Tim Reid in Washington and Sam Coates in London | MI6 told Tony Blair before the invasion of Iraq that a high-placed Iraqi source said that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence was passed to the US but was buried by the White House, according to a new book.
The book claimed that the former Prime Minister sent a top British spy to the Middle East in 2003 — three months before the invasion — to dig up enough intelligence to avoid war but that President Bush and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, dismissed any claims or possible evidence that would stop military action.
In The Way of the World, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Ron Suskind also claimed that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a backdated, handwritten letter purportedly from the head of Iraqi Intelligence to Saddam. The letter, which came to light nine months after the invasion, was meant to demonstrate a link between the Baathist regime and al-Qaeda.
The forgery, adamantly denied by the White House, was passed to a British journalist in Baghdad and written about as if genuine by The Sunday Telegraph on December 14, 2003. The article received significant attention in the US and provided the White House with a new rationale for the invasion, Suskind claimed. The White House called the allegation absurd.
Suskind said that at the beginning of 2003 MI6 sent one of its top agents, Michael Shipster, to the region. Mr Shipster held secret meetings in Jordan with Tahir Jalil Habbush, the head of Iraqi Intelligence. The meetings were confirmed by Nigel Inkster, former assistant director of MI6.
Mr Inkster also confirmed that Mr Shipster was told by Mr Habbush that there were no illicit weapons in Iraq. Mr Inkster refused to comment last night.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of British Intelligence, was also interviewed by Suskind. The author said that Sir Richard confirmed the Shipster meetings and report. He added that he asked why Mr Blair had not acted on the intelligence.
Sir Richard was quoted as saying that the mission was an eleventh-hour “attempt to try, as it were, I’d say, to diffuse \ the whole situation”. He added: “The problem was the Cheney crowd was in too much of a hurry, really. Bush never resisted them quite strongly enough.”
Suskind wrote that Sir Richard flew to Washington in February 2003 to present the Habbush report to George Tenet, then the Director of the CIA. The report stated that according to Mr Habbush, Saddam had ended his nuclear programme in 1991 — the same year that he destroyed his chemical weapons programme — and ended his biological weapons programme in 1996. These assertions turned out to be true.
Mr Tenet briefed Mr Bush and Condoleezza Rice, at the time his National Security Adviser.
Rob Richer, a former CIA officer in the Near East division, told Suskind: “The Brits wanted to avoid war — which was what was driving them. Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq from the very first days he was in office.”
Mr Habbush was put on the White House’s list of most-wanted Iraqis but according to Suskind he was paid by the CIA in October 2003 to write the forged letter to Saddam, dated July 1, 2001, saying that the putative September 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had trained for his mission in Iraq. This was the letter publicised in The Sunday Telegraph.
Of the forgery allegation, Mr Tenet said: “There was no such order from the White House to me or, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from the CIA ever involved in any such effort.” Of Mr Habbush, Mr Tenet said that the claims in the book were a complete fabrication. He said that Mr Habbush had “failed to persuade” the British that he had “anything new to offer by way of intelligence”.
— Ron Suskind was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal from 1993 to 2000
— His serialised stories, following a religious student from a blighted inner-city school to the Ivy League Brown University, won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1995
— His 2004 book The Price of Loyalty penetrated the inner sanctum of the Bush Administration
— Excepts of his last book, The One Percent Doctrine, were published last month in Time magazine