Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers has asked current and former White House aides and ex-CIA officials to respond to questions about an alleged scheme to create a bogus letter in late 2003 linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda.
In sending the interview requests Wednesday, Conyers is following up on a disputed story in journalist Ron Suskind’s new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, which includes an account of how the mysterious letter originated.
The book cites statements from former CIA associate deputy director of operations Rob Richer and John Maguire, the former chief of the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group/Near East Division, as indicating that the White House ordered the CIA to produce the bogus letter to retroactively justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Richer and Maguire gave Suskind on-the-record interviews, which the author recorded, discussing the reasons the letter was created and saying that it likely emanated from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Both men have since recanted their statements.
Conyers, who has held periodic hearings on abuses of power by George W. Bush’s administration, sent letters to former CIA Director George Tenet; the CIA’s former executive director A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard; Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; and John Hannah, another Cheney assistant – as well as to Richer and Maguire.
“I am writing to follow up on recent serious allegations regarding the creation of a false letter from Tahir Jalil Habbush, Saddam Hussein's former Chief of Intelligence, to Saddam Hussein,” Conyers said.
“The letter, which was allegedly backdated to July 1, 2001, attempted to establish an operational link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the period before the 9/11 attacks by specifically stating that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had received training in Iraq.
“At the time of the alleged decision in 2003 to concoct the false letter, the Vice President's Office had been reportedly pressuring the CIA to prove this connection as a justification to invade Iraq. The letter also falsely noted that Iraq had received a ‘shipment’ (presumably uranium) from Niger with the assistance of al-Qaeda.
“Upon careful review of the allegations concerning this matter, I have become very concerned with the possibility that this administration may have violated federal law by using the resources of our intelligence agencies to influence domestic policy processes or opinion.
“The law specifically provides that ‘no covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.’"
Suskind wrote in his book that such a violation might constitute an “impeachable offense.”
“It is not the sort of offense, such as assault or burglary, that carries specific penalties, for example, a fine or jail time,” Suskind wrote. “It is much broader than that. It pertains to the White House’s knowingly misusing an arm of government, the sort of thing generally taken up in impeachment proceedings.”
Former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, in a recent column published on Findlaw.com, agreed. But Conyers’ office was unwilling to make that same characterization. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long since taken Bush's possible impeachment "off the table."
Conyers was not interested in reviewing the claims contained in Suskind’s book until his office was bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from citizens who favor impeaching President Bush, according to a senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Finally, after Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, sent a letter to Conyers on Aug. 8 requesting a formal review, Conyers agreed to look into the matter.
Many of the allegations in Suskind’s book – about how pre-war Iraq intelligence was cooked at the highest levels of the U.S. government – echo articles of impeachment that Kucinich has filed in the Congress.
“I asked Chairman Conyers to investigate these claims because, if true, the administration fabricated evidence and used it to lead the country into an unprovoked war,” Kucinich said.
It’s unknown what Conyers would do with the information if he determines the White House violated federal law. Moreover, given the White House’s broad claims of executive privilege, it’s unclear whether the intelligence officials will even cooperate.
A spokesman for Tenet would not comment, and the CIA’s Congressional Affairs office said it was reviewing the request. Libby and Hannah did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment.
Libby was convicted of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, leading to a sentence of 30 months in jail. However, Bush commuted the sentence to eliminate jail time and left open the possibility that Libby might get a full pardon before Bush leaves office.