Tuesday, June 20, 2006, the day before summer began, seemed a good time to take a break from political commentary. And in his "here's summer" item, Garrison Keillor pretty much sums up why -
So that about sums it up. Relax in the shade with a good book.
White custardy clouds in the blueberry sky and here I am, sprawled on a chaise on the porch, ambition leaking out of me like water through cupped hands. Ambition has left the building. Hello, summer.
The country is in danger but someone else can rally to defend it, not me. Flag-burning gay married men are taxing dead people, and godless liberals, using 9/11 widows for cover, are in cahoots with jihadists, radioing coordinates of secret nuclear sites, lighting bonfires in meadows to guide enemy bombers to their targets, but the Hardy boys will have to track them down. I'm done. I have no wish to accomplish anything other than fetch more of this iced mint tea and crank the chaise back for maximum relaxability. Whatever my goals were last week - to make a difference in the world, to light a candle and follow a different drummer, perhaps teach a man to fish - my new goal is to get out of stuff. I am no longer available for work. So don't ask.
The problem is the book everyone seems to be talking about on the first day of summer is The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind -
Or so says Publishers Weekly.
In this troubling portrait of the war on terror, America's intelligence agencies confront not just al-Qaeda but the Bush administration's politicized incompetence. Journalist Suskind (The Price of Loyalty) follows the triumphs and failures of the "invisibles"- the counterterrorism experts at the NSA, the FBI and especially the CIA - as they painstakingly track terrorists' communications and financial transactions, interrogate prisoners and cultivate elusive al-Qaeda informants. Unfortunately, he contends, their meticulous intelligence-sifting went unappreciated by administration policymakers, especially Dick Cheney, who formulated an overriding "one percent" doctrine: threats with even a 1% likelihood must be treated as certainties. The result was "the severing of fact-based analysis from forceful response," most glaringly in the trumped-up alarm over Iraqi WMDs. In dramatizing the tensions between CIA professionals and White House ideologues, Suskind makes his sympathies clear: CIA chief George Tenet, pressured to align intelligence with administration policy, emerges as a tragic fall guy, while President Bush comes off as a dunce and a bully, likened by some observers to a ventriloquist's dummy on Cheney's knee. Suskind's novelistic scene-setting - "Condi looked up, impatiently" - sometimes meanders. But he assembles perhaps the most detailed, revealing account yet of American counterterrorism efforts and a hard-hitting critique of their direction.
Suskind is at it again.
In January 2004 it was The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill - that would be O'Neill the former Treasury Secretary, and it was about how Bush was more than a bit disengaged - "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people" - and was being manipulated by his senior staff ("a Praetorian guard") and made the case that the White House was intent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein long before Tuesday, September 11, 2001 - "It was all about finding a way to do it." No one was buying that at the time, but more and more do now.
And in these pages and most everywhere else people notice what he reported in October 2004 in the New York Times here, starting that whole "reality-based" thing - he said in 2002 a White House "senior adviser" said this: "The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.'" That's famous now. These guys don't think much of reality.
And too there was that item in Esquire in January 2003 (here) when he managed to get the former head of the president's office of faith-based initiatives, John DiIulio, to say some awful this -- "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," and "What you've got is everything - and I mean everything - being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." Ouch. He's good at getting people to talk, and say what they probably shouldn't say.
And now there's this, full of interesting tidbits, like the CIA nickname for Vice President Cheney is Edgar - for Edgar Bergen, as in Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Actually, that may be a major point. Cheney is running the show. Bush is the ventriloquist's dummy.
Many noticed that, and that was covered in these pages, April 4, 2004, in Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy, At the time, the 9/11 Commission wanted to talk with Bush and Cheney - how did this all happen? - and each had agreed only to individual "visits" with the two co-chairs of the ten member panel, not the full ten-member panel, and only for one hour each, and not under oath, and with no written record of the what was said - no note-taking or any of that stuff. But then the administration's attorney sent a note with this -
This did lead some to conclude the Bush was afraid to face these ten questioners without Dick Cheney by his side to tell him what he was thinking back then, and to tell him what he did back then, and to remind him of why he did whatever it was that he did back then - so Bush could then coherently answer the questions posed to him. The problem' here was that this just made Bush look as if he could not think for himself or explain himself in a tight spot.
I would also like to take this occasion to offer an accommodation on another issue on which we have not yet reached an agreement - commission access to the president and vice president. I am authorized to advise you that the president and vice president have agreed to one joint private session with all 10 commissioners.
CNN's Aaron Brown - long gone now, replaced by the emotive Anderson Cooper - said this at the time -
But he didn't appear alone. And now we get some background.
There are problems you can't avoid and then there are problems that you create and we submit that the White House's problems with the 9/11 commission fall into that latter group. There never should have been any, at least not big ones, and there still has been hardly anything but big problems for the White House.
The White House opposed the creation of the commission, preferring it be left to Congress. The families objected. Polls showed the country did as well. The president gave in.
The White House resisted documents the commission said it needed and, after a nasty public spat, the White House relented again. When the commission said it needed more time, 60 more days to do its work, the White House again said no and, again under political pressure relented.
And now today, after weeks of saying no to public testimony by his national security adviser and absorbing all the political heats that position entailed, the president gave in again.
The New York Times explains in their review of the new Suskind book, that this is indeed so - the president is both incurious and uninformed, and time and time again is not fully briefed, as he just wouldn't get it. One example is here -
So keep him in the dark, as anyway he likes it better that way? So it would seem. The less he knows the better. All the tin-foil hat conspiracy whacko theorists, hyperventilating that Cheney was and is running things and Bush was and is a boy-child kept in the dark and trotted out to say things for the rubes who like his Texas swagger, get their documentation. And they get a lot of it.
During a November 2001 session with the president, Mr. Suskind recounts, a C.I.A. briefer realized that the Pentagon had not told Mr. Bush of the C.I.A.'s urgent concern that Osama bin Laden might escape from the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan (as he indeed later did) if United States reinforcements were not promptly sent in. And several months later, he says, attendees at a meeting between Mr. Bush and the Saudis discovered after the fact that an important packet laying out the Saudis' views about the Israeli-Palestinian situation had been diverted to the vice president's office and never reached the president.
Keeping information away from the president, Mr. Suskind argues, was a calculated White House strategy that gave Mr. Bush "plausible deniability" from Mr. Cheney's point of view, and that perfectly meshed with the commander in chief's own impatience with policy details. Suggesting that Mr. Bush deliberately did not read the full National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was delivered to the White House in the fall of 2002, Mr. Suskind writes: "Keeping certain knowledge from Bush - much of it shrouded, as well, by classification - meant that the president, whose each word circles the globe, could advance various strategies by saying whatever was needed. He could essentially be 'deniable' about his own statements."
"Whether Cheney's innovations were tailored to match Bush's inclinations, or vice versa, is almost immaterial," Mr. Suskind continues. "It was a firm fit. Under this strategic model, reading the entire N.I.E. would be problematic for Bush: it could hem in the president's rhetoric, a key weapon in the march to war. He would know too much."
The Washington Post review hones in on another matter here, a small matter of the president flat-out lying to us all, then torturing a mentally ill man for information he didn't have -
But wait! There's more! -
One example out of many comes in Ron Suskind's gripping narrative of what the White House has celebrated as one of the war's major victories: the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations even after U.S. and Pakistani forces kicked down his door in Faisalabad, the Saudi-born jihadist was the first al-Qaeda detainee to be shipped to a secret prison abroad. Suskind shatters the official story line here.
Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" - a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."
Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics - travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.
This is a comedy of tragic errors, or a tragedy of comic errors, or as Andrew Sullivan says here - "This shallow, monstrous, weak, and petty man is still the president. God help us."
"I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety - against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each ? target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."
Then one of Sullivan's readers says this -
The right ignores all this of course, as here - "I think many are going to conclude it doesn't hold up and is basically just another attempt to hurt the Bush administration by sources within the CIA."
? A weak man bred to believe he is strong and a leader of men. Propelled to success by family and powerful friends, he is granted the world's foremost authority, but his victory is marred by controversy. At first he is insecure about his legitimacy, so he makes no bold moves and vacations at home where he is comfortable. Then, tragedy strikes, a historical moment that sears itself so immediately into the hearts of men that the date is marked forever: September the 11th. The leader asks God's guidance and feels a revelation: this is fate. He has been chosen to lead America and the world in this decisive historical moment. Imbued with a sense of purpose and divine right, not to mention a political landscape in which his word is the nation's command, he prepares to act. But he is still a weak, insecure man at heart, and he puts his faith not just in God, but in his right-hand men - Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove. After all, he tells himself, they are also chosen to be in these positions at this time. He trusts them and he trusts their decisions to be the right ones, but in truth it is because he does not trust himself to question their judgments.
So our leader assumes the role of every bad manager - calling endlessly for unity, for strength and for faith, offering platitudes and placebos with no confidence in his own grasp on the policies that will solve the problem. And the people, rocked to their core by five jetliner-missiles, trust him, need to trust in their leaders. But as time passes, as the hubristic and imperial, aggressive policies of our leader's right-hand men become clear, as it becomes obvious that these men are above governing and providing for the people, We the People begin to see that we have misplaced our trust, twice. Perhaps these leaders are merely incompetent. Perhaps they have a grand agenda they believe is too important to the globe to be bothered with international humility. Whatever the case, our fearful leader can only fumble and obfuscate when a frustrated press and citizenry begin to ask, "What policies are you uniting us behind, exactly?"
And now here we are, having abdicated our Constitutional authority to an executive whose values do not include leveling with the American people, or treating other nations as equally sovereign. Congress festers with corruption and abdicates its oversight duties in the face of the executive's aggression. Judges are accused of 'activism' when they exercise their authority as a co-equal branch of government. The party in power is corrupt and beholden to the fundamentalists who secured its voting coalition. The opposition party scrambles for an appropriate vision but cannot seem to cohere or inspire. And We the People do not protest, they do not march, they do not riot to oppose torture in their name, or espionage conducted on them.
The stories that endure are those that speak to the rhythms of history - ambition breeds success breeds hubris breeds decadence breeds a downfall breeds introspection breeds spiritual rebirth breeds confidence breeds ambition and so on. This story has been told many times, in Rome, in France, in Britain, in Germany, in Russia, and now perhaps in America.
But see also Dan Froomkin in the Post here -
It all happened? Maybe so.
The part of Ron Suskind's new book that's getting all the attention this morning is his chilling disclosure that al-Qaeda apparently planned, then called off, a hydrogen cyanide gas attack in New York's subway in 2003.
But the longer-term significance of Suskind's new book - his second major expose of the Bush White House in three years - will likely be how it documents Vice President Cheney's singularly dominant role in the foreign policy and national security decisions typically attributed to President Bush.
Where other journalists smarmily imply that Cheney is in charge, or credulously relate White House assurances that he's not, Suskind appears to have gotten people with first-hand experience to actually describe how Cheney operates - and what he has wrought.
And Time is running excerpts and says this -
So we know who's running things.
Two months had passed since 9/11, and at the highest levels of government, officials were worrying about a second wave of attacks. CIA Director George Tenet was briefing Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the White House Situation Room on the agency's latest concern: intelligence reports suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had met with a radical Pakistani nuclear scientist around a campfire in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Absorbing the possibility that al-Qaeda was trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Cheney remarked that America had to deal with a new type of threat - what he called a "low-probability, high-impact event' - and the U.S. had to do it 'in a way we haven't yet defined," writes author Ron Suskind in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11.
And then Cheney defined it: "If there's a 1% 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. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." Suskind writes, "So, now spoken, it stood: a standard of action that would frame events and responses from the Administration for years to come."
And there's Suskind being interviewed by Matt Lauer on the NBC Today Show here saying this "one percent" business "embraces suspicions as a threshold for action" -
And the Time item notes when CIA Director Tenet and some of his briefers initially headed over to the White House to tell Bush about any new threat, Tenet has to go in first, he had to "prebrief Bush for four or five minutes" - it seems to have been a "common practice" so that "Bush could be authoritative and updated when others arrived." If Dick wasn't there he wouldn't know what to say? He's looked like he didn't have a clue?
Matt Lauer: "You think there are grave dangers in this type of policy. Why?"
Suskind: "The fact is for us as the most powerful nation in the world, what it does is it sends us into a kind of tactical ferocity where we're following everything, where we can't even have a one percent chance not be handled with the full force of the U.S. The difficulty is there is backlash when you act that way?"
Lauer: "Are you suggesting that Dick Cheney drives the policy of the administration?"
Suskind: "The evidence is that Cheney is the global thinker. Bush is an action-based man, but he operates within a framework that Cheney largely designed."
This is depressing stuff, but it's summer. And as for beach reading, try a nice mystery or a romance. This book, arriving with the solstice, won't help you relax. You've been warned.