American and British intelligence agents engaged in back-channel discussions with Saddam Hussein's intelligence chief prior to the 2003 invasion, and the White House ignored his warnings that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, according to a new book by author Ron Suskind.
The book, "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism" published Tuesday, also charges that, in an effort to cover up the faulty case for war, the White House ordered the CIA to forge a handwritten, backdated letter from the Iraqi intelligence chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, suggesting a long-standing link between Iraq and al Qaeda. The book also says Habbush was paid millions of dollars by the CIA to go into hiding after the invasion and keep quiet about the pre-war discussions.
The book quotes by name five former CIA and British intelligence officials who say they have firsthand knowledge of these claims. Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter formerly with the Wall Street Journal, has published two previous books about the Bush Administration, including best seller, The One Percent Doctrine.
The White House today flatly rejected the book's claims.
"Ron Suskind has chosen to dwell in the netherworld of bizarre conspiracy theories. The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter from Habbush to Saddam Hussein is absurd," White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said.
Although some of the men quoted in the book were among his top aides, George Tenet, who headed the CIA during the pre-war period in question, today also rejected the book's allegations as "seriously flawed."
Tenet rejects "as a complete fabrication" Suskind's reporting that British and American intelligence sources had been told by the Iraqi spy chief that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"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. The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner," Tenet said.
Tenet says he has not read the book but complains that Suskind did not attempt to interview him for the book. "Mr. Suskind never contacted me on anything regarding this book. I suppose he had a story that fell into the category of: "too good to check."
Suskind's book outlines months of alleged secret discussions with Habbush, beginning in Jordan in January 2003 with Michael Shipster, the head of Iraqi operations for the British intelligence service, MI6. In that meeting, Suskind reports that Habbush told Shipster that Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and no active programs to build them.
Habbush told Shipster that Saddam Hussein was more concerned with threats from regional enemies like Iran than a US invasion, according to Nigel Inkster, a former senior British intelligence official quoted in the book.
Suskind writes that senior US officials were briefed on the discussions with Habbush, all the way up to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, CIA Director Tenet, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the head of the British intelligence agency MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove.
"The reaction inside the White House was one of surprise, then skepticism, from the president on down. After being told that Habbush had said there were no WMD, Bush was frustrated. 'Why don't they ask him to give us something we can use to help make our case?' he told an aide," Suskind writes.
After Shipster had met several times with Habbush, British intelligence prepared a final report for their American counterparts, which Tenet then used to brief President Bush and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, according to the book.
"The report stated that according to Habbush, Saddam had ended his nuclear program in 1991, the same year he destroyed his chemical weapons stockpile. Iraq had no intention, Habbush said, of restarting either program," Suskind writes. "The White House then buried the Habbush report. They instructed the British that they were no longer interested in keeping the channel open."
A former CIA official, Rob Richer, who headed the CIA's Near East division, tells Suskind in the book that the White House simply ignored Habbush's information and later told British intelligence that they no longer wanted Habbush as an informant.
"Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq from the very first days he was in office. Nothing was going to stop that," Richer is quoted saying in the book.
The book also quotes Dearlove as saying about the march to war, that "the Cheney crowd was in too much of a hurry, really. Bush never resisted them quite strongly enough."
The White House today also denied the charge it ignored any warnings that Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction.
"As every report and commission on pre-war intelligence has concluded, the Saddam Hussein wanted his neighbors to believe he had weapons of mass destruction. In fact, he had previously used WMD to murder hundreds of thousands of his own people. Our intelligence estimates at the time and intelligence estimates from other nations believed that he still harbored such weapons. We know now that those estimates were wrong, but they were the estimates we all relied on," Fratto said.
Suskind writes that the CIA paid Habbush $5 million in "hush money" to not appear in public and disclose his pre-war warnings that Iraq had no WMD. The intel chief was a wanted man and was laying low in Jordan.
However, by the time Habbush was paid in October 2003, Suskind writes, "the White House had finally thought of a way to use Habbush."
"The White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush to Saddam, backdated to July 1, 2001. It said that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed 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," Suskind writes.
"This was creating a deception," Richer is quoted saying in the book.
According to the book, the letter was strategically leaked to the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph which first reported it on December 14, 2003.
In a statement today, Tenet denied his agency fabricated the letter.
"There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort," he said.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano told ABC News, "I have no reason at all to think the agency was directed to fabricate the letter or that anyone here did so. In fact, a document like that would have contradicted CIA's position on the relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. It doesn't make any sense. If that allegation is typical of the book, it should be re-shelved under fiction."
Suskind defended his book against the criticism from Tenet, the White House and the CIA.
"I spoke to high ranking officials in the CIA who had direct first hand knowledge of who said what to whom. Many of them keep daybooks and ledgers and notes so they can get things exactly right. They are on the record in extensive statements in the book and the book stands solidly as evidence," he told ABC News.
"It's regrettable though expected that the White House would react this way. If they reacted any other way they would have to answer questions that might have some legal consequences."
Suskind explained why his sources would come forward only now, years later.
"Many of them have been walking around with this lump in their chest for five years," he said. "Some of the sources, especially some of the off the record sources, felt that at the end of this Bush era it is imperative to be truthful about this issue - going to war under false pretenses so that we settle accounts and people understand what occurred and what the truth is. So we can get past this as a country. That is a big part of what some, I think, of the motivations were when they had the opportunity to finally speak."
ABC News' Sara Just and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.