Interviewer: Terry Gross
Guest: Ron Suskind
Terry Gross: The new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," investigates how the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies were created and reveals some of the secret dealings as well as the successes and missed opportunities in the war on terror. My guest is the author, Ron Suskind. His previous book, "The Price of Power," was about former Bush administration Treasure Secretary Paul O'Neill. It revealed that the Bush administration started to talk about overthrowing Saddam Hussein in January 2001 at its first post-Inauguration National Security Council meeting. Suskind's new book is based on interviews with many current and former officials with the CIA, FBI, the White House, and the NSC, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury. One chapter that has made headlines is about a terrorist cell in America that was allegedly planning a gas attack on the New York City subway. Suskind says the attack was called off by a leader of Al Qaeda.
Ron Suskind: What happens here is that, essentially, in early 2003, several things happened quickly in a row. One is that, by virtue of some arrests we made in Bahrein, we find that Al Qaeda has developed -- invented, really -- a device called the "mubtakkar." The key is hydrogen cyanide -- that's the deadly gas which has a long history. The Nazis used it -- Zycon B -- I suppose in the gas chambers. And Al Qaeda and other terrorist cells around the world have been trying for years to figure out a way to deliver it. What they came up with was this device called the mubtakkar which is an elegant portable delivery system. It's sort of like two Mason jars together in a little paint can -- I think that's the best way to put it -- and between the two jars, one of which has sodium chloride and the other some hydrogen substance like hydrochloric acid or whatnot, and then in between a triggering catalytic element, a seal that can be broken with a cellphone, just like the other bombs. It mixes these two liquids quickly and sends out a fairly potent cloud of the deadly gas. This mubtakkar comes to our attention. It causes something just short of panic inside the CIA. A model is built and brought to the President and he is, you know, startled! That's the first step. The second step is that we don't know what they may or may not do here. And we tap an inside source, inside Al Qaeda management who's linked to them. Up to now, Terry, no one has felt publicly that we've had a human intelligence source, connected [.] to the Al Qaeda leadership. We do, in fact..
Gross:.... We do or we did? The impression I got from your book is that we no longer have him...
Suskind: ... Yeah, we no longer have -- we sort of decommissioned in early 2005, 2004, because we were afraid he might get revealed by his assistance for us. But at this point we turned to "Ali." He had done things for the US government for a few months. Everything he'd said had been reliable, had tracked. So we go to him and we say, What do you know about this this mubtkkar idea? And he says, Well, actually, quite a bit... And he tells us a startling thing. He said that in fact there is a Saudi leader of Al Qaeda who recently met with Zawahiri about an operational WMD cell in the US that in the fall of 2002 through early 2003 cased the NY City subway systems with the intention of using a mubtakkar device, maybe several devices, and that four to five days away from zero hour Zawahiri called them off. The key is, not called them back, but called them off. This information that gets passed to the CIA and then of course to the Oval Office and the situation room -- it's just a startling moment. It gives us our first real clue into the key questions of what Al Qaeda is really thinking.
Gross: What are some of the possible ways of interpreting why Zawahiri, the number two in Al Qaeda, called of this planned attack against the NY subways?
Suskind: That, of course, becomes the fierce debate inside the US government at the very top. Obviously the President, the Vice President, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice -- everybody. There are a variety of positions at the start. One is that maybe he called it off beause we're putting effective pressure on the Al Qaeda structure at this point. Some people felt that. That, though, was overwhelmed by another counter argument: the question, Is that because this, this thing -- mubtakkars in NY subways could cause potentially thousands of deaths but that wouldn't be enough of a "second wave." That's the key term. What is the "second wave" strategy? Meaning that that would not be sufficient to what Al Qaeda is actually planning and wanting for an attack after 9/11, a second wave attack. The view now is that a) the passage of time without a followup attack after 9/11 should not give anyone confidence that some sort of victory has been won. In some ways, Al Qaeda thinks long term, in decades or longer. We think in news cycles. We have a country with attentional issues, let's just say! In some ways, it's clear, they're counting on that. They're counting on us feeling self-satisfied and successful, maybe dropping our guard, maybe just not seeing the things coming. Because the key in terms of what the most informed people in the US government feel is that the second wave -- the next attack -- will be bigger than 9/11, and that's the idea, so that it creates an upward arc of terror and anticipation between the second and whatever follows that. Fear and terror without the kind of handle of real knowledge are of course what Al Qaeda is all about.
Gross: In your book, you say that the US officials' assessment is that the homeland is indefensible and that Al Qaeda is going to attack at a time of its own choosing. What leads you to that conclusion? What were you hearing about that?
Suskind: Well, I found virtually no one -- and I talked to just about everyone under the sun with direct knowledge of the US position and strategy in the war on terror -- virtually nobody believes that in fact the porous borders of the US are truly defendable against an ardent and targetted attack by Al Qaeda. A variety of things came up in the research for the book that were, frankly, bracing for me. I live in Washington, I've got my wife, my kids. I said at one point, Jeez, I know almost nothing about the war on terror really. I know what the official-speak is, I know what I'm hearing, but there must be more. And god knows there's so much more! The fact is, Terry, the idea that we can protect America is probably as much posture as it is reality, and it's a posture that Al Qaeda doesn't buy! They're probably right to not buy it! That's what the research shows...
Gross: Is this a good thing, your telling Americans that our government thinks our borders are indefensible?
Suskind: You know, the guiding principle of this book is that the American people should know now, five years almost since 9/11, what Al Qaeda certainly knows and in many cases has already responded to in terms of their strategic posture. The dilemma of this war on terror is that it's a war fought in secret. That's a conflict. That creates a new kind of tension for us here in this country, a democracy. A guiding principle of this project from the very start is that this book will contain disclosures, things, information that Al Qaeda already knows and in many cases has already responded to in its strategies. At some point... there are people in the government, who cooperated at various levels who I think believe this as well. They do believe it. They were asked many, many times, "Is this something that will somehow be dropping a card in our hand, in terms of this global game of cat and mouse, or kill or be killed, and in every single case they said, "No, it's not."
Gross: Let's get to "The One Percent Doctrine," which is the title of your book. Why don't you explain... I mean, was it officially called a "doctrine" before you described it as a doctrine -- and what is it?
Suskind: Well, some people in the government called in a rule. One percent rule. A few used the word doctrine. It's really the guiding principle, again not disclosed at this point, that's the centerpiece of the US playbook in this war on terror. And the genesis of it, interestingly, is shown as though you're walking in the shoes of the participants in the book and I think that's important -- to show how they arrive at this idea. It's from a meeting in November 2001 where the Vice President is being briefed about the most dire threat at that point which is the disclosures that Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with bin Laden and Zawahiri and apparently offered them clues as to how to build nuclear weapons. Cheney's being briefed on this in the Situation Room. There are folks from the NSC and the CIA there as well. As it starts, he sort of stops the proceedings and he says, "You know, we need to think in a different way about these low-probability, high-impact events." Then he stops and the briefing continues. It's a harrowing briefing. It's just two months after 9/11 when we're worried about a second wave attack. This was really the shared nightmare. And then he stops it. And he sayd, "Look. If there is a one percent chance that Al Qaeda can get its hands on WMD, we need to treat it as a certainty. It's not about our analysis or the preponderance of evidence. It's about our response." That's the key thing in the second part. It's not about our analysis, it's about our response. We are never going to be able to abide by the evidentiary rules of analysis, or search and find, in this kind of effort. It's about action. Action even if we have just a one percent suspicion.
Gross: What are some of the potential problems that you see with that policy?
Suskind: Well, the potential problem is that everything merits a to-be-sure response by the awesome powers of the US government. And when those responses may not be justified -- like the sweeping up of lots of Arab names, and the capturing and rendition of people who may have very little inclination or evidence that is pertinent to us... Certainly many of the excesses that we've seen in terms of torture -- all of those fall into this category. As well, frankly, much of the debate as to Iraq and WMD. On the outside, in public, we were arguing about evidence. Is there evidence? Is there not evidence? Internally, though, many of the folks said, "You know, evidence is beside the point. We've already given up our belief that evidence is going to matter deep down.
Gross: Did people in the FBI or CIA complain to you about this one percent doctrine? Did they complain to you that it made it difficult to focus on the most serious of plots?
Suskind: Of course! That is part of the difficulty. What if it's ten one percent threats? What if it's a hundred? What if it's a thousand? What does that mean for the capacities or resources of the US government, what does it mean in terms of the people who might be bruised or worse with us essentially saying "better safe than sorry.. you now are under arrest..." or "your phone line is tapped" or all manner of things... Evidence is at the key of so much of what we call age of reason and enlightenment ideals that essentially are the foundation of a democracy and certainly this country. This is loosing us from those moorings.
Gross: If people in the Bush administration and in our intelligence agencies believe, as you report they believe, that another attack is inevitable, then what's wrong with a one percent doctrine in which a one percent threshhold of a plot is enough to try to investigate it?
Suskind: There is nothing inherently wrong or right about the one percent doctrine. What people are going to do is argue about it. On one side you have the issues of, essentially, a separation and divorcing of action from analysis of evidence. We know the perils of that. On the other hand, those who will say "yes," and do say, "yes, Dick Cheney go forward" are going to say "Is this really the best we can do in this era to create a strategy for war that's probably going to go on right up to the lives of our grandkids?" That's a debate and it's clearly one that's unfurling and will unfurl because of the book over time...
Gross: One of the things under investigation now is how telephone companies have cooperated with the National Security Agency and have handed over records that allow the NSA to see who's calling who. You found that there's a corporation called the First Data Corporation that actually offered to help in the war on terror in any way it could. You say they're one of the world's largest processors of credit card transactions and they own Western Union. So what have they done in their attempt to cooperate with the Bush administration on the war on terror?
Suskind: One of the great controversies is the union between the US government and these large companies. It's very controversial. It does create a crossing of key lines in American life. These companies are often brand names around the world as well as in America. We know about the telecom companies. Here is the first instance where we basically see the other half. This giant global net, this matrix that they built after 9/11 sort of has a communications head and a financial body. It's this giant terrorist-catching machine. On the financial side the lead player was First Data which is this credit card processing giant, owns Western Union. They approached the government a few days after 9/11. The FBI managed that relationship. Many of the sweeps, where thousands of Muslim men were swept up, interrogated around the country in the year or two after 9/11, were driven under the surface by the financial information -- which does tell you an awful lot. Not that the NSA stuff doesn't get it started. But the financial information tells you pretty much everything you want to know. First Data was really running that show. The FBI and First Data set up a kind of out-location near a First Data processing center so they could work together and essentially tap into the First Data giant mainframes. Then it gets even more interesting. Western Union, which is early on identified as maybe the gem inside of First Data. They have thousands of offices around the world. They're run by folks who are largely independent. Western Union was used by the 9/11 highjackers to move money. Western Union takes a step in to another whole realm. What they're doing is, as they're being passed from FBI to CIA, they set up a kind of wire-transfer trap whereby a bit of information would be offered to Western Union and, through a process where it's papered -- meaning they go through a Justice Department office -- and Western Union knows someone is about to send a wire transfer, the key is who picks it up. And they also then can trace who's picking it up and then give it in real time to folks in the intelligence community. In the case in the book, they essentially offer this information to Shinbet, the Israeli bureau, and they change the balance of power on the West Bank. And the big question is, should US companies be doing this? US companies with huge communities of customers who frankly are unwitting. They don't know. Is it better they not know? Is it better that the brand names of America, Fortune 100 and 500 companies, are in these sorts of secret arrangements with the US government? And ultimately governments around the world?
Gross: What kind of controversies do you expect to be involved in now? And do you think terrorists are wondering what you know? Do you think people in the Administration are wondering what you know? What kind of whirlwind are you expecting to be caught up in now?
Suskind: It's hard to gauge what's going to happen or what will follow. The Administration has known about the book pretty much from the start. There are people in the Administration who were helpful, frankly. Obviously many who were not in the Administration. I can firmly state, if anyone from the jihadist community is listening, that everything I know is in the book! There is nothing pertinent held back. I think ultimately people recognize that. It's a very tricky time to be a journalist and to be involved in this kind of reporting, in this area. I think, though, that's part of what we're facing in terms of these struggles. How do you do what you need to do in a democracy so that there is informed consent, so people are empowered by knowledge rather than simply fear that's rooted in ignorance: "My god, I know what's out there, but I can't know too much..." I think people are strengthened by it. I think America has shown that in the past, and will have to show it in new ways in the future.