Book World Live: 'The Way Of The World'

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Ron Suskind
Journalist and Author
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 3:00 PM

"The Bush administration joined former top CIA officials in denouncing a new book's assertion that White House officials ordered the forgery of Iraqi documents to suggest a link between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The claim was made by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose book "The Way of the World" also contends that the White House obtained compelling evidence in early 2003 that Iraq possessed no significant stocks of nuclear or biological weapons but decided to invade the country anyway."

Author and journalist Ron Suskind was online Tuesday, August 12 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. The book is making headlines for its assertions about White House tactics in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Suskind is also the author of The One Percent Doctrine, The Price of Loyalty, and A Hope in the Unseen. From 1993 to 2000 he was the senior national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in Book World or in the weekday Style Section.

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Ron Suskind: It's always nice to be on washingtonpost.com. I've done many of these chats in the past. It's a nice way to have a meaningful give-and-take and productive discussion. Readers, those who've read the book. are often moved by the more hopeful passages about how Americans are figuring out not only the power of moral energy but how to harness it at the end of this troubled year.

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Washington: Why do you think the allegations laid out in the book have failed to gain the sort of traction that it seems they should?

Ron Suskind: I think personal attacks and disinformation campaigns by the White House and others are effective. Otherwise they wouldn't do it. And I think now as we enter the second week, things have settled -- me doing something at the end of last week I've never done before in 25 years, posting the transcript of an interview, helped settle some of the confusion. When people read it, they see clearly that the evidence in the book is part of a great mountain of evidence that supports the point the book makes. I think the discussion has now moved past that and people are reading it with clarity, and seeing that the controversial and politically tendentious part about the Iraqi intelligence chief is just one of many points of the book, and in fact one of the points of the book is how we get past some of these noisy and spirit-crushing disclosures of this era of extraordinary gaps between words and deeds. It's about how Americans are using these sorts of problems with the start of the gap as a starting point to ask "now what can I do to restore America's moral authority in the world." I think there's clarity and recognition that the true source of power in the world is moral energy, and one way to learn about that is to have lost it, and to feel the deficit.

Having said that, the book has gotten enormous publicity and attention, and that doesn't seem to be lessening at all.

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Denver: Why didn't we find out about the forged memo, given that the White House spent so much time and energy getting it created?

Ron Suskind: I think that what you're finding is that the combination of message discipline that defines so much of governance, and secrecy, where they're classifying everything down to the White House lunch menu, is creating a kind of air lock that keeps information locked in tight. This shows those forces are strong, message and secrecy in a kind of hammer lock with one another. Some of the people involved here -- both on the record and off the record sources -- felt that it was important to get the truth out and have a proper closure to this period rather than have these questions unanswered as this administration leaves the stage, leaving it as matters of debate in dusty history. Especially in a year of informed consent, where the nation's trying to figure out where we go from here.

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Corvallis, Ore.: Hi, Ron. Thanks for taking questions. I was wondering if you could elucidate for us the reasons that might be behind Richer's denials subsequent to the public release of your work. If Richer's interviews were on the record, then it seems he would have known that you were going to quote him in telling the story of the forgery. Presumably he wanted you to tell the story, or why else would he have given the information he had to you? In light of his on-the-record cooperation with you, why do you think he now is issuing carefully phrased denials of various aspects of the story?

Ron Suskind: I think it's hard for people to predict how they'll react when they're a part of disclosures like this appearing in public. I talk about it with all my sources, particularly those who will be named, but it's hard to elucidate how it feels to be hit with a tidal wave of publicity regarding issues so portentous. In circumstances like that even the stoutest of individuals may feel their knees buckle. I think that many of the people involved were surprised that I posted the transcripts. I don't think they thought I'd do that. But it's settled these issues in large measure.

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Moraga, Calif.: You've released a partial transcript of your interview with Richer, who publicly denies what you reported and what the transcript suggests. What did your sources think would happen once you put their statements into a book or article? Were they surprised at the response? Are you surprised by their denials? By the way, are your records taped and verifiable, or are they notes?

Ron Suskind: I have both verifiable tapes and notes, and the latter -- as any reporter will tell you -- also are admissible in court.

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Lyme, Conn.: What were the threat assessments from Iraq before the war? It seems to me Saddam Hussein was contained, that the no fly zones were working, and that the situation was relatively stable. How much of a threat did leaders really think Saddam Hussein posed?

Ron Suskind: That's a very interesting point. In large measure, my investigations are fairly consistent. The view was that Saddam Hussein was the "easy mark" in the region. The president also personally wanted to finish unfinished business. The view was that Saddam was someone we could make an example of. One of the threats at the start of the administration that they felt was hard to contain was the spread of weapons of mass destruction, like spores in the wind. Memos from the early part of the administration stated clearly that we didn't really see a remedy for this, and that we needed to find a way to dissuade our enemies from getting these weapons and denying us primacy in many parts of the world. By making an example of Saddam, we could dissuade other rogue states from similar confrontational temerity. One neoconservative official I spent some time with said an apt definition of what they were thinking was that it would be an experiment in behavior modification. Those experiments often don't work with three people in a locked room, but ultimately we try it in one of the world's most troubled and strategically important regions.

So interestingly when Habbush says Saddam doesn't have WMD at this point, and when we find out he's concerned with other countries in the region -- Iran and its nascent nuclear program -- and that he didn't want them to know that he had such weapons, it fits the idea we had that he was caged, a toothless tiger, shooting at our planes overhead but largely contained. So all of that remains consistent.

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Hilton Head Island, S.C.: During recent interviews you have expressed an expectation that there were going to be congressional investigations pertaining to the reporting about the fabricated Habbush letter. Have you had any discussions with members or representatives of congressional or Senate staffs regarding this issue? Have you been informed that such an investigation or inquiry would be forthcoming?

Ron Suskind: In fact there are two investigations -- the House Judiciary Committee announced publicly yesterday an inquiry, and the SSCI also has launched an independent inquiry to substantiate the evidence in the book.

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New York: Weren't there those who argued that the war would pay for itself from Iraqi oil production? Well, if their oil production is back to where it was before the war, and if their government is running a budget surplus, what happened?

Ron Suskind: That's a good question. Of course that's just happening now in terms of the industry there getting back on its feet. Over this period there was such profound destruction in the country, primarily caused by the U.S. not thinking clearly about what owning such a country would entail. Hundreds of millions of dollars have vanished into Iraq. There's a meeting in the book from 2002 when Rumsfeld is overseeing a big Pentagon meeting with State, the CIA, etc., which is about steps C and D, right after the coming invasion (which they're planning then in Jan. 2002). At this point, it's the spring of 2002 and they're talking about stabilizing and rebuilding the country, steps C and D of the Iraq plan. Rumsfeld has people from State and the CIA pressing him and Casey that ownership of Iraq will be a very complicated endeavor. These of course are people who have been there, and they say "you can't do these things with PowerPoint presentations." Rumsfeld responds "we will make impose our reality on them." This sums up the administration's hubris in this period, that the U.S. as a lone superpower, could shape reality. Of course we learned otherwise, and five years later are dealing with those lessons.

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Ron Suskind: It is interesting to look at the misimpressions as to how it would unfold. There was thinking that at the time that the biggest problems would be the influx of refugees to Iraq, joyously returning to the nation. That was one of the biggest concerns, along with how to collect all the flowers and candy being thrown at us. That's amazing, isn't it?

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Dover, Del.: How did you first hear about the origins of the Habbush letter? How many off-the-record sources confirm this story?

Ron Suskind: I really can't go into all the specifics. It's important to show though that the Habbush story is much much more than the letter. In the book I show how I learn about his presence, his role, who he is, what he did. I try to make that as transparent as possibly, showing me working with a background source, British intelligence officials, nailing down the arc of this story. So the readers are able to witness how this disclosure actually unfolded.

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Washington: Are you aware that Habbush was used for other forgeries as well, for specifically British purposes such as tying George Galloway to Saddam?

Ron Suskind: I've heard about the Galloway issue, but I have not dug deeply into it.

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New York: In your book, do you go into any detail as to the human excrement that is Ahmed Chalabi?

Ron Suskind: (Laughs.) I do not go into that subject.

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Washington: I am enjoying your book. I am more convinced by it that CIA was involved in the Habbush forgery than that the White House directed it. What really convinces you this is not the CIA's latest strike at the Bush White House in their long-running battle? Have you seen a copy of the directive for the letter on creamy White House stationery? Do you have any administration insiders confessing? Doesn't it strike you as implausible for the White House, especially Paperless Dick Cheney, to have committed a crime to paper? And what language was the White House's false letter in? Thanks.

Ron Suskind: It doesn't really fit with the ins and outs of that struggle I've reported a great deal about. What is here is from first person testimony based on what people experienced and remembers. The reasons under it are things historians will debate. The important thing is that the White House passes it to the CIA for execution, which passes it down the ranks for people to carry through. I think it's also clear from the testimony of those involved that it was not something the CIA was happy to be doing. But remember that the CIA serves the president, and when you are given an order from the White House -- which is precisely what the book shows, an order is an order. You follow it. And people in the book discuss that.

Re: Paper, I've written and studied the process of the White House for many years and how Cheney worked hard to create a paperless, "fingerprintless" White House on issues people might want to deny. Everyone makes mistakes, and that may be what this was. Alternately, this may have been so closely held in secrecy that they felt it wouldn't come out. That sense of a lockdown security actually did hold for quite a while considering this did happen five years ago.

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Old Lyme, Conn.: It is the duty of a solider to disobey an illegal order. Do separate rules apply to the CIA? If an agent is ordered to forge a memo, what are the duties of the agent to carry forth that order? How did you get the CIA to then confirm they obeyed an possibly illegal order?

Ron Suskind: When you look at the nuances of this thing, I even have two of the folks who cooperated on the project talk about the fine line of what is not legal and what was done here. One of the sources says in a kind of self-defense that it was intended to effect opinion in Iraq, which of course would not violate CIA statute that it's illegal to run disinformation campaigns in the U.S. One of the other sources on the Habbush letter says that's ridiculous, that this was clearly designed to solve a political problem at the White House, which they were focusing much of their energy on.

Let me just say that these are particularly good questions, which are revealed in the very debate in the book regarding some of the thorny issues involving this letter

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Seattle: Hi Ron -- I saw you Monday night on "The Daily Show" -- good and concise, and yet still good-humored. Do you think that your book can penetrate the Big Media narrative and the distractions of the Olympic coverage, so that we finally can see some of the big administration criminals face legal prosecution?

washingtonpost.com: Interview With Ron Suskind ("The Daily Show," Aug. 11)

Ron Suskind: The book actually has done a pretty good job of penetrating some of the turns of the news cycles, and certainly as more and more people read it it will continue to do so. It has many disclosures in it and lays out the evidence clearly on these issues and the cynicism and faithlessness that defined the building of the case for war and the activities afterward to defend the president's political flank under the charge, a huge historical charge. Now thousands of dead later with Americans' many injuries and amputations and our national treasury and moral authority bled away, these issues bring to light whether Americans actually had a fair choice about what America should do prior to the invasion. It is clear that they were not. People often recall Tim Russert's question about whether this was a war of choice or necessity. What you see now is that the war was not presented in terms of a fair and accurate choice for the American public. The president easily could have said in late January of 2003 at his State of the Union address, instead of the bit about yellowcake, that they had learned that they may not be WMD in Iraq, I think we would have had a real discussion about the Iraq war and whether it was firmly tied to American interests in such a way that war was justified. I think Americans always have been very hard eyed about whether wars are necessary. Had they been given a real choice regarding what the administration knew in early 2003, they may have said that this is really an issue from the previous decade, not really a priority now. That this is a matter of dictators who need to be opposed, rather than the issue that Sept. 11 illustrated so clearly -- Islamic radicals and terror networks that might have WMD. That's the real struggle of this period, the hearts and minds struggle. They may have said, the real battle isn't in Iraq, that the real nexus of course was still raging in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan, where we have now returned, in what many believe to be the right war.

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Bethesda, Md.: Congratulations on the publication of your book. In the run-up to the Iraq war, it struck me how major media outlets, notably The Washington Post and New York Times, jumped on the White House bandwagon and whole-heartedly endorsed the invasion. Now those same outlets are some of the war's most vociferous critics. Does your book examine -- or has anyone else looked at -- the editorial decision-making that went into those endorsements?

Ron Suskind: No, the book doesn't, but certainly it is a worthwhile area of inquiry.

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Arlington, Va.: Journalists write what often is referred to as the first draft of history. They rely much more on oral evidence (information from sources and interviews) than documentation. They see bits of the picture but not all of it. The release of records comes later, over time, from the National Archives and from the presidential libraries. Historians rely on these archival sources to describe what happened, how and why. How do you see the process of archival disclosure working out after the administration leaves office?

Ron Suskind: I think much of that disclosure should be happening now. This book lays out a wide array of disclosures that at this point remain officially secret for no discernable reason. It's impossible to find any reason why the Habbush report, based on the secret meetings in Jordan in early 2003; that report, delivered to George Tenet and then briefed up to the president, there's no reason that should stay classified. One of the struggles of this period is drawing the line between national security and national embarrassment, especially when it involves current leadership. There is not such a line drawn -- it's all subsumed in "classified." I would like to know what the U.S. will not declassify that at this time. There is no reason not to, or other information regarding the Iraqi intelligence chief. I assure that the volumes of documents sealed by the U.S. government would explain what happened during one of the most important episodes of this era, the march to war. What could be more important. It should all be declassified now so the American public can study it and decide exactly what the pertinent issues were.

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Chicago: It seems that free and democratic societies fall when those who take power and destroy the rule of law have little fear of retribution. In this light, do you not think it is important the members of Bush administration should not be allowed to run out the clock without facing some form of justice? That doing nothing condones, sets a precedent and allows by silence future leaders to continue and extend the abuses of power that we have seen executed by this administration?

Ron Suskind: This question is crafted with great resonance and power. I agree with every word of it. The great challenge of this period is to exercise the powers enumerated in the Constitution in present tense. That Constitution is not a document to be employed at one's convenience or concerns for time frames or a ticking clock. The difficulty here is this larger issue the reader discusses of accountability in a democracy. I think we've had a kind of severing between issues of accountability of the duly elected to the sovereign public. The term public servant is very carefully crafted and carries an odd tension -- that these people with great powers at their disposal are in fact servants of the people. Only with accountability, transparency and exercise of the rule of law does this system work. Can power exercised by so few over so many every be properly checked?

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Victoria, B.C.: Ron, The Atlantic had an interesting piece a few months back that speculated on the amount of time that might be required to repair the enormous ethical and moral damage to the US's leadership worldwide. Estimates varied from ten to fifty years. Given your view on the importance of sunshine and humility, how long do you think it might take for responsible Administrations to undo the damage of George W. Bush?

Ron Suskind: The sweeping theme of this book is how America is struggling from top to bottom to restore its moral authority, which is the source of true power in the world, much more than force or bombers and planes. That's carried through many of the characters of the book who have the most resonance and carry the seeds of hope, like the Pakistani kid who comes to America, becomes a high-achiever and an economic consultant in Washington, and is walking in front of the White House on day and is dragged into an interrogation room. This shows the contrast between words and deeds that bleeds away our moral authority. What's interesting about Usman Khosa is that he emerges from that interrogation room dizzy and battered, and through the next two years as he travels in the U.S. and back home, you see that even after this troubled period, American values still hold real resonance. That is if we trust them. Usman manages to return and find a home in America even after what he'd been through. Part of the theme of the book is to try to test out whether American values and morals still carry force and efficacy in the world.

Many of the journeys of these characters are quite emotional to read, and in the end are oddly uplifting. One of the stories readers talk about is a high school student, Ibrahim, who leaves rural Afghanistan -- where he has lived an isolated life, where he's never seen girls and boys together or even bare arms -- and he's put in a program that sends him to a U.S. high school for a year. At first he's simply overwhelmed by the cultural collisions. When he goes to a sophisticated suburban high school in Denver, it's too wide divide to cross, even though everyone involved tries mightily. But after he washes out of Denver, he ends up in one of America's most depressed corners in the Pennsylvania rust belt up near Lake Erie, where he befriends a young girl, a high school student who takes him in, and they become a couple. For readers who wonder about the divides between the U.S. and the Islamic world will see evidence in this book of not only whether but how even profound divides can be crossed. The key moment here is when Ibrahim finds out his girlfriend has a secret, and she shows him a month into their relationship a picture of her and a small baby that she'd had out of wedlock in the 10th grade. She wants him to know it from her, not another student in the school. He's startled. That night talking to his host mother he tries to explain his feelings. She asks him if he has any experience with this sort of thing -- out-of-wedlock mothers in Afghanistan. He says yes -- "in Afghanistan, we would kill her." She then asks him the quintessential American question. "But what do you think?"That's the question we ask here. What you think matters. After a few moments of search, he says "but she's my friend." The question is, does he end up taking her to the senior prom or not. I'll leave that for readers, I don't want to spoil one of the many surprises in the book. There are many such stories in the book that actually are the appropriate complement to many of these harrowing disclosures of official misconduct. They show in essence that American values, when we trust them, are really human values. That much of the world still is hoping that we remember how to sing here in this country, loudly. The repair of moral energy and moral authority after all is a process for a nation that's not so very different from what people know from their own lives. It takes honesty, humility, compassion, self-knowledge and a desire to act in a way dictated by those values. That's what the book is about, especially now as people look to help restore the U.S. government to meet the standards people in this country long have imagined are possible.

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Ron Suskind: With that, I'll sign off. I appreciate everyone's questions. As they read the book they'll see the weave of issues presented in 400 pages. In a way what the book does is put a human face on this era, and allows people to engage both intellectually and emotionally in some of the choices the country faces in this era.

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