As Bad as You Thought

The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind’s anatomy of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” reads more like a thriller than the serious journalism it is. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Suskind has a firm grasp on the dramatic aspects of his subject, and his book-a largely chronological narrative of the actions of the Department of Defense and various intelligence agencies since September 11, 2001-vibrates with suspense. Indeed, if we did not receive daily reminders from FOX News and CNN that what Suskind is writing about is real, it would be all too easy to mistake The One Percent Doctrine for the work of John le Carré or Robert Ludlum.

Suskind packs his book with all the elements of a good spy story. There are rumors of horrific sci-fi weapons-like the mubtakkar, designed to disperse hydrogen cyanide within the crowded confines of a subway station or shopping mall. There is the inside man, “Ali,” the Al Qaeda operative who tipped off the U.S. government to the location of a terrorist leader, and who now lives comfortably somewhere in the American hinterland, with $25 million in the bank. There is even the unwitting journalist caught up in the adventure, an Al Jazeera reporter kidnapped and taken to interview two of Al Qaeda’s most notorious leaders just months after September 11.

Like any good thriller, The One Percent Doctrine has its protagonist-hero. Suskind’s narrative revolves around the former director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet. Through Tenet’s eyes we see things only the inner circle of Bush advisers saw: the first panicked days after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center; the growing confidence of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice after success in Afghanistan; and the formulation of the principle that gives Suskind’s book its name. Confronted with information that Al Qaeda might be pursuing the acquisition of Pakistani nuclear technology, Cheney enunciates a policy of extreme response. “If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty,” he tells Tenet in one of many situation-room meetings that dot the book. “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence, it’s about our response.”

Suskind regards this principle-the formal separation of action from evidence and the adoption of mere suspicion as appropriate grounds for action-as the primary cause of U.S. mistakes in the “war on terror.” When suspicion becomes a sufficient prerequisite for action, the government’s power becomes almost limitless, and just about anything is possible. The One Percent Doctrine follows the evolution of American interrogation procedures in the months and years following September 11. By the time the United States captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a major Al Qaeda boss, eighteen months after the attacks, the old, “civilized” interrogation techniques had completely disappeared, and the CIA felt free to threaten Mohammed’s children, a seven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. “Once you do something as horrific as threaten someone’s children,” Suskind writes, “there’s nowhere else to go.”

There is more to this book than storytelling. Suskind is at his best when discussing the one percent doctrine itself, along with its inflammatory consequences. Where traditionally it took a catastrophic aggressive act-Pearl Harbor, for example, or the invasion of Kuwait-to provoke a U.S. response, now, Suskind writes, “even proof of a threat is too constraining a standard.” From now on, nations that do not wish to risk the wrath of the United States will have to make it abundantly clear that they are on our side. The Bush administration invaded Iraq, Suskind argues, to show its determination to enforce the new rules. If you are not with us, you are against us, and you had better watch out. The one percent doctrine has made the world a more dangerous place.

The thread that ties anecdote and analysis together in this whirlwind of a book is George Tenet. Of all the players in the war on terror, Suskind most respects Tenet, a lifelong Democrat who stayed on to run the CIA on George H. W. Bush’s recommendation. As Suskind portrays him, Tenet loves his family, is impeccably loyal to his president, and cares about nothing more than winning the war on terror. A man of the world, he is smart, he is kind, and he defends his staff, even calling up the vice president’s office and screaming to protect a subordinate.

Ultimately, in Suskind’s view, Tenet is a scapegoat. Discussing the CIA chief’s forced resignation, Suskind invokes the scene in Henry VIII in which the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey, exposed for his crimes and exiled from the king’s presence, speaks for the last time to his servant Cromwell. “If I had served my God as I have served my king,” Wolsey laments, “He would not in mine age left me naked to mine enemies.” One character in Suskind’s account speaks of Tenet’s time at the CIA as a lost “age of Pericles.”

Suskind’s focus on Tenet makes his book a better read. In such an ambiguous and complex conflict, we long for a hero, someone we can believe is doing the right thing for the right reasons, but Suskind’s methodology raises difficult questions of source and perspective. Is The One Percent Doctrine an un¬abashed apologia for George Tenet? The author’s previous book, The Price of Loyalty, portrayed the Bush administration from the point of view of its former head of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, whose disaffection from the Bush White House made for an acid personal and political critique. The new book is just about as damning. But is it accurate?

While Bush, Cheney, and company dominate these pages, there is no indication that Suskind interviewed any of them-rather, he seems to have relied almost exclusively on Tenet and other CIA sources. In the long run, history may indeed see the CIA as the force for virtue in the post-9/11 power struggles within the U.S. government, and see the White House (and Pentagon) as the dark side. But by installing one primary source as his protagonist, Suskind applies a novelistic technique to a complex political reality, and risks giving us an insufficient grasp of the subject-“just one set of hands,” as one critic wryly put it, “on a very big elephant.” No wonder Tenet is the hero of Suskind’s story; he is telling it.

In the end, of course, every good spy novel needs a villain, and The One Percent Doctrine has candidates to spare. Is it Condoleezza Rice, cold and heartless, willing to sacrifice Tenet for her own political future? Is it the indomitable Rumsfeld, point man for the military-industrial complex? Is it Cheney, who cannot seem to aim U.S. forces any better than he does his hunting rifle? (It certainly does not seem to be Al Qaeda or Bin Laden, relegated to background roles in this U.S.-focused drama.)

Suskind is happy to follow liberal convention in pointing the finger at the president himself. “W” may not have formulated the one percent doctrine or run the “war on terror,” but he is the boss of the people who did, and Suskind ultimately blames him for their mistakes. Suskind is not afraid to suggest that Bush is exactly the kind of president the terrorists want-uncompromising, married to the use of force, and “decisive.” He has proof, in a way. In one of the closing scenes of the drama, CIA analysts pore over Bin Laden’s taped “message to the world” in the wake of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The analysts’ conclusion is more chilling than anything Suskind could have come up with on his own: That the Al Qaeda leader’s message was “clearly designed” to assist in the reelection of George W. Bush.

Suskind’s powerful, uncompromising criticism of Bush, combined with his incisive analysis of a deeply flawed policy, makes this book indispensable to understanding the current administration’s mistakes and triumphs in its “war on terror.”

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 

Nick Baumann is senior enterprise editor at The Huffington Post.

Also by this author
Catastrophic Coverage

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads