WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 6, 2008, TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW
BILL O’REILLY, THE RADIO FACTOR
LIS WIEHL, FOX NEWS LEGAL ANALYST
RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR, THE WAY OF THE WORLD
BILL OREILLY: There is a writer named Ron Suskind, he used to write for the Wall Street Journal, and he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, a serious guy. And he has a book out called The Way of the World: The Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Way of the World. Now, the main claim that’s getting all the headlines is that Suskind says that the Central Intelligence Agency faked an Iraqi intelligence document purporting to link Saddam Hussein with 9/11 attacked Muhammad Atta. Okay?
The quote in the book is, “The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated July 1, 2001.” Of course that would be two months before 9/11. “It said that 9/11 ringleader Muhammad Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq. Thus showing finally that there was an operational link between Saddam and al Qaeda, something the vice president’s office had been pressuring CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq. There is no link.”
Alright, so this is big news. If the White House, as Mr. Suskind says, faked the letter, and it got us into a war, then Mr. Bush, and Dick Cheney, and whoever else involved, go to jail. That’s big. In the book, and I haven’t read the whole thing but I’ve checked it out fairly extensively, Suskind relies on two former CIA agents. Robert Richer, I think that’s how you say his name, is the CIA’s former deputy director of clandestine operations and John Maguire, head of the CIA’s Iraq operations group. Richer and Maguire. Okay?
But now we run into problems. Both Richer and Maguire deny that any fabricated document exists. So they don’t have anything to do with it, they don’t know anything about it, and they have this in writing. So Maguire and Richer are saying, “This is wrong.”
Now I myself talked to George Tenet, the former CIA chief, today. You remember my interview with Tenet on The Factor, and I said, “Look, you’ve got to tell me if there was any letter floating around.” And he said, “Not that I know of. I never heard anything about it.” Now what do I do, what do I believe?
Tenet did an extensive interview with me and he didn’t lie in the interview, and I asked him the toughest questions you could be asked; you remember that. Alright, I know him. And so I’m saying, “Alright. You know, if you say it didn’t exist, I take your word for it.” So now we find ourselves in a conundrum. You’ve got Tenet saying it’s bull. You’ve got the White House saying it’s bull. You’ve got the two guys mentioned in the book saying it’s bull. The four people: Bush, Tenet, Richer and Maguire. Bull.
You’ve got Suskind saying it’s true. And he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Now obviously anybody involved in something like this knows that if it were true, they could go to jail. So they would be inclined to deny it. You know, you’re bringing a journalist’s eye on it.
I dealt with this myself on December 14, 2003, on the TV side. I said, this is a quote from that program, we should have the sound, maybe we’ll have it later, but we don’t have it, we do have the transcript.
“The unresolved problem segment tonight: Saddam will stand trial on charges of crimes against humanity, and joining us now from Washington to detail the allegations is Evan Coleman, a senior terrorist analyst of the investigative project. Before we get to that Evan, I got a really interesting report today, and I know you know about this, in the British press. Apparently the coalition forces are in the possession of a handwritten memo by the Iraqi intelligence service, the head of it, Tahir Jalil, somebody you know, and it says that Muhammad Atta in 2001 received training in Baghdad. Muhammad Atta, of course the lead terrorist in the 9/11 mission, received training from Abu Nidal, the terrorist living in Baghdad-- received the terrorist training in Baghdad. Now if this is true, that blows the lid off the al Qaeda, Saddam connection, correct?”
Okay, and then the discussion goes on. Now notice I put in ifs, if, if, if. I put that in there. But obviously, if it were true, it’s a big story. So, yeah, it was mentioned, and it was mentioned in a prominent way. Now, Suskind, you know he takes that, and he says in his book, “Over the few days continued to be featured prominently in the United States and across the globe. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly trumpeted the story on The O’Reilly Factor, talking breathlessly…” I think that’s overstating it, but we’ll get the tape. “…about details of the story, and exhorting now ‘if this is true that blows the lid of al Qaeda, Saddam,’” which it would, if it were true.
Okay, so I’m in this book and now we have a controversy. Once again, here’s the importance of the situation. If the White House faked a letter to get us into a war, Bush, Tenet, whoever is involved in that fraud would go to jail. They’d have to go to jail. It’d be the biggest scandal since Watergate, bigger than Watergate. Biggest scandal probably in the country’s history if this is true. If it isn’t true, then Suskind has a lotta ‘splaining to do.
So let’s bring him on. Okay let’s bring in Ron Suskind, he’s the author, as I said, of the brand new book, The Way of the World: The Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.
Where is this letter now? Do you know where the letter is Mr. Suskind?
RON SUSKIND: Oh the Habbush letter? Hey Bill how are you?
OREILLY: I’m alright.
SUSKIND: Con Coughlin has his copy; he’s the only one who has the copy, from what I understand. He ran the whole thing out as you know. I remember too, all over the place, basically the whole text was in the Telegraph, and everyone picked it up, Tom Brokaw, everyone.
OREILLY: Well that’s why I picked it up. But I’d like to see, and I’m sure you’d like to see, a copy of this letter so it can be analyzed, because when you analyze a letter you can find a lot about the origin of the letter.
SUSKIND: I would love that as you would.
OREILLY: Alright, so you don’t have the letter, I don’t have the letter, and you think Con Coughlin has the letter.
SUSKIND: Con’s got it, he’s holding onto it.
OREILLY: Now what does Coughlin say about your book, does he confirm that this is a fake?
SUSKIND: Oh yeah, excellent. What happened was after, around the time that you were doing some stuff, I think Wednesday, Thursday of that week, it starts to become clear. Because really the letter’s kind of an overreach, they’re solving-- the author is solving-- for two major political problems in two paragraphs for the White House. You get a kind of sense of, “Hmm, this seems a little fantastical, a little impractical.” And a couple of Newsweek reporters started to dig in. It was never proven to be a fraud, but people kind of said, “hmm, this isn’t…”
OREILLY: Well the story went away, and nobody credited the story. But look, Ron, I mean you’re going to accuse people of this, when these are criminal offenses, and then everybody backs away from you, which is predictable that they would. But believe me when I tell you, I mean, I talked to Tenet today, and I mean, I don’t believe the guy’s lying to me. I don’t believe the guy is lying. I mean I could be wrong, but he said, “Look, I don’t know anything about this, I didn’t give any order, I didn’t get any order, none of my guys did, and I’ve been doing my own investigation since I found out about it, and I can’t nail down anything where the CIA is associated with this.” So, is this guy lying?
SUSKIND: Look, I’ve known George for a long time; obviously he was helpful with The One Percent Doctrine because it was all of the so-called “Team Tenet,” all the people around George. You know George…
OREILLY: You’re either calling him a liar, or you’re not.
SUSKIND: No, no, I don’t call Tenet a liar. I never said…
OREILLY: Okay, then if you’re not calling-- if he didn’t know anything about it…
SUSKIND: George. Let me just talk about George for a sec.
OREILLY: You say though, wait a minute, hold it, nobody cares about George, I love him but…
SUSKIND: No one cares about George…
OREILLY: You say, you say in the book that the CIA faked an Iraqi intelligence document.
OREILLY: Now he’s running the CIA.
SUSKIND: George doesn’t remember “slam dunk” Bill, alright?
OREILLY: [Groans] He’d remember that.
SUSKIND: He doesn’t…
OREILLY: He’d remember a fake letter.
SUSKIND: Well, you know the fact is that George has claimed…
OREILLY: Alright, so you’re saying you’re not calling him a liar Ron.
SUSKIND: Look, I’d never called George a liar.
OREILLY: Alright, so then we have to put a big question mark next to this. If you’re not calling him a liar, I’m not buying he doesn’t remember something like this. Nobody’s buying that. He’d remember.
SUSKIND: Hold on, he doesn’t remember “slam dunk.”
OREILLY: Alright, whatever, I don’t remember the score of the Mets game last week…
SUSKIND:…meeting with the president before 9/11 in front Congressional…
OREILLY: Ron, Ron…
SUSKIND: …George doesn’t remember a lot of things.
OREILLY: Ron, come on, if somebody fakes a letter that gets you into a war, you remember that.
SUSKIND: I don’t know. This didn’t get us into the war, this was after the war. After.
OREILLY: Alright, but I mean, justifies it.
SUSKIND: This is illegal according to CIA statute, that’s the key.
OREILLY: Of course it’s illegal. If this happened, they all go to jail.
SUSKIND: I don’t know what’s going through George’s head…
OREILLY: Alright, I’m going to have to say to be a fair American, you’re innocent until proven guilty, that I believe Tenet. I’m going to have to say that. Now Richer and Maguire, the two guys you cite, both now throw you under the bus.
SUSKIND: No, no, they don’t. They work at the…
OREILLY: I have it right in front of me.
SUSKIND: I heard it.
OREILLY: “I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document.”
SUSKIND: If you read the book, you’ll see that this is a strange kind on non-denial denial. Rob wasn’t receiving. Look, these guys are on the tape hour after hour talking about the incident…
OREILLY: Can I have that tape?
SUSKIND:…the reaction. It’s in the book.
OREILLY: Can I have the tape?
SUSKIND: I am not giving out the tape at this point. I just…
OREILLY: Why, why aren’t you giving it out? If these guys are calling you a liar, if they’re saying they never said anything like this, and you’ve got them on tape, you’ve got to put that out there man, for your own credibility.
SUSKIND: We’ll see how the thing unfolds over the next couple of days.
OREILLY: Why wouldn’t you put it out?
SUSKIND: Because I’ve been a reporter for 25 years. I don’t dump tape on sources.
OREILLY: It’s not dump taping, it’s backing up your assertions of criminal behavior.
SUSKIND: I don’t dump tape on sources. I’ve never done it before; we’re going to see how it unfolds. Let me just tell you what I think’s going to occur: there are people who know about this, reporters are out hunting for them now, they have a sense of who they might be. Ultimately everything here, I’m telling you, everything is absolutely true, and there are other people who know about it…
OREILLY: Alright, let’s cut to the chase. Let’s cut right down to the heart of the matter. If everything you say in this book is true, who goes to jail?
SUSKIND: Well, it’s interesting. It’ll have to be adjudicated in front of Congress.
OREILLY: I got it, I got it. Who goes to jail Ron?
SUSKIND: They go to the White House.
OREILLY: Bush goes to jail?
SUSKIND: That’s where it comes from. They go to the White House.
OREILLY: Alright, so you’re saying that President Bush goes-- you are predicating President Bush is going to go to prison over this letter.
SUSKIND: I am saying simply that Congress will adjudicate the criminal issue on this particular matter, and whether, and how, it may or may not be an impeachable offense. That’s not for me to call people names or to say this is going to happen.
OREILLY: No, but I mean, if what you say is true, there’s no doubt it is. There’s no doubt that these people committed a fraud.
SUSKIND: Well other people have fun with that, to talk about that…
OREILLY: No, you’re doing a little dance here.
SUSKIND: Talk about the second source though. It’s really important. Maguire. Okay, he was key here: as you read the book, he’s all over the thing. Maguire had what was in the book, he’s out overseas, he’s far away in a remote place.
OREILLY: Yeah I got a quote from him though, I’ll it in a minute, but you go ahead.
SUSKIND: Yeah, in here, “I never received any instructions.”
SUSKIND: All of that, let me tell you how it happened, it might be interesting for your listeners. What happened here is that someone seemed to get to Richer. I talked to him the morning of the statement, he’d read the book the night before, he says, “it’s fine by me, everything seems to be sound.”
OREILLY: And you have that on tape?
SUSKIND: Don’t have that on tape, but there’s other things on tape, alright? All I can say is Richer, and he talked to other reporters too, the morning of all this blow up in the afternoon. He says he’s going to be fine. I mean Rob and I talked about that, you know, “How are you going to work on the statements you’re going to make?” “Well, you know, I don’t want to say too much,” that kind of thing. Alright? He got the book the night before. And he talked to other reporters too. In the afternoon, something happened. Reporters called up and said, “He seems jumpy, what’s up with Richer?”
OREILLY: Well why wouldn’t he?
OREILLY: I mean you’ve got two guys in here pointing fingers and saying the President of the United States fabricated a letter to justify a war. Why wouldn’t you be jumpy? I mean I’d be a little jumpy.
SUSKIND: Yeah, me too. Absolutely. Absolutely. Which is why…
OREILLY: But now they say that it’s bull.
SUSKIND: No, no. Richer says here-- Richer never says…
OREILLY: He says, “I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter, and as to how it circulated in Iraq. I don’t know anything about it.” That’s what he says; I’ve got it right here.
SUSKIND: I know I’ve got it in front of me too. You know, what happened was that Maguire got a rendering of the book, he hadn’t read it, he was reading it on out-- a rendering of the book from Richer…
OREILLY: Now look Ron, you’re a serious guy.
SUSKIND: I am.
OREILLY: You’re a Pulitzer Prize winner…
SUSKIND: I’ve been doing this for a long time.
OREILLY: Right, you’re not some Seymour Hersh who’s out to embarrass anybody he doesn’t like politically; I want the audience to know.
OREILLY: But this looks shaky to me Ron. But, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt man. You want to release those tapes; I’ll put them on The Factor, that’s the most powerful engine you can go to. Alright? You want to. You’ve got more things here that point to dishonesty, I’m willing to listen.
OREILLY: But from this interview Ron, I don’t think you sold it man.
SUSKIND: At this point, everything is on-the-record from these guys; there are other people as well…
OREILLY: Alright, we’ll let people make up their own mind…
SUSKIND: We’ll be fine and you and I will talk of this after.
OREILLY: Alright, The Way of the World, Ron Suskind everyone, thanks for coming.
SUSKIND: You be well Bill.
OREILLY: What do you say?
LIS WIEHL: You are a journalist. Would you release these tapes now if these sources are going back at you and saying…
OREILLY: Of course I would.
WIEHL:Right, that’s what I don’t understand. At the end of the day, why’s he holding the tapes back? I want to hear the tapes, because the tapes say everything.
OREILLY: He could blow you guys out of the water by giving me the tapes.
OREILLY: You could blow them out of the water by doing that.
WIEHL: And there’s nothing in the journalists’ ethics that say you can’t do that.
OREILLY: But look, let me point out two things. Number one: the longer the controversy goes, the more books he sells, because then it gets into the public arena, the public eyes, it’s not tough to sell books. So that’s number one. Number two: everybody’s parsing everything here, and that’s the way of the world in Washington.You parse, parse, parse, parse, parse. Number three: I don’t believe that this is going to lead anywhere, but I could be wrong. I’m not a soothsayer, but to me, you’ve got to have stronger evidence than Ron has to make the accusation, particularly when all of these people are saying no.
Look, when I talk to a guy like George Tenet on the phone, and Tenet says flat out, “Look, this is absurd, it never happened, I don’t know anything about it and none of my guys do either,” and I’ve done the research, I believe him. I believe Tenet. You know he’s a Clinton appointee; he was in the job for a long period of time. He doesn’t have anything on his sheet that’s deceptive, Tenet.
Sometimes the big boss doesn’t know what the other guys are doing.
OREILLY: No, no, no. That’s not true. If it’s a low level piece: if some clown that nobody knows about put it out, then it doesn’t go out to Tenet, or the White House. This book says it goes right to the top.
Okay, now it’s my job to be skeptical of all of these things, and I am skeptical, and I think that all good fair Americans say if a public servant like George Tenet, you like him or not, you think he’s incompetent or not, it doesn’t matter, you give him innocent until proven guilty. You have to do that if you’re a fair-minded person. But here’s something that’s really interesting about this. In his book, as I told you, I’m in it. Now I’ll read you the quote again from Suskind’s book.
“Fox’s Bill O’Reilly trumpeted the story on The O’Reilly Factor, talking breathlessly about details of the story.” I’m going to play you the tape. Go.
“I got a really interesting report today, and I know you know about this, in the British press. Apparently the coalition forces are in possession of a handwritten memo by the Iraqi intelligence service, the head of it, Tahir Jalil, somebody you know, and it says that Muhammad Atta in 2001 received training in Baghdad. Muhammad Atta of course the lead terrorist in the 9/11 mission, received training from Abu Nidal, the terrorist living in Baghdad, received the terrorist training in Baghdad. Now if this is true, that just blows the lid off the al Qaeda, Saddam connection, correct?”
[End of audio clip]
WIEHL: You sound positively sedated there.
OREILLY: Do I sound breathless to you?
WIEHL: That sounds sedated for you.
OREILLY: So obviously that’s an exaggeration from Ron. There’s no breathless about it, it was a matter of fact, “this is how it happened.” And after, the story couldn’t be authenticated because again, you’ve got to have the letter. Where’s the letter? You know forensics takes that letter and you know right away where it came from. Where is it? You write a whole book about a letter you don’t see? And you say I’m breathless about reporting it, and I’m not? I think that raises some flags, and that’s where I am on this. I don’t believe it. And I don’t think a jury, a fair-minded jury-- Bush haters will believe it, and I guess that’s who Ron wants to sell his book to, they’ll believe it. Nancy Pelosi will believe it. But fair-minded are going, “hey, wait a minute.”
And see this stuff hurts. Because it gets out all over the world that they fabricated this and they did that, and they blew up the World Trade Center themselves, and you know, when are we going to stop this stuff?
# # #
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008; A02
The Bush administration joined former top CIA officials in denouncing a new book's assertion that White House officials ordered the forgery of Iraqi documents to suggest a link between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The claim was made by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose book "The Way of the World" also contends that the White House obtained compelling evidence in early 2003 that Iraq possessed no significant stocks of nuclear or biological weapons but decided to invade the country anyway.
Suskind, who has written two previous investigative books that contained criticism of Bush administration policies, described the alleged forgery as a deliberate "misusing of an arm of government, the kind of thing generally taken up in impeachment proceedings." White House condemnations of the book were equally dramatic, with officials blasting it as "gutter journalism." In separate statements, several former and current CIA officials disputed portions of the account, including two named by Suskind as key sources.
"The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter . . . is absurd," said White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto.
The book's most contentious claims involve Tahir Jalil Habbush, the former head of intelligence in Saddam Hussein's government in the years before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. As the deadline for war neared, U.S. and British intelligence officials arranged a series of secret meetings with Habbush in early 2003 and confronted him regarding their concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction .
In those private meetings, Habbush explained why U.N. weapons inspectors had been unable to find evidence of active Iraqi WMD programs: There were none. According to Suskind, Habbush said Saddam Hussein had ended Iraq's nuclear weapons work after the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, and halted biological weapons research in 1996.
Habbush's accounts were shared with top officials at the CIA and the White House, where they were dismissed as Iraqi deception. In subsequent meetings, Suskind writes, intelligence officials prodded Habbush for proof that the weapons programs had been abandoned.
"Ultimately, Habbush could not offer proof that weapons that didn't exist, didn't exist," Suskind wrote.
After the invasion, Habbush was paid $5 million by the CIA for serving as an informant and resettled in Jordan. It was then, according to Suskind's account, that White House officials decided to enlist his help with the alleged forgery -- one suggesting a link between Saddam Hussein's government and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attack. The administration, and particularly Vice President Cheney, had long argued that such a link existed but that the CIA had failed to find supporting evidence. Claims by a captured al-Qaeda official of links to Hussein were later determined to be false.
Suskind states that, in September 2003, the White House directed then-CIA Director George J. Tenet to concoct a fake letter, backdated to July 2001 but bearing Habbush's signature, claiming that Atta had been trained in Iraq for his mission. Habbush agreed to sign the letter, which was then leaked to a British journalist in December 2003, Suskind writes in the book.
The author quotes two former CIA officials -- Robert Richer and John Maguire, veterans of the CIA's operations division -- as sources for the account. But the two men, in a statement to The Washington Post, disputed Suskind's account that they had been tasked with producing the forgery.
"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," Richer said in an e-mail.
"I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter," Maguire said in the same statement.
Suskind said he stands by his account, which he said was based on many hours of interviews in which sources "laid out the story bit by bit." Many of the interviews were taped, he said. Suskind added that he understood "the enormous pressure that can be brought to bear" on sources who formerly worked for the government and still have professional ties.
Tenet acknowledged the prewar contacts with Habbush but denied that the agency or the White House ignored vital evidence.
"There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD -- but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we assessed that these individuals were parroting the Ba'ath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack," he said in a statement. "The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner."
Regarding the alleged forgery, Tenet said it never happened.
"At my direction, CIA resisted efforts on the part of some in the Administration to paint a picture of Iraqi-Al Qaeda connections that went beyond the evidence," he said. "The notion that I would suddenly reverse our stance and have created and planted false evidence that was contrary to our own beliefs is ridiculous."