[14 August 2006]
After months of interdepartmental exchanges over the detainment, interrogation, and prosecution of captives in the “war on terror”... the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.
The above quote from Ron Suskind’s bristly and saddening new book on the post-9/11 intelligence war leaps out from these pages of mostly reasoned prose with all the clarity of a gunshot. Until this point in the narrative, Suskind has taken the reader through a smooth recounting of what went on behind the scenes at Langley and other intel hubs in the days and months after 9/11 without leveling too much criticism at the acting parties. But in the case of the March 2002 capture and later interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian extremist, Suskind’s claws begin to extend.
Even as Bush trumpets Zubaydah’s capture, calling him al Qaeda’s chief of operations, knowledgeable CIA operatives shook their heads, knowing the man was only a mid-level fixer, not to mention utterly insane. In the frantic race to show results, an inconsequential schizophrenic was held up as a prize; much in the same way that shaky intelligence would be proudly displayed at the U.N. to justify invading Iraq. Suskind relates how an inexperienced FBI and oft-confused CIA patiently put together an international anti-terrorist strategy that began to work, shutting down financial networks and rounding up suspects by the truckload. But the book quickly makes clear that a great moral cliff was being approached at top speed, with an entire government being driven over it by the theory that gave the book its name.
One effect of the September 11 attacks, according to Suskind, was radicalizing Cheney’s ideals on the unashamed and unfettered use of American might (ideals inculcated by neoconservative think-tanks during the long, dark exile of the Clinton years); thusly, the one-percent doctrine, defined by Suskind as: “If there was even a one percent chance of such [a terrorist] act occurring, we must act as if it’s a certainty.” Obviously, once the needle has been pushed that far into the red, mistakes are not only bound to happen, they’ll be accepted as par for the course. Unfortunately, as Suskind relates, the mistakes caused by Cheney’s doctrine—a strange mix of interventionist brio and isolationist no-nothing-ism—would begin to backfire on the actors almost immediately. And so came the torture.
As 2003 dragged into 2004, the executive branch became frustrated with the lack of actionable intel being prized out of jailed extremists. It was in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that, “with such prodding, the United States would slip into the deepest of ethical abysses.” In 2004, Mohammed was being held at a secret detention center in Thailand, where interrogators had for months been throwing the worst they could at him—waterboarding, sleep deprivation, death threats—and getting useless scraps in return. Then the message came down from Langley to do whatever was necessary. The result was Mohammed being told his two children (also in U.S. custody) would be hurt if he didn’t cooperate. The senior al Qaeda blithely responded that even if they died, they’d be in a better place. And so the White House’s chest-thumping bravado ran headlong into a cold, hard fact: standard interrogation procedures work by establishing a relationship with the prisoner, not by escalating threats, ala Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer on 24. The reason, as Suskind puts it, is simple: “Once you do something as horrific as threaten someone’s children, and it doesn’t work—there’s nowhere else to go.”
There’s a lot to appreciate in The One Percent Solution, which plots out the anti-terrorist intelligence campaign with a brisk competence. Although Suskind seems unfairly enamored with George Tenet (likely his major source), painting him as having been railroaded by the administration—Suskind even disputes that Tenet’s infamous “slam dunk” statement to Bush about Iraqi WMD intelligence even happened—he at least doesn’t seem to be looking for Republican heads to put on his wall. The portrait of Bush is unflattering, to say the least, but it doesn’t appear motivated by any particular animus (Cheney, to nobody’s surprise, is portrayed as the primary mover of most of the administration’s sins)—the overriding emotion here is a tired sort of disappointment as the book winds down, with no great victories, no trophies to display, just the endless grind of information gathering and lead-following.
The closest Suskind gets to targeting the President is near the end, discussing the release of bin Laden’s 2004 “October Surprise” videotape, with instantly became a football in the volatile election. Suskind zooms in on a CIA roundtable (he’s well enamored of the fly-on-the-wall style), where analysts are talking about bin Laden’s reasons for releasing the tape when he did: “Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.” One analyst notes that the Soviets liked certain American leaders like Nixon, because they were predictable, while another said that bin Laden “would want Bush to keep doing what he’s been doing for a few more years.” Suskind writes that as the table comes to this realization, one analyst recalled feeling “sad,” saying, “We just sat there. We were dispirited. We had nothing left at that point.”
In The One Percent Solution, Suskind may not have directly gone after the architects of the war on terror, and all their arrogantly shoddy work, but relating such incidents as that above make such direct attacks rather beside the point. After all, what does one do with a president whose strategies appear to play exactly into the hands of the man who is supposedly his number-one enemy? The damage has already been done, and if shockingly few seem to understand how we came to such a desperate moment in history—going, as Suskind writes, “blindly… through the age of terror”—surely even fewer know how to reverse it.