A new book out on the war on terror by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind is causing quite a stir. Suskind, a veteran journalist who previously wrote a kiss-and-tell book with former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, now writes a less-than-flattering portrayal of the administration’s efforts to fight terrorism. "The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11" details a number of foiled plots against the United States. But instead of hailing the administration’s achievements in keeping America safe, the book is a long indictment of administration policy.
The title for the book, Suskind explains in a Time magazine excerpt this week, comes from a statement attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney. Suskind reports that two months after 9/11, then-CIA director George Tenet briefed the vice president and Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Adviser at the time, on a meeting between a Pakistani nuclear scientist and Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. The meeting, which took place in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was to discuss al Qaeda’s attempts to secure a nuclear device. According to Suskind, the vice president was obsessed with what he called a "low probability-high impact event." "If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response," Suskind quotes Cheney as saying. "It’s not about our analysis . . . . It’s about our response."
In Suskind’s telling, the phrase becomes a metaphor for everything he thinks has gone wrong in the war on terror. But the vice president was just reflecting what most Americans expect of our leaders, especially after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington. A "one percent doctrine" is far preferable to the bureaucratic inertia that permeated our intelligence agencies pre-9/11. We can’t afford to be wrong again. We can’t wait until operatives at Langley analyze every nuance of intelligence and debate the prerogatives before we act. Our problem is not that we have acted too precipitously but that we tied the hands of those assigned to ferret out and respond to threats to the United States.
The new information revealed in Suskind’s book comes from highly placed sources, some of whom even speak on the record. Many of these sources are clearly trying to settle old scores or deflect attention from their own failings. You get the sense that some of these fellows are more interested in correcting the record than in protecting America.
Suskind is a bit defensive about his own interest in America’s security. He told Time magazine, "I very carefully vetted everything — making sure it was something al Qaeda already knew, or that al Qaeda would not be advantaged by — over the past two years." Yet he discloses tremendous detail about a plot to release cyanide gas into the New York City subway system and the existence of U.S. agents in al Qaeda who have turned over important information to their American handlers. He also reports that the FBI has received information from First Data Corp., the company that owns Western Union, that the government has in turn handed over to Israel, providing important information on Palestinian terrorists.
Suskind has no way of assessing whether he is aiding the enemy with such information. Of course he wouldn’t intentionally harm U.S. interests, but the kind of detail he supplies can be important pieces in the puzzle for anyone trying to figure out how much we know and how we know it. No doubt he believes the public’s right to know outweighs whatever cost is entailed in revealing the government’s secrets.
The problem is not so much what Suskind has written but why those in positions of national trust talked to him in the first place. We’ve seen it before in the New York Times reports on the National Security Agency’s data-mining effort and the Washington Post’s stories on the CIA’s overseas prisons. Loose lips may yet sink our ship of state.