Ron Suskind's bombshell report -- that the CIA essentially forged a letter in late 2003 linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and nuclear weapons -- has been getting knocked around all week.
And so far, it's holding up well under scrutiny.
The specific allegations first reported on Monday say former CIA Director George Tenet ordered a former Marine and CIA agent to create a letter indicating that 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta was trained in Iraq and also that Iraq was receiving suspicious shipments from Niger (the implication being the now infamous "yellowcake uranium").
The assignment for the agent, Rob Richer, the former number-two in command at the Operations Directorate, was to track down Saddam's former intel chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, in Jordan and convince him to write the letter in his own handwriting on Iraqi government letterhead, backdated to July 2001.
The order to concoct the letter was drawn up on White House stationary, Richer told Suskind. The book says the CIA ultimately carried out the order, but it does not say how.
The fake letter became public in December 2003 and fueled global media speculation about an Iraq-al Qaeda link. At that time, the U.S. military had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and American domestic support for the war was fading.
The story's veracity took a hit early in the week when Richer, who is now retired, issued a public statement Monday denying any involvement. Well, actually, the White House issued that statement for him, along with its own vague denial that Suskind's report was "absurd."
Today Suskind took the unusual step of publishing a transcript of his taped interview with Richer in June. Richer left the agency in 2005, saying that he lacked confidence in the agency's leadership.
Also today the story got new legs -- and additional details -- from Joe Conason's column in Salon. Conason takes us back to the time of the bogus letter's first appearance.
That letter first popped up in a credulous report in London's Sunday Telegraph, where the reporter cites a key source as Ayad Allawi. You might remember him, the CIA lackey who was propped up as Iraq's interim prime minister in 2004, only to see his political career end when Iraqis held elections a year later.
Conason also notes that Allawi was visiting CIA headquarters just a few days before that story broke in the Telegraph.
The most interesting question raised about Suskind's accuracy came yesterday from Philip Giraldi, a former CIA agent, writing in the American Conservative. According to him, the Bush Administration did order up a forged letter, but did it through the Pentagon and Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans. Giraldi notes the the military has its own false documents center used to draw up fake papers for special ops officers traveling under cover as businessmen.
That does sound plausible, given that the CIA was always more circumspect of the Saddam-al Qaeda links that were popular with the neocons in Feith's office across the river.
Looking back at all the aftershocks this week, what stands out for us is the narrow, legalistic denials that the White House and others coughed up this week.
Take a close look at what Tony Fratto, deputy White House press secretary, told Politico:
"The allegation that the White House directed anyone to forge a document from Habbush to Saddam is just absurd."
Is it false, or just absurd? Did they direct anyone to forge any documents? From Habbush to someone else? Or from someone else to Saddam? Sounds like an attorney wrote that one.
And here's what Tenet said in a statement also issued by the White House.
"There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort."
In the transcript Suskind released today, he asked Richer about what kind of paper trail is created when setting an operation like this in motion. Richer said there was only one, closely guarded, piece of paper that originated from the White House.
Rob: It probably passed through five or six people. George probably showed it to me, but then passed it probably to Jim Pavitt, the DDO, who then passed it down to his chief of staff who passed it to me. Cause that's how--you know, so I saw the original. I got a copy of it. But it was, there probably was--
Ron: Right. You saw the original with the White House stationery, but you didn't--down the ranks, then it creates other paper.
Rob: Yeah, no, exactly."