The Lessons of Watergate

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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.

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  1. What are these people in the Whitehouse – just a bunch of crooks?

  2. If that allegation pans out, it’s a major blow (yes, another one) to the administration’s credibility.

    Is this level of understatement supposed to be some kind of sick humor? If the allegation pans out, then the administration is guilty of a horrible, bloody crime.

  3. The primary lesson of Watergate was that Nixon should have burned the tapes on the White House lawn, then told Congress to fuck-off.

  4. I’m dubious about this claim. If the Bush administration were so inclined, then we’d have found H-bombs in Iraq. Spinning and hiding stuff seems to be more their modus operandi than forging documents.

    On the other hand, the executive branch appears to be infested by people who think anything goes when you’re huntin’ wabbits, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this proved true, either.

  5. I heard an interview with this author on WPR this morning (Wisconsin public radio)

    I am all for trying to dismantle the shadowy halls of power, but the author barely stood up to some pretty softball questions about his sources.

    I might check out the book to see how well documented these allegations are, but I am not very optimistic. If they are true then I almost think it is a shame that the guillotine was retired. If not then it is just another overzealous crackpot author trying to turn a buck.

    I am amazed that the public still has faith in any government institute. Re-elect nobody.

  6. Bad people always want to find ways to do bad things. If Cheney really thinks plausible deniability is all that matters in determining executive actions, then he’s even worse than I thought.

  7. 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.

    I’ll be over here, holding my breath.

  8. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?

  9. Now Vlad, Henry didn’t want Becket to be murdered; he just wanted him roughed up a bit ? Besides, what good did plausible deniability do him? He had to submit to the lash for his denied role in the murder of Becket.

  10. 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.

    Not to piss on everyone’s parade, but shouldn’t the book already contain enough information to determine whether the claim is true?

  11. 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.

    So, lemmegetthisstraight, some White House person ordered some CIA person, who would still be under the command of a Clinton appointee, to shack up a letter to demonstrate a “slam dunk” of evidence for the CIA Director to present to the, then skeptical, President and Vice President to overcome their objections to a lack of evidence?

    Hope this gets covered on The Morning Joe soon. Mika and Willie will get to the bottom of it.

  12. shouldn’t the book already contain enough information to determine whether the claim is true?

    Not if he’s relying on anonymous sources or whatnot.

  13. Not if he’s relying on anonymous sources or whatnot.

    Humm, is faith based publishing an official term in your industry yet? 😉

  14. Humm, is faith based publishing an official term in your industry yet?

    It is not unusual for a journalist to share the identity of a source with his editors but not with his readers.

    (Caveats: I don’t know if that’s the case here. I haven’t even seen the book.)

  15. I got yer sources right here (grabs crotch)

  16. With so many people hiding or distorting the truth, it’s hard to know what the heck is going on. I’ve seen more than enough to completely distrust the Bush administration, but I don’t entirely trust some of its enemies, either, many of whom oppose the administration because it’s Republicans doing bad things rather than Democrats. Egad.

    A journalist can’t always identify sources, given that many people won’t speak otherwise and that some of them may actually face criminal liability for certain kinds of disclosures. It makes that cross-checking stuff all the more important, of course, when you rely on such sources.

  17. So, lemmegetthisstraight, some White House person ordered some CIA person, who would still be under the command of a Clinton appointee

    The Clinton appointee angle makes me skeptical about this book’s claim.

    There wasn’t 1 Clinton era appointee who knew this was fabricated?

  18. So, lemmegetthisstraight, some White House person ordered some CIA person, who would still be under the command of a Clinton appointee[…]

    Yes, but I can’t see a CIA director ignoring of failing to follow an order from POTUS, regardless of who appointed him. Firing would be the least of his worries. The only alternative to following the order would be for the director to resign abruptly. Didn’t happen.

  19. There wasn’t 1 Clinton era appointee who knew this was fabricated?

    Perhaps that is what makes it such a great conspiracy? 🙂

  20. So much wasted effort by the current adminstration. We should just declare Manifest Destiny and take whatever we want.

  21. Tonio,

    Yes, but I can’t see a CIA director ignoring of failing to follow an order from POTUS, regardless of who appointed him. Firing would be the least of his worries. The only alternative to following the order would be for the director to resign abruptly. Didn’t happen.

    All that is true. But the fact remains that it was the CIA Director, heald over from a previous administration, that was going before the President to convince him that Iraq was culpable in something. It was not a situation of the President telling CIA to start supporting an invasion, at that point.

  22. I’m skeptical of this claim, but even if it’s true, nothing’s going to come out of it. There’s already enough evidence to convict most of the Bush White House for one crime or another but nobody wants to act on it.

  23. By the way, he isn’t claiming that the letter was forged in 2001. The letter was discovered in 2003, and claimed to have been written in 2001. If it’s actually a forgery, it was probably written around 2003.

  24. “If that allegation pans out, it’s a major blow (yes, another one) to the administration’s credibility.”

    I suspect that if anyone in this administration got blown, it would have been by someone who swallowed–not sommeone who would leave stains on a red dress.

  25. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

  26. Even if the allegation were true, there’s no way that Reid and Pelosi would allow an impeachment. They’d bring to the floor a bill granting immunity, Obama would vote for it, and then my liberal commenters at Unqualified Offerings would explain why I should vote for Obama anyway.

  27. Jesse, why do hate America?

  28. If it’s actually a forgery, it was probably written around 2003.

    That was on George Tenet’s watch. He was DCIA 1997 – 2004. Appointed by Clinton, but held over by Bush almost to the end of Bush’s first term.

    Montag, are you claiming that WOMD were part of a Clintonista plot to discredit Bush? The same Bush that came into office with a grudge against Saddam Hussein for his attempted assasination of his father?

  29. Even if the allegation were true, there’s no way that Reid and Pelosi would allow an impeachment. They’d bring to the floor a bill granting immunity, Obama would vote for it, and then my liberal commenters at Unqualified Offerings would explain why I should vote for Obama anyway.

    Because he would have promised to filibuster first, but then wouldn’t after all. See why you should vote for him now?

  30. Even if the allegation were true, there’s no way that Reid and Pelosi would allow an impeachment.

    I’m skeptical about this. Why do you think they wouldn’t impeach under these circumstances.

    They’d bring to the floor a bill granting immunity, Obama would vote for it, and then my liberal commenters at Unqualified Offerings would explain why I should vote for Obama anyway.

    I’m not sure they could do this (grant immunity) unless it was tied to testimony before Congress. Are you proposing a full disclosure in exchange for immunity deal, like South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commissions?

  31. They’ve rolled over on just about everything else, and they’d roll over on this too. He’s admitted to engaging in torture and violating FISA, and nobody did a damn thing about it.

  32. 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.

    Hey, a little credit over here? Cheyney was just a piker when I invented that system.

  33. I am skeptical of this claim, too. And so what if it is true? We have a unitary executive that says he is above the law, can torture people, and general do whatever he wants. No one has stood up to him now. What makes anyone think that if this pans out, anything is going to happen to him?

  34. If the Democrats try to impeach Bush they set up the Republicans to impeach a Democrat president who uses any of the powers Bush has assumed for himself. Why would they do that, especially considering they’re quite confident the next president will be a Democrat?

  35. “””Humm, is faith based publishing an official term in your industry yet? ;)””‘

    Yeah, it’s called a Whitehouse press briefing.

    I don’t know if the claim is real or not. But I do know this administration has absolutly no shame about it’s ends justifies the mean and fuck the rest philosophy. I wouldn’t be suprised if they did forge it nor would I be suprised if they forged the yellow cake paper.

  36. LOL yeah right.

    So far, the only forgeries we’ve found are MS Word docs the MSM tried to pass off as 1971 memos.

    Oh well, another fun round for thoreau and the rest of the antiwar loonies.

  37. “””It was not a situation of the President telling CIA to start supporting an invasion, at that point.”””

    How the hell could you possible know that? Were you privy to the conversations between the two?

  38. Find any WMD yet, Dave?

  39. “””Oh well, another fun round for thoreau and the rest of the antiwar loonies.”””

    Loony is still believing no forgeries were in play when even the Whitehouse has admitted the yellow cake paper was forged.

  40. Heh, I bet no one even notices the huge flaw in this wild allegation: that hardly anyone has ever heard of this letter that was supposedly going to be trumpeted to the world as the “smoking gun” tying Iraq to AQ.

    But of course, every wild allegation against The Bushitler is huge news. Meanwhile, John Edwards getting caught visiting his mistress and child at 4AM is a total nonstory.

    Even more hilarious:

    The author also claims that the Bush administration had information from a top Iraqi intelligence official “that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – intelligence they received in plenty of time to stop an invasion.”

    Yeah, his name was Saddam Hussein.

  41. Whitehouse has admitted the yellow cake paper was forged.

    They didn’t “admit” it, the first investigation that ever looked at them immediatlely identified them as such, and no one ever claimed otherwise.

  42. Wait, I’m confused. The letter was fabricated in 2003 but not revealed to the world as “proof” that the invasion was justified?

    Or it was revealed and I’ve been living in a cave for five years?

    What did I miss in this story?

  43. Find any WMD yet, Dave?

    We blew up a nuke plant in Syria. Does that count?

  44. Meanwhile, John Edwards getting caught visiting his mistress and child at 4AM is a total nonstory.

    Yes, that is a non-story. Who the hell gives a shit about John Edwards?

  45. Syria is in Iraq? Wow, I need to study more geography.

  46. Besides Barack Obama’s VP search committee?

  47. Wait, I’m confused. The letter was fabricated in 2003 but not revealed to the world as “proof” that the invasion was justified?

    From the Politico article:

    The letter’s existence has been reported before, and it had been written about as if it were genuine. It was passed in Baghdad to a reporter for The (London) Sunday Telegraph who wrote about it on the front page of Dec. 14, 2003, under the headline, “Terrorist behind September 11 strike ‘was trained by Saddam.'”

    The Telegraph story by Con Coughlin (which, coincidentally, ran the day Hussein was captured in his “spider hole”) was touted in the U.S. media by supporters of the war, and he was interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

    “Over the next few days, the Habbush letter continued to be featured prominently in the United States and across the globe,” Suskind writes. “Fox’s Bill O’Reilly trumpeted the story Sunday night on ‘The O’Reilly Factor,’ talking breathlessly about details of the story and exhorting, ‘Now, if this is true, that blows the lid off al Qaeda-Saddam.'”

  48. Syria is in Iraq? Wow, I need to study more geography.

    You didn’t specify Iraq.

    Do you remember what Saddam did with his air force in 1991? Why did Saddam allow himself to be overthrown rather than allow inspections?

  49. You didn’t specify Iraq.

    How utterly mendacious of you. I’m actually astonished you have the balls to say that.

  50. Jesse,

    And then nothing for five years? Why not trot this out constantly?

    This is like arguing John Kerry secretly ordered Burkett to forge the National Guard memos.

  51. I’m a skeptic. I’m skeptical of all of this administration’s pronouncements. I’m skeptical of Ron Suskind claims as well. I shall wait, see and not be surprised no matter haw this shakes out.

  52. Epi,

    Heh. if you’re going to get all sarcastically huffy about Syria not being in Iraq, which I obviously know, you can’t then self-righteously accuse me of mendacity.

    Guess what, intelligence gathering isn’t an exact science, in Syria, Iraq or anywhere else. When a guy chooses to end up at the bottom of a noose rather than allow inspections, people tend to assume he’s hiding something.

  53. Find any WMD yet, Dave?

    They’re buried under all of the rose petals our liberating troops were greeted with.

  54. “””They didn’t “admit” it, the first investigation that ever looked at them immediatlely identified them as such, and no one ever claimed otherwise.”””

    “The president’s statement in the State of the Union was incorrect because it was based on forged documents from the African nation of Niger, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday.” (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/07/09/iraq/main562312.shtml)

    The Whitehouse did admit the yellow cake paper was a forgery.

    “””When a guy chooses to end up at the bottom of a noose rather than allow inspections, people tend to assume he’s hiding something.”””

    Isn’t that Bush’s philosophy?

  55. Do you remember what Saddam did with his air force in 1991? Why did Saddam allow himself to be overthrown rather than allow inspections?

    Do you play poker?

    At all?

  56. “”Why did Saddam allow himself to be overthrown rather than allow inspections?””

    Maybe because we considered him a ally prior to his invasion of Kuwait. He didn’t think those who sold him arms and supported his war against Iran would actually remove him from power. He was wrong.

  57. Do you play poker?

    At all?

    Dave only plays football, because in that you can shift the goalposts. Poker doesn’t have goalposts.

  58. And then nothing for five years? Why not trot this out constantly?

    Because there was already a high liklihood that it was untrue. Nobody thought that it was doctored by the US until these allegations, however, which meant that it was just another example of the Administration’s bad intel. Maybe it’ll turn out to still be that. Who knows?

  59. Oh well, another fun round for thoreau and the rest of the antiwar loonies.

    Funny that a guy who thinks we couldn’t have won the Cold War without supporting terrorists and mass-murdering dictators is calling other people “loonies.”

  60. Vic,

    That’s not what Ari actually said, that’s the reporter assuming that’s what he meant.

    “The president’s statement was based on the predicate of the yellow cake” uranium “from Niger,” Fleischer told reporters. “So given the fact that the report on the yellow cake did not turn out to be accurate, that is reflective of the president’s broader statement.”

    This article was based on Joe Wilson claiming he had seen the forgeries, had been sent by Cheney, and that his trip had determined that Iraq was not seeking uranium in Niger, all of which turned out to be lies.

  61. Funny that a guy who thinks we couldn’t have won the Cold War without supporting terrorists and mass-murdering dictators is calling other people “loonies.”

    Sure, and maybe we could have won WW II without Stalin. It wasn’t the best bet, though.

  62. Do you play poker? At all?

    In poker, if you bluff you generally have something to gain that is of equal value to what you risk. Why risk going from being the all-powerful dictator of your country to being executed in front of your cheering enemies in exchange for the relatively worthless stakes of continuing the pretense of having WMD?

  63. 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.

    Also known as “delegation.” Jeebus, its not a crime, its an essential leadership skill.

  64. Loony is still believing no forgeries were in play when even the Whitehouse has admitted the yellow cake paper was forged.

    One of the funnier things about this whole mess, from my point of view, is that the anti-war crowd’s original allegation was that this was a cooked-up war over nonexistent yellowcake, all to steal Iraq’s oil. Funny thing is, we had access to Iraqi oil to begin with, and it doesn’t appear that we’ve successfully stolen any. However, I recently read a story which indicated that, within the last month, we basically stole all of Iraq’s yellowcake. (And sold it to a Canadian company)

    http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/07/07/iraq.uranium/

    And we may make them pay for the privilege.

  65. And then nothing for five years? Why not trot this out constantly?

    Practicality. People have been accusing the Bush administration of all sorts of things for a long time, but the American public has, for the most part, stuck their collective fingers in their ears while chanting “LA, LA, LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” Only within the past few months has it been possible to have any allegations against the administration taken seriously.

    This will sink or swim based on the merits, not the tactics.

    This is like arguing John Kerry secretly ordered Burkett to forge the National Guard memos.

    W….T….F????? Uh, no.

  66. Also known as “delegation.”

    Well, no. The more appropriate term, as commenter “Ronald Reagan” hinted above, is “plausible deniability.”

  67. Sure, and maybe we could have won WW II without Stalin. It wasn’t the best bet, though.

    Good one, TD.

  68. Sure, and maybe we could have won WW II without Stalin. It wasn’t the best bet, though.

    Helping Stalin beat the Nazis = paying terrorists to murder and torture civilians in third world countries for purely political reasons. Again, you’re calling other people “loonies” while pretending that this makes some kind of sense.

  69. And I’ll add that suggesting that paying for terrorists to murder and torture civilians to decrease the tiny risk of the Soviet Union not collapsing under its own hubris implies that the values described in our Constitution are not worth defending with any sense of honor or dignity.

    It suggests that our Constitution and our Republic are so weak that unless we occasionally and regularly act like animals and villains, we will never survive. It’s a weak-minded and weak-willed philosophy that relies on dismissing everything that makes America special.

  70. So far, the only forgeries we’ve found are MS Word docs the MSM tried to pass off as 1971 memos.

    Therefore there can’t be others. Hmm. You’re probably right, forgers usually stop at one.

    that hardly anyone has ever heard of this letter that was supposedly going to be trumpeted to the world as the “smoking gun” tying Iraq to AQ.

    Um, right-wing nutjobs like yourself (perhaps even you in particular back then) yelled from the rooftops about the letter and it was in the papers. What more do you want?

    Meanwhile, John Edwards getting caught visiting his mistress and child at 4AM is a total nonstory.

    As it should be. He is not in charge of anything and is not going to be President, and his visit did not result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or in the squandering of a trillion dollars. The difference is subtle, I know.

    We blew up a nuke plant in Syria. Does that count?

    How could it, we invaded Iraq.

    You didn’t specify Iraq.

    What an incredibly disingenuous reply. There are WMDs everywhere, including on American military bases. In the context of this thread it is obvious that the WMD question pertained to the justification of war in Iraq.

    Guess what, intelligence gathering isn’t an exact science

    Which is why wars shouldn’t be based on it.

    Why risk going from being the all-powerful dictator of your country to being executed in front of your cheering enemies in exchange for the relatively worthless stakes of continuing the pretense of having WMD?

    Why indeed. But who are you talking about? Bizarro Saddam?

  71. “Q: On the Iraq question, when did the administration first learn of doubts about the information about Niger?

    MR. FLEISCHER: In terms of the forged documents, that was revealed by the IAEA in March of 2003. And that’s the key element on the Niger issue. But, you know, if you take a look at Director Tenet’s statement about Niger, there’s some interesting information in there. Director Tenet, when he talks about the former ambassador’s mission to Niger, and then he reported back to the CIA on what he found when he went there –”
    (http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2003/July/20030714162749snommis0.3112757.html)

    Condi says they WH now knows they were forged.

    Dr Rice
    “Now, I can tell you, if the CIA, the Director of Central Intelligence, had said, take this out of the speech, it would have been gone, without question. What we’ve said subsequently is, knowing what we now know, that some of the Niger documents were apparently forged, we wouldn’t have put this in the President’s speech — but that’s knowing what we know now.”
    (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/07/20030711-7.html)

  72. “””Why risk going from being the all-powerful dictator of your country to being executed in front of your cheering enemies in exchange for the relatively worthless stakes of continuing the pretense of having WMD?”””

    You would have to ask the man himself for the real answer. But pretending to be more badass than you are has proven useful in the natural world. Many animals have successfully used that technique to survive. More importantly it is believed that Saddam’s people were lying to him about the WMD, it’s been said that Saddam himself was suprised that he didn’t have them. This has been used by people to justify our belief that the WMD threat was legit. If Saddam didn’t know he had none, how were we suppose to know?

  73. What’s this nonsense about Saddam not allowing inspections?

    Saddam did allow inspections. Saddam requested that the UN inspectors be sent back to Iraq. It was Bush who refused.

    It’s also silly to say Saddam was claiming to have WMD, when Iraq claimed over and over that they had no WMD. You may claim that Saddam “acted like he was hiding something” behind his public statements that he had no WMD, but that’s an extraordinarily difficult statement to weigh objectively.

    “I have no WMD.”

    “You seem like you’re hiding something.”

  74. Incidentally, the book apparently “has two high-level CIA operatives on the record” about the forgery. Or so says the L.A. Times.

  75. As if Seymour Hersh wasn’t enough we have this clown doing his Joe Wilson imitation. This guy has the credibility of a Clinton adviser telling you that he uses his underwear to store secret documents because its safe.

    Surpised you’d notice such claptrap.

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