This past week I read Ron Suskind's best-selling new book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11. Going in, I wasn't sure what to expect from the author of the first major book criticizing President Bush (2002's The Price of Loyalty, about then-Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, which I have not read). Yet the subject matter was compelling enough for me to pick up the book. Now that I have finished reading it, I can say that this book is important enough to be required reading for all Americans who want to understand the nature of the post-9/11 threat this country faces and how we are responding.
The titular "one percent doctrine" is a reference to a quote by Vice President Cheney, in which he opines that catastrophic threats to the U.S. pose such a great danger that our country's response must be to react those threats with a 1% chance of occuring as being a certainty. Hence, it follows, preemption, unilateralism, renditions, etc.
Probably the first question many people have regarding this book: is it a partisan hatchet-job? The answer is no, and I admit being a little surprised myself here. Suskind's reporting of America's struggle to combat al-Qaeda in the pre-Iraq War years should earn him a medal. He provides an unsurpassed amount of detail into all the successes and setbacks of various U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Some parts of the book seem like Hollywood thriller material. My favorite story involved a CIA operation targeting "al-Qaeda's banker", Pacha Wazir. Afer quietly arresting Wazir and his associates, the CIA sent a few of its specially trained agents of Pakistani descent for an amazing undercover mission. Passing themselves off as distant cousins of Wazir, and explaining the latter's absence due to a family illness, the undercover agents took over Wazir's bank and continued to receive customers. This fantastic operation resulted in the capture of dozens of key terrorists.
Yet tempering triumphs like those are maddening passages like the one detailing how the U.S. bungled the apprehension of the eventual architect of the British 7/7/05 bombings due to bureaucratic tanglings. Another troubling story concerns the capture of Abu Zubaydah, originally thought to be a major al-Qaeda leader and whose apprehension was hailed by President Bush. Problem was, Zubaydah was soon found to be just a menial agent, and worse, a certifiable schizophrenic. Suskind writes that despite this, "the United States would torture a mentally disurbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered." Zubaydah would conjure up several plot details about attacks on shopping malls, supermarkets, and banks, leading law enforcement to squander valuable resources. Even so, it must be pointed out that in what is perhaps a victory for advocates of "rough" treatment of detainees, Zubaydah finally told his interregators about Jose Padilla.
If there is any story arc to The One Percent Doctrine, it is that Suskind finds former CIA director George Tenet to be a tragic hero--he describes Tenet as being "the man most responsible, if anyone is, that America has not, again, been attacked" and laments how Tenet became the "fall guy" for the Bush administration over the lack of WMDs in Iraq. Suskind is a huge critic of the Iraq war, and toward the end of the book he takes leave of just-the-facts reporting to slam the White House (and then-National Security adviser Condi Rice especially) for the way they handled the runup to the war.
Considering that this book contains terrific reporting about so many things the American public doesn't know about the war on terrorism, I was a bit disappointed to see Suskind's personal viewpoint start to weigh heavier later in the book. Nonetheless, I stand by what I said before, that the book does not come across as overtly biased. There is definitely enough here for any open-minded reader to see both sides and come to their own conclusions.
My only other complaint about this book, one I made frequently though it is minor, is Suskind's penchant for "florid" writing. I think his terse and gripping account of terrorist plots or key Cabinet meetings would have been better off, from the reader's point of view, without being constantly interrupted by sentences like these "The connected planet creates all manner of loops, where knowledge spurs action, which is captured in image and word and then cycled back--the mythical perpetual motion machine comes to life."
Considering the insignificance of the criticisms I have mentioned, I would strongly recommend this book. Besides getting a front-row seat in the bleachers down at Gitmo Bay, I can't think of a way to feel more "in the know" about the war on terrorism than to read The One Percent Doctrine.