The Lessons of Watergate


Politico highlights an explosive charge in Ron Suskind's latest book:

A new book by the author Ron Suskind claims that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a back-dated, handwritten letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence to Saddam Hussein.

Suskind writes in "The Way of the World," to be published Tuesday, that the alleged forgery—adamantly denied by the White House—was designed to portray a false link between Hussein's regime and al Qaeda as a justification for the Iraq war….

"The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001," Suskind writes. "It said that 9/11 ringleader Mohammad 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 pressing CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq. There is no link."

If that allegation pans out, it's a major blow (yes, another one) to the administration's credibility. I hope it sets off some hard-nosed follow-up investigations, both in the press and, if it looks like the charge is true, in another branch of the government. But to me, the most interesting part of the Politico piece comes later, with this extract from the book:

After the searing experience of being in the Nixon White House, Cheney developed a view that the failure of Watergate was not the break-in, or even the cover-up, but the way the president had, in essence, been over-briefed. There were certain things a president shouldn't know—things that could be illegal, disruptive to key foreign relationships, or humiliating to the executive.

The key was a signaling system, where the president made his wishes broadly known to a sufficiently powerful deputy who could take it from there. If an investigation ensued, or a foreign leader cried foul, the president could shrug. This was never something he'd authorized.

For more on the lessons that Cheney and company drew from the Nixon presidency, read this Matt Welch column from 2004. The key line: "Watergate taught millions of Americans about the dangers of government operating without sunshine. But Bush administration officials, especially those who lived through the scandal, learned an altogether different lesson—that checks and balances can be distractions and handcuffs."

Update: More on the alleged forgery's contents here.