Media overlook crucial questions raised by Suskind's new book

Investigative reporter Ron Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine, includes numerous significant revelations regarding the White House's handling of the terrorism threat, but news outlets have largely ignored the compelling and relevant questions raised by Suskind's disclosures.

In his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006), investigative reporter Ron Suskind provides an in-depth look at the Bush administration's anti-terrorism efforts before and in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Suskind extensively documents the decision-making that occurred at the top levels of government and profiles those in the intelligence community assigned to carry out these orders. The book includes numerous significant revelations regarding the White House's handling of the terrorism threat. But in the months since its publication, news outlets have largely ignored the compelling and relevant questions raised by Suskind's disclosures.

Indeed, while Suskind conducted numerous television interviews in the week following the book's release, further exploration of his reporting has since been largely absent from cable and network news programming. Similarly, the print media's discussion of The One Percent Doctrine was almost entirely confined to a number of book reviews in late June. But these print outlets have failed to delve further into the issues raised by the book in the months since.

In the absence of such reports, Media Matters for America has documented the major disclosures included in Suskind's book and highlighted the important questions they provoke:

  • Suskind reported that Vice President Dick Cheney, in a November 2001 meeting with CIA officials, articulated a “different way” to think about “low probability, high impact” events. “If there's a one percent chance” that Al Qaeda could come into possession of WMD, “we need to treat it as a certainty,” Cheney said, adding, “It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It's about our response.” This approach -- the “Cheney Doctrine,” as Suskind called it -- represented “a standard of action that would frame events and responses from the administration for years to come.” (Page 62) Indeed, Suskind detailed throughout the book how this way of thinking informed the White House's decisions regarding the war in Iraq, the handling of domestic threats, and the wider execution of the war against terrorism.

Is it the policy of the United States to treat “low-probability, high-impact” threats to the United States as if they were a certainty? Is such a policy informing the White House's decision-making with regard to Iran?

  • In recent years, President Bush and various Republican leaders have suggested that the absence of another terrorist attack on American soil indicates that the White House's anti-terrorism policies have been effective. But Suskind noted how the Madrid train bombing in March 2004 “was further affirmation of what CIA analysts had first begun to see in sigint [signals intelligence] and limited humint [human intelligence] as far back as the spring of 2002: a possible strategic shift by al Qaeda away from further attacks on the U.S. mainland.” (Pages 303-304)

Suskind cited the “growing evidence [in the intelligence community] that al Qaeda might not have been trying to attack the United States in the three years since its singular triumph of 9/11.” Earlier evidence included the revelation in the spring of 2003 that Al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri had months earlier called off a fully-operational plot to attack the New York City subway system with hydrogen cyanide. According to Suskind, an Al Qaeda informant had told U.S. authorities that, prior to the cancellation of the plot, the “cell members had traveled to New York City through North Africa in the fall [of 2002] and had thoroughly cased the locations for the attacks.” (Page 218)

From the book:

The deeply classified debate over why Zawahiri had called off chemical attacks, meanwhile, shed its old self-congratulatory thesis that this might be due to the pressure the United States was putting on al Qaeda's structure. That line of analysis gave way to growing evidence that al Qaeda might not have been trying to attack the United States in the three years since its singular triumph of 9/11.

“What we understood inside CIA is that al Qaeda just doesn't act out of bloodlust, or pathological rage. Though their tactics are horrific, they're not homicidal maniacs. They do what they do to carry forward specific strategic goals,” said a senior CIA official involved in highest-level debates over bin Laden and Zawahiri during this period. “Clearly, they had the capability to attack us in about a hundred different ways. They didn't. The question was, why?”

Why was the fact that Al Qaeda voluntarily called off a poison gas attack in New York City withheld from the public?

  • Suskind reported that, in the years after 9-11, the CIA alerted the FBI to Al Qaeda operatives known to be arriving or residing in the United States. (Page 254) He further noted that the FBI had admitted to having “lost a few” of these operatives once they reached American shores. From the book:

There had been similar directives of late from CIA. Someone's coming, tail him. Easy to say, hard to do. Once a suspect gets to America it's much more difficult to stick with him than the CIA, or others across the government, understand. In fact, over the past eighteen months FBI had lost a few.

Have the FBI's failures to track suspected terrorists been corrected? Have operatives that the FBI reportedly “lost” been tracked down in the years since?

  • In the book, Suskind fleshed out some details regarding Bush's receipt of the now-famous August 6, 2001, memo headlined “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Specifically, he reported that the “analytical arm of CIA was in kind of a panic mode” during that month and CIA officials “flew to Crawford [Texas] to personally brief the President -- to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts.” At the end of one such briefing, Bush reportedly responded to the CIA briefer, “All right ... You've covered your ass, now.” (Pages 1-2)

How many briefings did Bush receive in August 2001 regarding the threat of a terrorist attack on American soil? What specifically did the president do to act on the information he received at those briefings?

  • Suskind disclosed that Hank Crumpton, the CIA officer overseeing the agency's hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001, personally warned Bush that the United States risked “los[ing] our prey” if more troops were not sent to help in the effort. Specifically, Crumpton told Bush in a November 2001 meeting that additional U.S. forces were needed because the Pakistani soldiers and local Afghan militias that had cornered bin Laden in the mountains near Tora Bora were “definitely not” equipped to capture him themselves. (Page 59) According to Suskind, Bush repeatedly received classified reports from the CIA in early December that the “back door is open” -- referring to the unmanned Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (Page 74) But the Bush administration never committed more troops to the area, and the Al Qaeda leader ultimately escaped.

Why did Bush ignore the advice of the CIA that bin Laden would escape at Tora Bora if more troops were not sent? What advice did he receive from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld or other top administration officials?

  • In the book, Suskind repeatedly returned to the ongoing debate between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation methods to be used on captured terrorists. According to Suskind, the FBI advocated its previously successful tactic of “surprising suspects, who were prepared for barbaric treatment from infidel captors, with favors in exchange for information.” Meanwhile, the CIA, reacting to “pressure from the White House for immediate, actionable information,” pressed for harsher techniques. (Pages 75-76)

The first test case came with the capture of Al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who was subjected to the CIA's interrogation approach. (Page 76) But Suskind noted that the most valuable piece of information he offered -- the claim that Iraq had provided training to Al Qaeda -- he would recant the following year. (Page 187)

Second came Abu Zubaydah, a mentally imbalanced Al Qaeda operative who was believed to have handled some logistical matters for the terrorist group. Once in CIA hands, he was “water-boarded,” “beaten,” “repeatedly threatened,” “bombarded with deafening, continuous noise,” and deprived of his medication. In turn, he told his interrogators of a variety of plots against American targets, such as shopping malls, banks, water systems, and nuclear plants -- none of which were ever confirmed. Zubaydah only began to offer valuable information when a CIA interrogator “skilled in the nuances of the Koran” manipulated his beliefs in predestination and led him to believe that his purpose “was to offer some cooperation to his captors.” (Pages 115-117)

The CIA subjected Al Qaeda operative Ramzi bin al-Shibh to similar treatment: “death threats, water-boarding, hot and cold treatments, sleeplessness, noise, and more death threats.” But as Suskind reported, “Nothing worked.” (Page 228)

Finally came the capture of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He too faced “intensive interrogative pressure” by the CIA, which resulted in some vague, “half-delirious” descriptions of plots against the United States. According to Suskind, his interrogators eventually received a message from CIA headquarters to “do whatever's necessary.” In response, they told Mohammed that his young children -- both of whom were also in U.S. custody -- “would be hurt if he didn't cooperate.” But Mohammed reportedly responded that his children would “join Allah in a better place.” (Pages 229-230)

According to Suskind, Bush regularly received briefings on the techniques used on high-level Al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody and often pressed CIA director George Tenet regarding the information yielded by the interrogations.

Considering that the harsh interrogation methods used against captured Al Qaeda operatives largely failed to produce actionable intelligence -- while the relationship-based technique used on some captives was successful -- why has Bush continued to tout the effectiveness of these interrogation methods in September 2006 speeches?

  • Suskind reported that Yusef al-Ayeri, Al Qaeda's top operative on the Arabian Peninsula, had written a short book during the lead-up to the Iraq war, The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, considered by U.S. intelligence agencies to contain “some of the most specialized analysis and coded directives about al Qaeda's motives and plans.” Suskind wrote that the book “said that an American invasion of Iraq would be the best possible outcome for al Qaeda, stoking extremism throughout the Persian Gulf and South Asia, and achieving precisely the radicalizing quagmire that bin Laden had hoped would occur in Afghanistan.” (Page 235)

What does it say about the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq that Al Qaeda vocally encouraged the invasion in early 2003?

  • Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, a videotape of Bin Laden vehemently criticizing Bush surfaced and was broadcast across the globe. According to Suskind, CIA analysts agreed that “bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection.” (Pages 335-336)

What does it say about the White House's terrorism policies that bin Laden would want Bush re-elected?

  • Since the public disclosure in December 2005 of the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, White House officials have repeatedly cited the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2001 as granting Bush the authority to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- the 1978 law requiring that all domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes be approved by a secret court. The White House has further argued that the president possesses the inherent authority to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on American soil.

Suskind reported, however, that during negotiations in late September 2001 between Congress and the Bush administration over the AUMF, White House officials “pressed for the broadest possible legislative language, including authorization to engage in wide-ranging activities on U.S. territory,” but were rebuffed by Senate negotiators. From the book:

The language of the proposed resolution authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” A sweeping mandate. Minutes before the vote, the White House officials had pressed for even more -- after “use all necessary and appropriate force,” they wanted to insert “in the United States,” to, essentially, grant war powers to anything a president deigned to do within the United States. Senators shot that down. That would be without precedent. (Page 17)

If the Bush administration believed that the AUMF authorized the White House to approve a broad range of wartime powers -- including warrantless domestic surveillance -- why did it attempt to broaden the resolution's language? Given the Congress' refusal to grant that authority in the AUMF, how could the administration claim that the AUMF authorized the warrantless domestic surveillance program?

  • In the weeks and months following the December 2005 publication of a New York Times article disclosing the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, White House officials routinely assailed the newspaper for tipping off the terrorists to U.S. tactics. In June, the Times and several other newspapers detailed a Treasury Department program designed to monitor international financial transactions for terrorist activity and again faced fierce criticism from Republicans, some going so far as to accuse the news outlet of "treason."

But Suskind reported that in late 2003 the government's “carefully constructed global network of sigint [signals intelligence], and what can be called finint, or financial intelligence, started to go quiet.” From the book:

In short, al Qaeda, and its affiliates and imitators, stopped leaving electronic footprints. It started slowly, but then became distinct and clear, a definable trend. They were going underground.


It was a matter, really, of deduction. Enough people get caught and a view of which activities they had in common provides clues as to how they might have been identified and apprehended.

“We were surprised it took them so long,” said one senior intelligence official.

How could news reports published in 2005 and 2006 have alerted the terrorist groups to the government's tactics if the terrorists had largely caught on to U.S. electronic and financial surveillance activities by late 2003?

  • Suskind detailed the FBI and CIA's arrangement with First Data, the world's leading credit card processor and the parent company of Western Union, as part of the burgeoning effort in late 2001 to better track terrorist finances. According to Suskind, shortly after 9-11, the FBI found itself “deep inside a Fortune 500 company, a place where federal agents had never roamed so freely, prowling through First Data's massive computer banks.” (Page 34) From the book:

On an intelligence-scarce landscape, money was intelligence.

First Data, in a way, was a first step. The massive data sweeps, loosely targeted, implicated the privacy of tens of thousands of Americans to find the odd bit of worthwhile intelligence, or a splinter of evidence worthy of its day in court. (Page 208)

Suskind also reported that the program was kept secret from Congress. Specifically, he noted that discussion of the First Data operation was intentionally omitted from a classified hearing of the Senate and House Intelligence committees in October 2001:

Congressional oversight of covert activities is a principle that distinguishes the United States from other countries. It is an ideal that is central to the checks and balances -- the counteracting ambitions, as Madison and others had attested -- that prevent abuses of power. In this case, and scores of others, those fighting the “war on terror” decided it was an unaffordable luxury.

In that day's testimony -- and many to follow -- no one uttered the name First Data. (Page 40)

Were congressional leaders ever briefed on the program to track information held by First Data, the world's leading credit card processor? If so, how long after the program launched? Are the FBI and CIA continuing to sweep First Data's “massive computer banks” on a regular basis?

  • In a November 11, 2005, speech, Bush touted the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on prewar intelligence had “found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs” -- a claim subsequently repeated by numerous Republican leaders and conservative media figures. But as Media Matters noted, an internal investigation led by former CIA officer Richard Kerr challenged the Senate report's dubious conclusion. From a November 10, 2005, article by American Prospect senior correspondent Robert Dreyfuss:

“Everybody felt pressure,” Kerr told me. “A lot of analysts believed that they were being pressured to come to certain conclusions. ... I talked to a lot of people who said, 'There was a lot of repetitive questioning. We were being asked to justify what we were saying again and again.' There were certainly people who felt they were being pushed beyond the evidence they had.”

Suskind's book provides further evidence of this phenomenon, describing how Cheney's office repeatedly tasked the CIA with finding answers to “new versions” of the same questions. “No pressure, in any overtly articulated way,” Suskind wrote. “Just repetition.” (Page 124) Suskind reported how the White House's treatment of the CIA analysts nearly led deputy director for intelligence Jami Miscik to resign:

They wanted her down at [then vice-presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter”] Libby's office in the White House by 5 p.m. At issue was the last in an endless series of draft reports about the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. How many drafts? Miscik couldn't remember. The pressure from the White House -- and from the various intelligence divisions under the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense -- had started a week after 9/11.

Cheney's office claimed to have sources. And Rumsfeld's, too. They kept throwing them at Miscik and CIA. The same information, five different ways. They'd omit that a key piece had been discounted, that the source had recanted. Sorry, our mistake. Then it would reappear, again, in a memo the next week. The CIA held firm: the meeting in Prague between [lead 9-11 hijacker Mohammed] Atta and the Iraqi agent didn't occur.

Miscik was no fool. She understood what was going on. It wasn't about what was true or verifiable. It was about a defensible position, or at least one that would hold up until the troops were marching through Baghdad, welcomed as liberators.

A few days before, when she had sent the final draft over to Libby and [deputy national security adviser Stephen J.] Hadley, she told them, emphatically, This is it. There would be no more drafts, no more meetings where her analysts sat across from Hadley, or [undersecretary of Defense for policy Douglas J.] Feith, or the guys in Feith's office, while the opposing team tried to slip something by them. The report was not what they wanted. She knew that. No evidence meant no evidence.

“I'm not going back there again, George,” Miscik said. “If I have to go back to hear their crap and rewrite this goddamn report ... I'm resigning, right now.”

She fought back tears of rage.

Tenet picked up the phone to call Hadley.

“She is not coming over,” he shouted into the phone. “We are not rewriting this fucking report one more time. It is fucking over. Do you hear me! And don't you ever fucking treat my people this way again. Ever!” (Page 190)

What was the purpose of the repetitive questioning of CIA officials regarding Iraq's weapons programs and possible ties to Al Qaeda if not to pressure analysts to produce desired results?

  • Suskind reported that the CIA repeatedly warned the White House prior to 9-11 about the threat posed by Al Qaeda but that the Bush administration's energies were at the time largely focused on “a possible invasion of Iraq.”

From the book:

As to 9/11, the critics' case for CIA incompetence was clouded by the repeated warnings from Tenet and top deputies about the al Qaeda threat, starting with their first briefing to the incoming President. Neither Bush nor the more experienced Cheney had reacted with a plan of action. Bin Laden was a problem without a ready solution, a combination that often spells inertia for the vast U.S. government. The primary focus, instead --as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice framed it in January 2001 at the first NSC meeting of the Bush presidency -- was on “how Iraq is destabilizing the region,” and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, dozens of reports were generated inside the Defense and State Departments about a possible invasion of Iraq, as the CIA increasingly warned about the threat from al Qaeda. (Page 22)

Does Bush regret his administration's pre-9-11 focus on Iraq?