Has life in America gotten any safer since 9/11?
It has not, says journalist Ron Suskind in this chilling, revelatory, but flawed book.
Weeks before the 9/11 attacks, a jittery CIA analyst met with President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch and described concerns within American intelligence circles over a noticeable increase in chatter and messages among terrorist groups.
The agent had few specifics to offer. Mr. Bush, a man long-known for making decisions based on instinct rather than deep-seated analysis, sized the agent up and offered a response.
"All right," Bush told the agent. "You've covered your[self], now."
This scene opens Ron Suskind's much- discussed new book, The One Percent Doctrine, an exhaustive, stunning exploration of political and bureaucratic debate, rivalry, skullduggery, miscalculation, and helplessness during the frantic years since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers.
Mr. Suskind, with his opening gambit, displays a knack for you-are-there reporting and detail reminiscent of Bob Woodward, whose own 2004 bestseller "Plan of Attack" showed the Bush administration to be trigger-happy in the run-up to the Iraq war. The reference to Mr. Woodward is both bouquet and brickbat. After all, the Washington Post star possesses impeccable credentials, as does Suskind, a former Pulitzer-Prize winner.
At the same time, Woodward's (and Suskind's) insistence on re-creating extensive conversations based on the recollections of one or a handful of people – no matter how important they are (in Woodward's case, Bush himself; in Suskind's, it is former CIA chief George Tenet) – who were present at an event that transpired months or years earlier is an extremely dangerous practice.
In addition, Woodward and Suskind both work hard to offer objective analysis, but often seem to give those who gave them access wider latitude when dispensing final judgments.
Throughout "The One Percent Doctrine," fascinating machinations within the government surface again and again, but rarely with a hint of attribution. Not only do most sound plausible, they seem all but undeniable. That is a credit to Suskind's terrific reporting acumen and digging.
Among the most revelatory findings in his book:
•Both FBI and CIA operatives had a chance to arrest London subway bombing mastermind Mohammed Siddique Kahn two years before his 2005 plot killed 56 and injured 700.
•CIA agents pushed the president to move more troops to Tora Bora in 2001 or risk losing Osama bin Laden. Bush ignored the warnings. Two weeks later, bin Laden escaped.
•FBI agents convinced the parent company of Western Union as well as several telecommunications companies to provide the government with instant access to a blizzard of global transactions in real time to better track terrorist finances.
•By September 2003, government analysts concluded that American prevention efforts had nothing to do with the lack of "second wave" attacks. In fact, bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had means and plans for a cyanide attack in the New York subway system but called it off for unknown reasons. Analysts told the president and others in a high-level briefing that the US is all but helpless against another Al Qaeda strike.
Even as "The One Percent Doctrine" makes its inevitable run up the best-seller lists, it remains a mixed blessing. The thriller-style narrative moves the story along nicely, but also frustrates the reader who wants to know how Suskind knows what he knows.
Beyond that, he has a Thomas Friedman-style addiction to labeling groups with descriptive terms – the "invisibles" are those fighting the terrorists, the "notables" are the politicos who demand instant and unrealistic results from that fight.
Please don't confuse that verbal tic with Suskind's affection for government agency jargon: sigint ("signals intelligence"), humint ("human intelligence") and the like clutter the narrative repeatedly. Suskind spent much more time reporting than writing, from the looks of some passages, including a description of Tenet as "a man who had to 'mind the gap,' as they say on those T-shirts...." Then, too, there are examples of needless introduction ("But as Mahatma Gandhi once said ..."), and hackneyed prose.
The book's title is from Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion during a post-9/11 CIA briefing that a perceived terrorist plot with a one percent chance of success needs to be treated as a certainty. "It's not about our analysis ... it's about our response," Cheney told the group, setting the table for everything from illegal surveillance to Abu Ghraib.
Suskind wrote a bestselling book about the Bush administration in 2004 with the cooperation of the president's former cabinet member Paul O'Neill, so his access to at least some high-level sources is verified.
It is hard to assail a book full of so many blockbuster scoops. To be sure, "The One Percent Doctrine," today, is mandatory reading. It is often disappointing reading, as well, marred by pedestrian prose, too many re-created conversations, and most likely a rush deadline.
Will people read it now? You bet. Will they be reading it five years from now? Nope.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.