Gripping Tales, Unknown Sources

By Alan Cooperman,
who is a senior editor of BookWorld
Tuesday, August 19, 2008


A Story of Truth and Hope

in an Age of Extremism

By Ron Suskind

Harper. 415 pp. $27.95

Let's put aside, for a moment, the question of whether investigative reporter Ron Suskind's new book is properly considered nonfiction (as he and his publisher assert) or fiction (as the Bush administration and various critics contend). It's unquestionably a narrative: a humorous, indignant, touching story whose "characters" -- as Suskind revealingly calls them -- learn that America's most effective defense against international terrorism is not torture or wiretapping but the "moral energy" that flows from truthfulness, generosity, integrity and optimism.

The story, told in the present tense, opens in Washington in the summer of 2006 with a recent graduate of Connecticut College walking by the White House on his way to work in a nearby office building. Like many young commuters, he's wearing a backpack and headphones. But he's also a Muslim from Pakistan, the music leaking from his iPod is Arab, and he's fiddling with the controls when a motorcade speeds out of the White House gates. His name is Usman Khosa, and in a flash, Secret Service officers knock him to the ground next to a statue of Alexander Hamilton. Suddenly, the narrator is inside his head:

"Usman sees a reporter approach, a woman, late thirties. She's gazing warily at him . . . and he sees, with crushing clarity, what she and the gawking crowd, now rimming an estimated blast radius the size of a baseball diamond, all see: PAKISTANI TERROR SUSPECT ARRESTED AT WHITE HOUSE. . . . He wants to scream to her, to everyone, that he got an A in freshman English, that he read 'The Federalist Papers' from beginning to end -- in Urdu, for God's sake -- and can quote passages verbatim. Hamilton is standing right next to him. Ask Hamilton!"

Suskind, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing at the Wall Street Journal, is a skilled reporter. It is possible, even likely, that he interviewed Usman Khosa thoroughly enough to write that passage without making up any details, though there are no source notes to tell us that. Ditto for Suskind's forays into the minds of several other characters, such as a high school exchange student from Afghanistan who overcomes his fear of girls but not of dogs, and an Energy Department official obsessed with the specter of nuclear terrorism.

But this novelistic literary technique gets spicier and dicier -- a lot spicier, a lot dicier -- when the narrator of "The Way of the World" goes inside the head of the president of the United States. The same morning on which Usman Khosa was detained and interrogated by the Secret Service, we are told, President Bush "flips absently through a briefing book with some talking points for the day and forces himself to focus," because:

"For him, it's always been a struggle between the analytical and the emotive -- the former, an effort; the latter, so natural, so clarifying. His feelings, his hunches, have gotten him and his nation into some tight spots. He's aware of that. So he's tried to be more attentive lately, tried to read the briefing books -- to study them, with their seasoned, prudent, boring-as-hell advice. . . . What no one understands, no one but Cheney, is how hard some days are. People are not bending to his rightful desires as they used to. He remembers what it felt like, in the two or three years after 9/11, to possess native authority, and he misses it."

Khosa may have revealed his innermost feelings to Suskind. But unless I miss my guess, President Bush did not. Is it even remotely plausible that Bush confided to the author that nobody but the vice president really feels his pain? Conceivably, Suskind's descriptions of Bush (a lifelong "bully" full of "bonhomie and vengefulness") may be based on reporting among the president's close associates. But Suskind gives no clue to the identity of his White House sources; he doesn't even explicitly claim to have any. The omniscient third-person narrator goes on for nearly 200 pages until, halfway through the book, Suskind abruptly surfaces in the first person.

"I'm sitting with a man in a Washington restaurant," he writes. "He's an official, highly placed for some time in the American intelligence community. I've known him for a while, and we talk, as usual, about many things." For a brief few pages, Suskind coyly yet proudly describes "the way it is with sources if you do investigative work. You build relationships and those relationships matter."

Translation: Trust me.

News reports have focused, predictably, on some explosive revelations in "The Way of the World," including that Saddam Hussein's former intelligence chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, told British intelligence before the 2003 invasion that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Suskind says the White House dismissed Habbush's information yet paid him $5 million and directed the CIA to concoct a fake letter from him tying Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. If Bush ordered a CIA operation intended to deceive the American people, Suskind suggests, the president may have committed an impeachable offense.

Not surprisingly, the White House has denied the charge. Two former CIA officials quoted about the forged letter also have distanced themselves from the book, leading Suskind to release a partial transcript of one of their interviews.

I'm inclined to trust Suskind, at least for now. I recognize that most investigative reporters, including The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, rely on unidentified sources. Like many Washington reporters, I've had to use them myself. But there is a striking irony about "The Way of the World."

As Suskind tells it, Khosa was unnerved by the incident in front of the White House and nearly lost faith in America. But he was buoyed by, of all things, his memories of 9/11, when he feared that a group of his college classmates was going to attack him and they offered sympathy and concern instead. All the other protagonists (except Bush and Cheney) also conclude that "after difficult years of confusion and fear," Americans are coming to realize that the best way to win the "hearts and minds struggle" against extremism is to adhere to "established moral standards," such as compassion and honesty.

The moral of Suskind's story, in short, is that nothing succeeds like truthfulness. Yet the greatest damage to the book's credibility is inflicted by none other than the author, who chose an emotionally powerful, novelistic voice over candor with his readers.

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