When tiny risks get extreme reactions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11

Ron Suskind

Simon & Schuster / 367 pages / $27

If Bob Woodward is the chronicler of the Bush administration, Ron Suskind is its analyst.

The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11 is his latest attempt to burrow beneath the cranium of this White House and expose the intricacies of the psychodrama within.

The title comes from a doctrine Suskind credits to Vice President Dick Cheney. As administration actors contemplated the various disastrous scenarios post-Sept. 11, Cheney ruled that if there was a 1 percent possibility that something has happened, act as if it has happened.

So, for instance, if the CIA finds that there is a slight chance al-Qaida has gotten hold of some anthrax, the government should go into action as if that has definitely happened.

It is a doctrine that gets a succinct analysis from Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize winner from the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I think it's stupid," said the expert on negotiation strategies. It is a view many other experts share.

"How often you worry about these remote possibilities is a debatable proposition," said Steven David, a security expert in the political science department of the Johns Hopkins University. "Instead, it would be better to worry about things that are more likely to happen, even if the results are not so catastrophic, like 'Gee, once we topple Saddam Hussein, what do we do next?'"

Suskind, the former longtime Wall Street Journal reporter, first took the analyst role with The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill. That 2004 book was an early critical journey inside the current administration, led not by a professional critic but by the person Bush picked to be secretary of the treasury.

Just before that year's election, Suskind wrote an article for The New York Times Sunday magazine - "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." It is still widely quoted, mainly for a passage from an unidentified White House aide who dismissed Suskind as being part of "the reality-based community," saying that in the Bush administration, the belief was, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. ... We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The One Percent Doctrine continues this theme. It is at once a page-turning, blow-by-blow, inside-the-administration account of the days, weeks, months and, eventually, years that followed the Sept. 11 attacks; an apologia for the Central Intelligence Agency during this time; and a critical but nonpolemical analysis of why this particular group of people acted in the way that they did during this critical period of the American story.

The book has its share of highly touted revelations, none more memorable than the description of discovering on a suspect's computer plans for a simple device that almost anyone could construct and put almost anywhere that could be remotely triggered to release deadly gas. It was called the mubtakkar, Arabic for "invention."

It also recounts, as others have, the reaction of those whose job was to protect us in the days after Sept. 11, how all too often they reacted as top executives in any big business would - more interested in protecting their bureaucratic turf than in protecting the country.

But the individual points and revelations are not what give a book like this distinction. More important is the narrative, how the author connects the points, the journey the reader takes through the government, these personalties, and into the murky world of fighting an elusive enemy.

In this, Suskind seems content with the role that the White House aide gave him in the New York Times magazine story, being left "to just study what we do." The underlying point is that this administration is indeed addicted to acting, but it could benefit from spending a little more time studying. If it did that, it might discover that creating new realities is a bit more difficult than one might imagine.

The 1 percent doctrine is emblematic of that mindset.

"This implies that you would be willing to invade 100 Iraqs if one of them might be on the brink of having weapons of mass destruction," Schelling said. "I think if you look at the cost of invading 100 Iraqs versus the cost of facing one Iraq with a nuclear weapon, that looks like an awfully expensive choice.

"There are all kinds of things that have 1 percent chance of occurring," said Schelling, who won the Nobel prize in economics this year. "An American has more than a 1 percent chance of dying in an automobile accident sometime during their life. The only way to avoid that is not to ride in an automobile. But most people find that too much of a sacrifice to make to avoid that 1 percent chance of dying."

Suskind does not come out and make such judgments in his book. He tries to put you inside the White House meetings in those near-panicked days after Sept. 11, when such a doctrine could seem to make sense. His view is clearly through the eyes of CIA chief George Tenet.

Tenet has often been mocked, usually by Bush critics, in the conventional view of this White House. He's the glad-handing, back-slapping, bear-hugging guy who was in over his head at the CIA, the one who missed the Sept. 11 attacks, the man best remembered for calling the weapons-of-mass-destruction case against Iraq a "slam dunk."

That quote was in the Woodward chronicle, the one that had Bush as a prime source. Suskind deals with it directly, noting Woodward's report, saying that Tenet does not deny saying it but also does not remember saying it. He certainly doesn't recall standing up and waving his arms when he said it. In the end, it comes off as one of many times Bush has sought to find someone else to take the fall for a questionable decision. Tenet, a Clinton appointee depicted as forever grateful to Bush for keeping him on at the CIA, was happy to be the fall guy.

Just as Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead gave a view of Hamlet from the point of view of minor players, The One Percent Doctrine gives a view of this time in the White House from the view of a man dismissed as the court jester. Things look different from another vantage point.

Tenet comes off not as a jester but as the thinker in a room full of people of action. He represents the CIA, an agency whose role is to analyze, not necessarily to act, in a room where analysis is secondary to action. Suskind makes clear that often not acting was the better way to get the right result - to hold back, to let the suspects keep moving money and making phone calls and leaving trails that lead to higher-ups. But after Sept. 11, such patience was not a virtue in a White House that wanted tangible results, the sooner the better. Cheney's 1 percent doctrine was the go-ahead for constant action.

David of Johns Hopkins says that constantly weighing the possibilities and probabilities of remotely possible catastrophic occurrences is a standard procedure for governments.

"We agonized during the Cold War over the superpowers engaging in a nuclear war, over the Soviets launching a surprise strike, of the possibility of them invading Europe, none of which was highly probably but would be so catastrophic, they warranted attention," he said.

So he is not surprised that the Bush administration spent time considering remote possibilities, but he questions the actions they took in response.

"If they are really worried about al-Qaida getting nuclear weapons, why are they not doing more to inspect the cargo coming into ports?" he asks. "Why not beef up border security and have better harbor defenses?

"Even if you accept their premise about a 1 percent possibility being the same as a certainty, you can argue that their response has not been effective," he says. "They have not put fissionable nuclear material under lock and key, have not acted to secure the nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union."

In his book with O'Neill, Suskind first revealed that discussions of overthrowing Saddam Hussein began shortly after Bush came into office, accelerating after Sept. 11. The 1 percent doctrine certainly affected the move into Iraq, as it justified acting on the possibility, however remote, that Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction and that he might, just might, pass them on to al-Qaida.

"We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, famously said.

Suskind reports that this statement, just before Bush was to address the United Nations on Iraq, "sent off shock waves."

"She was showing an edge of the actual U.S. policy: the severing of fact-based analysis from forceful response; acting on any inkling was now appropriate," he writes. It is the 1 percent doctrine in full flower.

I.M. "Mac" Destler, director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that type of thinking "is the problem with Iraq."

"If a 1 percent chance gives you that level of certainty, and you combine that with a president whose style was to make bold decisions and then delegate carrying them out to others, it works against having a serious evaluation of the consequences of what you are doing," he says.

Suskind's book is not perfect. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld looms large in its opening chapters as the administration shows its preference for bravura military action over subtle but effective covert operations. Then he virtually disappears. Rice is a crucial figure, but Suskind never gets a handle on what makes her tick.

But it is an important contribution to the large body of work about how America and this administration got into this situation. If journalism is the first draft of history, books like The One Percent Doctrine are the second draft. Historians will be grateful for it as they write the many final drafts in the decades to come.

michael.hill@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°