The Reviews Are In
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 1:12 PM
A new book hitting the stores today and a new documentary hitting the airwaves tonight offer detailed and highly unflattering looks at the behind-the-scenes workings of the Bush administration's war on terror.
And they're both getting rave reviews.
The new book, by Ron Suskind, is called "The One Percent Doctrine." I wrote about it at some length already in yesterday's column . It takes its title from Vice President Cheney's assertion that if there's even a one percent threat of a "high-impact" terrorist event, then the government should respond as if it were a certainty. That assertion, Suskind writes, became an unspoken but momentous new guiding principle for the Bush administration's national security policy.
The new documentary is on PBS tonight, from Frontline, and it's called "The Dark Side," inspired by Cheney's interview with NBC's Tim Russert on Sept. 16, 2001, in which he spoke of military responses to terrorism then added prophetically: "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will."
'The One Percent Doctrine'
Barton Gellman writes in a Washington Post book review that Suskind "tells some jaw-dropping stories we haven't heard before." Among them, the story of the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations, he turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure he was alleged to be.
Writes Gellman: "Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was 'echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,' Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as 'one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.' And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques. . . .
" 'I said he was important,' Bush reportedly told [then-CIA director George] Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?' 'No sir, Mr. President,' Tenet replied. Bush 'was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,' Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, 'Do some of these harsh methods really work?' Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, 'thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.' And so, Suskind writes, 'the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.' "
Gellman asks the right question: "How could this have happened? Why are we learning about it only now?"
Here's another telling tale: "The book's opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush's Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president's attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled 'Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.' Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: 'All right. You've covered your ass, now.' "
Michiko Kakutani writes in a New York Times book review: "Just as disturbing as Al Qaeda's plans and capabilities are the descriptions of the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror and its willful determination to go to war against Iraq. . . .
"Within the government, [Suskind writes], there was frequent frustration with the White House's hermetic decision-making style. 'Voicing desire for a more traditional, transparent policy process,' he writes, 'prompted accusations of disloyalty,' and 'issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principals rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the president's desk, and if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his "instinct" or "gut."'
Suskind "writes that Mr. Cheney's nickname inside the C.I.A. was Edgar (as in Edgar Bergen), casting Mr. Bush in the puppet role of Charlie McCarthy, and cites one instance after another in which the president was not fully briefed (or had failed to read the basic paperwork) about a crucial situation. . . .
"Suggesting that Mr. Bush deliberately did not read the full National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was delivered to the White House in the fall of 2002, Mr. Suskind writes: '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.' . . .
" 'Under this strategic model, reading the entire N.I.E. would be problematic for Bush: it could hem in the president's rhetoric, a key weapon in the march to war. He would know too much.' "
Tim Rutten writes in a Los Angeles Times book review that Suskind's book "makes for deeply unsettling reading and is a major contribution to our national conversation concerning these issues."
Suskind is already making headlines for his chilling disclosure that al-Qaeda apparently planned, then called off, a hydrogen cyanide gas attack in New York's subway in 2003.
But Rutten notes: "It is one of Suskind's provocative conclusions that the terrorists called off this attack for reasons of their own and that the Bush administration's election year claim to have prevented any attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 was delivered in the knowledge that this was so."
'The Dark Side'
Sam Allis writes in a Boston Globe review: " 'Frontline' delivers a devastating look tonight at the efforts of Vice President Dick Cheney to gain control of the war on terror after 9/11. In doing so, the show purports, he compromised the integrity of America's intelligence system. . . .
" 'Frontline' chronicles the brutal campaign by two consummate political in-fighters -- Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- to decimate the CIA, politically emasculate Secretary of State Colin Powell, and construct a near-limitless concept of executive power during war. While many of these strands are familiar, they have not been assembled as effectively before on television to present a coherent picture of what happened after 9/11."
David Bianculli writes in the New York Daily News: "Simply by underlining in red the names of Cheney loyalists on the organizational flow chart of the George W. Bush administration, 'The Dark Side' shows how deep Cheney's influence stretches."
Glenn Garvin writes in the Miami Herald: "Precisely because it avoids looney-tune conspiracy theories about Halliburton and oil pipelines, and stays away from name-calling in favor of old-fashioned journalism, Frontline presents a powerful indictment of the White House's decision to go to war."
Alessandra Stanley isn't quite as positive in the New York Times: " 'The Dark Side' is so intent on hammering home how Mr. Cheney twisted arms -- and the facts -- that it allows the C.I.A. to whitewash its own failings."
Here's more from the documentary's Web site : "In the initial stages of the war on terror, Tenet's CIA was rising to prominence as the lead agency in the Afghanistan war. But when Tenet insisted in his personal meetings with the president that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, Cheney and Rumsfeld initiated a secret program to re-examine the evidence and marginalize the agency and Tenet. Through interviews with DoD staffers who sifted through mountains of raw intelligence, Frontline tells the story of how questionable intelligence was 'stovepiped' to the vice president and presented to the public. . . .
"The film also examines how that stovepiped intelligence was used by the vice president in unprecedented visits to the CIA, where he questioned mid-level analysts on their conclusions. CIA officers who were there at the time say the message was clear: Cheney wanted evidence that Iraq was a threat."
The Last Throes
Cheney himself was hanging out with reporters yesterday, for a change.
Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney yesterday defended his much-criticized claim a year ago that the Iraq insurgency was in its 'last throes' and said he believes that Iraq 'turned a corner' last year when its people held elections creating a constitution and a government.
"Speaking at the National Press Club, Cheney predicted that 10 years from now people will look back at 2005 and say, 'That's when we began to get a handle on the long-term future of Iraq.' . . .
"Cheney has repeatedly stood by his May 2005 declaration that the insurgency was waning, even as Democratic politicians and comedians have mocked it. It has joined a litany of administration statements about Iraq cited as examples of wishful thinking, including that reconstruction would be inexpensive for U.S. taxpayers and that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators."
Ricks also reports that Cheney "acknowledged that the administration underestimated the strength of the insurgency. 'I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we've encountered,' he said."
But Ricks notes: "Despite Cheney's assertion that no one foresaw how difficult the post-invasion phase would be, defense and Middle East experts have said that administration officials during the run-up to the war ignored their warnings about potential obstacles ahead."
In fact, Cheney's assertion that "I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence" ranks right up there with his boss's assertion after Hurricane Katrina that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
A Brief History of the Last Throes
Here's Cheney yesterday .
Cheney initially made his "last throes" comment on May 30, 2005 , in an interview with CNN's Larry King.
It did not arise in the context of political progress. King was asking when the fighting would end -- and, specifically, when U.S. troops would come home.
"KING: You expect it in your administration?
"D. CHENEY: I do.
"KING: To be removed. It's not going to be -- it's not going to be a 10-year event?
"D. CHENEY: No. I think we may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time. But I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
Under ferocious questioning, as I noted in my June 22 column then-press secretary Scott McClellan acknowledged that the president did in fact agree with Cheney.
On June 23, 2005 , CNN's Wolf Blitzer gave Cheney a chance to back off.
Cheney went to the dictionary. "If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period -- the throes of a revolution. The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective, standing up a democracy in Iraq, that that's a huge defeat for them. They'll do everything they can to stop it.
"When you look back at World War II, the toughest battle, at the most difficult battles, both in Europe and in the Pacific, occurred just a few months before the end, the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and Okinawa in the spring of 1945. And I see this as a similar situation, where they're going to go all out."
As it happens, I'm newly conversant with some facts about the Battle of the Bulge, thanks to Tony Snow's unfortunate use of it as a metaphor just this past weekend. (See yesterday's column .)
The Battle of the Bulge lasted about six weeks -- and less than four months later, Hitler was dead.
PBS's Jim Lehrer gave Cheney yet another chance to distance himself from the comment some eight months later, in February of this year:
"LEHRER: You drew a lot of heat and ridicule when you said eight months ago, insurgency is in its last throes. You regret having said that?"
Cheney's response: "No." He gave the same reasons he gave yesterday.
It was with Lehrer, by the way, that Cheney first acknowledged that the White House hadn't anticipated the insurgency. "Well, you can't anticipate everything," he said.
In March , CBS's Bob Schieffer asked Cheney about the last throes, yet again. This time, Cheney blamed the media for concentrating on bad news. The statements he made were "basically accurate, and reflect reality," he said.
And on the one-year anniversary, on May 31 , press secretary Tony Snow weighed in with another rationalization: "I don't want to try to back-interpret what the Vice President said, but let me just offer at least one view on it, which is, for a long time, when we talked about insurgency -- that is, 'we,' generally, Americans -- we thought of al Qaeda. And I think it's pretty safe to say that the al Qaeda and the foreign fighters remnant presence in Iraq has been dramatically reduced, such that, at least, in the opinions of people there, it is no longer the major factor when it comes to what's going on. Now you do have former members of the Saddam regime and you do have Iraqi citizens who are in entrenched opposition and are using terror and other tactics to try to derail democracy."
Cheney's Lighter Side
Frank James blogs in the Chicago Tribune that "there was an earlier, more innocent time when relations between Cheney and journalists were, yes, still prickly but with a lot more yucks." That part, too, was on display yesterday when Cheney described a prank he had pulled on a reporter covering the Ford administration in 1976.
Cheney does get good sportsmanship points for showing up at all yesterday and praising New York Daily News White House correspondent Thomas M. DeFrank, who won the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prizes for distinguished coverage of the presidency in part based on an October 2005 story entitled Dubya-Cheney ties frayed by scandal .
But Mary Ann Akers writes in Roll Call (subscription required) that, maybe tellingly, "Cheney didn't physically present the award to DeFrank, in a departure from previous years."
Former White House procurement officer David Safavian was found guilty today of covering up his dealings with Republican influence-peddler Jack Abramoff.
The criminal investigation stemmed from actions when Safavian was chief of staff at the General Services Administration. But at least one of the four felonies he was convicted of took place when Safavian was on the White House payroll, during a conversation with a Senate investigator in which Safavian contradicted himself on whether he accepted free travel from Abramoff.
More coverage here .
George Jahn writes for the Associated Press: "Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Haditha. America's problems with Iraq are casting a long shadow over President Bush's meeting with European Union leaders this week."
William Schomberg writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush will hear loud calls to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp when he meets EU leaders this week, seeking to bolster cooperation in fighting terrorism."
USA Today noted yesterday: "President Bush makes a quick trip this week to Austria and Hungary -- very quick.
"Bush is scheduled to leave for Vienna and Budapest Tuesday morning and return to the White House by midnight Thursday, less than 63 hours later."
Mark Knoller , the meticulous chronicler of such things, writes for CBS News: "In traveling to Austria and Hungary this week, President Bush is making his 33rd foreign trip since taking office.
"Our CBS News tally of his travels abroad shows that this journey brings to 56 the number of foreign countries Mr. Bush has visited during his presidency. (See list .)"
Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "White House strategists are a bit concerned that expectations may be too high for President Bush's visit to a European Union meeting in Vienna Wednesday."
Fundraiser in Chief
Zachary A. Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post that Bush raised $27 million last night for congressional Republicans.
Bush said that the "Democrats are good talkers, we're good doers," and added: "It's important to have members of the United States Congress who will not wave the white flag of surrender in the war on terror."
Here's the text of his speech.
A Form of Torture
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Former White House chief of staff Andy Card returned yesterday to his old school, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, where President Bush delivered the commencement address. And -- oh, yeah -- Card made it into one of the jokes: 'When he was a plebe, he was stuffed in a duffel bag and run up the flagpole.' . . .
" 'Yes, I was scared,' said Card, who later transferred out. 'They would torture you and see whether or not you'd break.' "
White House Blogger Outreach
White House Internet guru David Almacy today announced that Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, and White House biodefense expert Rajeev Venkayya will hold a teleconference about bird flu preparations tomorrow afternoon -- just for bloggers!
About That Press Corps
Peter Johnson writes in USA Today: "White House legend Helen Thomas, the longtime United Press International reporter who is now a syndicated columnist for Hearst, takes aim at her colleagues in a new book, saying that when it came to questioning President Bush in the weeks before the Iraq war, they were more lapdogs than watchdogs."
On ABCNews.com, fellow White House legend Sam Donaldson talked to Thomas -- and he sounded at least as critical as she did.
Donaldson: "I know that when I worked with you at the White House, and worked for ABC News, I knew that the great Roone Arledge would back me, if the White House complained about me and said, 'Oh, take him off the beat, he's so rude,' that Roone Arledge would listen politely, and then give me a raise. I wonder if today's bosses act the same way, and whether today's reporters fear that if they press too hard, they may not be, they may not be there?"
Later, he added: "A lot of people out there believe that when you ask the president a question that isn't some namby-pamby, 'Oh, sir, would you please tell us, if you care to, how you thought about it?' that that's rude, that's something that's not permissible."