have served other presidents say what we need, we need a 9/11 Commission-style group, bipartisan, elder statesmen, who say these things should be made public, because right now everything gets classified. And there is nobody, nobody of consequence, inside of this government — and it may be true going forward — who says this must be made public, even if it’s going to hurt like hell. And that’s really an issue now for the democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: In your coverage of movements, do you think people demanding this will make the biggest difference?
RON SUSKIND: Absolutely. It’s the only thing that makes a difference in a democracy. I mean, the fact is, a lot of people have been sitting here for years, going, “Oh, what can I do? Well, you know, where do I engage? You know, they’re the pros, and I’m just going about my life.” Well, it’s not the way it actually works, because at this point, at this late period in this administration, before they leave the stage, many people are saying, “Now, wait a second. I kind of own this government. The way this works is I’m the sovereign, the people. They’re servants, public servants.” It’s an interesting sort of phrase with tension in the words. They have awesome powers, but they actually serve the public. And the notion of rule of law being supreme to any individual is the core of what the founders understood, in terms of the tyranny of power.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Congressman Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, do you think there is any chance of a bipartisan commission like this being set up?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: It has been suggested. It’s under investigation and consideration right now. But the importance of this discussion today is critical not only to the committees — there are four committees, and how they relate to each other will come forward very shortly — but there is also the question of the media, the Fourth Estate, the press. This is now public information that, it seems to me, shouldn’t be great breaking news over a progressive news program, but this has to be investigated by the rest of the media, unless they consider this to be irrelevant or too late, or whatever reasons are, that they’re coerced or afraid themselves, too timid. But what you’re doing is a great service. And I consider the relationship of the committees on the subject matter, the responsibility of the media, and the American people being brought into this discussion as the citizens, that in a representative democracy, that’s what all of us are supposed to be working on. And so, you have my congratulations for allowing me to be here and with you and with all of the large number of people that are also taking part in this by listening to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Chairman John Conyers of the House Judiciary Committee. We have to break. We have a very late break. I want to apologize to our radio and television stations for that. When I come back, I do want to ask — I want to ask Ron Suskind about the media, because we do have listeners and viewers who have asked questions about them picking up this story. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, here for the second day. We have been overwhelmed with questions and comments from our audience all over the world. His book is called The Way of the World. One of the listeners or viewers who wrote in said, “I have seen no coverage of Ron’s allegations in the New York Times. I think such is important to legitimize the issues he raises. Has Ron been contacted by the Times, why does he think there has been no coverage?” Ron Suskind?
RON SUSKIND: There have been a variety of reporters who are working on this story from the major media. The fact — and the major newspapers. The fact is, it’s gotten enormous publicity, God knows. It’s been everywhere, and it’s been — you know, I was on The Today Show for two days. It’s been on the network news programs. It’s certainly been on the cable news programs. And the blogosphere is all but burning up with it.
I think for the newspapers, they are actively trying to advance the story. That’s sort of the way they do it at a newspaper. I was at the Wall Street Journal for ten years, and I write for the New York Times Magazine periodically. You know, I think what reporters are saying — and we have some of the best reporters in the world, make no mistake — is, “How can I advance the story? How can I find, essentially, my own fresh added corroboration, added evidence, essentially, to what is clearly laid out in the book?”
I think what’s interesting is that it’s been a difficult period for reporters. Everyone understands that. But I think right now they’re trying to get their bearings back. I’ve been writing for years my books, disclosures in them dovetailing with, you know, great reporters, like Dana Priest of the Washington Post, Jim Risen of the New York Times, you know, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, whose book Dark Side is out now, too. We’re all trying to do essentially the same thing, which is to pull loose this crucial information for the American public to know, so they can judge their government fairly and then know how to act. At this point, there is a body of evidence. Thank goodness it’s out. But on this one, reporters around the world are out hunting right now to nail down other parts of the story, and I think we’ll probably see yield from that in the next few days or certainly weeks.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we have about thirty seconds, but there was one other question that was forwarded to us: How culpable was the media in persuading the American public to digest the talking points of the White House? And has there been any radical shift in the war coverage since the beginning of the war?
RON SUSKIND: Yeah, absolutely. The media has gone through a real therapy session on this, because, you know, on balance, everybody understands that the White House used a new method of sort of fear, anti-patriotic — you’re not patriotic for doing your job — intimidation on the media. It worked. Power works in this way, and the media is now trying to recover, step by step. But the fact is, the White House operations for these sorts of things, as we see just in the last week, are still intact and operating to try to terrorize, to try to bring fear to sources. They’ve been hunting for sources for many reporters for years. It chills sources. It makes them fear for their families, for their future. And this is still going on.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Ron Suskind, author of The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.