WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and former top CIA officials denounced a new book's assertion that the White House ordered the forgery of Iraqi documents to suggest a link between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11 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 anyway.
Suskind, who has written two previous investigative books that contained criticism of Bush administration policies, described the alleged forgery as one of the great lies in modern American political history, likening it to Watergate.
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 book's most contentious allegations involve Tahir Jalil Habbush, Hussein's intelligence chief before the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. As the deadline for war neared, U.S. and British officials met with Habbush and confronted him about weapons of mass destruction.
In those secret meetings, Habbush explained why United Nations inspectors had been unable to find evidence of active Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs: There weren't any, Suskind writes. Habbush's accounts were shared with the CIA and the White House, where they were dismissed as deception.
After the invasion, Habbush was paid $5 million by the CIA for serving as an informant, and resettled in Jordan. It was then, Suskind writes, that the White House enlisted his help with a forgery -- one suggesting a link between Hussein's government and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
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, claiming that Atta had trained in Iraq for his mission. Habbush agreed to sign the letter, which was leaked to a British journalist in December 2003, Suskind writes.
The author quotes two former CIA officials -- Robert Richer and John Maguire -- as sources. But the two men, in a statement to the Washington Post, denied the story. Tenet denied it as well.
Suskind said he stood by his reporting.