Dick Cheney's Junta
Ohdave/Candide's Notebooks, August 16, 2006
Reading Ron Suskind’s “The One Percent Doctrine” should come with a caveat: you will never read the news in quite the same way again. Suskind’s inside look at the CIA under George Tenet and its often tenuous relationship with the neo-conservatives of the Bush administration has that effect. Whenever a terror plot is uncovered, an orange alert issued, an arrest made, or a rhetorical flourish made by a Bush official connecting Iraq to the “war on terror,” the reader finds himself thinking back to key passages from the book and wondering, what’s the backstory? Is this a CIA leak? Who is pushing this story?
A case in point: this morning we find out from NBC and the UK ’s Independent that the arrests in the London terror plot may have been rushed, and that the US was threatening to pressure Pakistan to make the arrests ahead of the British timetable. From NBC:
The British official said the Americans also argued over the timing of the arrest of suspected ringleader Rashid Rauf in Pakistan , warning that if he was not taken into custody immediately, the U.S. would "render" him or pressure the Pakistani government to arrest him.
Then we read in the Independent that the arrests were rushed by the Pakistani arrest of Rashid Rauf. What made my hair stand up was the otherwise innocuous phrase sourcing the information: “US intelligence sources have revealed.” Reading Suskind helps us understand what happened: for whatever reason, probably political, the arrest of Rauf was pushed by the administration. Rauf was arrested. CIA field agents and operatives, angry at the disruption of a case they had been working on possibly for months, leak information embarrassing to the administration as they cynically try to gain political traction from the news.
Suskind lets us know that leaks from the CIA were of a pattern leading up to the 2004 elections, so rampant that John McLaughlin was forced to call Andy Card in the interim between Tenet and Porter Goss, and assure the President, “We at CIA are not trying to bring you down.” (p. 330) The leaks seem not to have abated in the run up to the 2006 elections, in spite of the administration’s purges of the CIA and desperate attempts to ensure loyalty.
Indeed one of the more shocking revelations of “The One Percent Solution” is the extent to which CIA intelligence product and analysis have been politicized. The administration made it clear that “the basics of analytical due diligence had in fact been ignored or tapped only when a product was needed to support the policies the WH had already settled on.” (328) Suskind devotes a great deal of attention to the question of “policy process.” Traditionally the role of career professionals in the CIA, State Department and other agencies has been to produce information that would help the elected President and his appointed staff to make informed decisions about policy areas. Under the leadership of Bush and Cheney, that role had essentially been turned on its head.
The administration instead actively sought intelligence and “product” that would support its policy agenda. No surprise there, as Bush has been accused for years of “cherry-picking” intelligence to justify the war in Iraq . Suskind, as you might expect, describes this process in great detail from the point of view of CIA analysts who agonized over the administration’s use of questionable intelligence—such as the purchase of yellowcake uranium from Niger or aluminum tubes purportedly intended for centrifuges. Analysts cautioned the administration, and in some cases Tenet waged fierce battles, such one over the President’s October 7, 2002 Cincinnati speech in which he warned of Iraq ’s nuclear capabilities. The anguish of the CIA analysts and its director over the misuse of this information is made more intense by the fact that the CIA itself would ultimately be blamed when the public information turned out to be false.
But the misuse of policy process Suskind illustrates is even more shocking than cherry- picking information to support a war in Iraq . Suskind describes an environment in which administration officials, led by Cheney, actively prevented the President from knowing certain information which might compromise the mission of invading Iraq . If information such as the Niger forgeries were kept from the President, the thinking went, he could not be accused of lying or of misleading the public, since he was relying on information presented to him which was cleared of official doubts or misgivings. It is for this reason, Suskind asserts, that the National Intelligence Estimates given to the President were distilled to a single page: that way doubts or uncertainties could be eliminated and the President was “protected”:
Instead of an elected president being given a full range of knowledge on which to base life or death decisions, Bush was given a limited range of information to prevent him from changing his mind. Despite the protests of Powell and Richard Armitage that the policy process was broken, nothing changed. And while Bush was “shielded” from information that would render decision-making difficult, Bush ultimately bears the responsibility for the environment he allowed. As Suskind notes, by the time the Iraq invasion was launched in Spring 2003, “it was becoming clear that the way policy was or wasn’t vetted inside the White House was an extension of George W. Bush’s leadership style.” (225)
With this new George W. Bush presidency…Cheney was able to shape his protective strategy in a particularly proactive way. Keeping certain knowledge from Bush—much of it shrouded as well by classification—meant that the President, whose each word circles the globe, could advance various strategies by saying whatever was needed. He could essentially be deniable about his own statements. (175)
In many ways, Suskind turns Cheney into the philosophical leader of the Bush administration. In addition to his aggressive approach towards intelligence, Cheney provided the rationale for the use of American power post-9/11. As the book’s title made famous, the “one percent doctrine” refers to the idea that even a one percent chance of a terror plot coming to fruition should dictate the country’s response. Evidence was not considered important. If only a one percent chance of a terror event becomes the standard for action, evidence need not be rock solid. Indeed, any sliver of evidence to suggest an attack becomes enough to justify overwhelming action: After Afghanistan, "actual evidence became increasingly scarce. A key feature of the Cheney doctrine was to quietly liberate action from such accepted standards of proof…" (163)
And that is exactly what happened in Iraq . Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is its insight into this demented “doctrine” which justifies war without a casus belli. It seems to answer finally the question of how the administration rationalized a war based on what in retrospect seems such flimsy evidence. It also shows the dangers of the doctrine of preemptive war when in the hands of people with such reckless notions of power.
Suskind describes how in the aftermath of the invasion, as the WMD claims were disintegrating like Saddam’s palaces, that there was a rush to assign blame. Naturally the blame fell on Tenet and the CIA; Bob Woodward’s book “Line of Attack” described Tenet as saying WMDs were a “slam dunk,” a phrase which Tenet does not remember uttering. Tenet falls on his sword to protect the president from blame on WMD, loyalty for which he received the Medal of Freedom. Of that, John McLaughlin says, “I know he wishes he could give that damn medal back.” He describes a fascinating phone call wherein the Machiavellian Rice asks Tenet what she should do about the 9/11 commission. Tenet advised her to testify, and went with her when she did so. Meanwhile, she blamed the CIA in part for the intelligence failures of 9/11. Throughout Suskind’s book, Tenet plays the part of the man betrayed, the loyal soldier who ends up a victim of friendly fire.
It’s probably unfair to be critical of what Suskind chose not to write about for matters of focus, or for reasons related to his unidentified sources that seem to draw mostly from the ranks of the intelligence community. But “The One Percent Doctrine” seemed at times to pass quietly over the moral issues surrounding rendition and torture. The book makes it clear that certain critical suspects were rendered for torture, without much reflection on what those practices mean for the American character. The most focused discussion of torture involves the case of Abu Zubaydah, about whom the President boasted, “he’s not plotting and planning anymore. He’s where he belongs,” (99) while a roomful of partisans cheered him on. But Suskinds quotes intelligence officials who believed that Zubaydah was certifiably insane, and of little practical value as a source of intelligence.
Bush’s primary consideration was saving face when word was leaked that he wasn’t the mastermind the political wing of the White House had made him out to be. Bush’s juvenile shallowness and cockiness will come as no surprise to those familiar with the Karla Faye Tucker story (Bush imagined that the born-again death row inmate might plead, “please don’t kill me”), nor will his insistence on seeing the supposed head of Zawahiri. But the book doesn’t seem to deal much with the larger moral questions involved with torturing or rendering for torture even the most heinous criminals, and the reader is left with the impression that Suskind’s sources really didn’t think much about it—or worse, tacitly approved.
Overall, however, the reader is convinced that the intelligence community, although inclined to support Bush, has grown weary of the politicization of intelligence, the purges of career professionals at the CIA, and the sheer incompetence of Bush Inc. As the Republicans here in the run up to the midterm elections continue to assert that a vote for the likes of Ned Lamont is, as Cheney put it this week, a victory for “al Qaeda types,” it is worth remembering a final vignette from the waning days of the 2004 election. As the Bin Laden tape emerged in late October, John McLaughlin presided over a meeting at the CIA. The officials with long experience following Bin Laden’s statements actions reached a similar conclusion: “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor for the President today.” (336) In spite of the protestations from the right, the CIA knows better: Bin Laden wanted the President reelected. This final assessment from the professionals at the CIA provides perhaps the most damning critique possible of the President’s prosecution of the war on terror: he is playing right into the terrorists’ hands.