DATE June 20, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Ron Suskind discusses his new book "The One
Percent Solution" about Bush administration's anti-terrorism
policies and secret dealings in the war on terror
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new book, "The One Percent Solution," investigates how the Bush
administration's anti-terrorism policies were created and reveals some of the
secret dealings, as well as successes and missed opportunities, in the war on
terror. My guest is the author Ron Suskind. His previous book, "The Price of
Power," was about former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
It revealed that the Bush administration started to talk about overthrowing
Saddam Hussein in January of 2001 at its first post-inauguration National
Security Council meeting. Suskind's new book is based on interviews with many
current and former officials with the CIA, FBI, White House and NSC and the
departments of State, Defense and Treasury. One chapter that has made
headlines is about a terrorist cell in America that was allegedly planning a
gas attack on the New York City subway. Suskind says the attack was called
off by a leader of al-Qaeda.
Mr. RON SUSKIND: What happens here is that essentially in early 2003,
several things happened quickly in a row. One is that, by virtue of some
arrests we make in Bahrain, we find that al-Qaeda has developed--invented
really--a device called a mubtakkar. It's a--the key is hydrogen cyanide.
That's the deadly gas, which has a long history. The Nazis used it. It's
called Zyklon B, I suppose, from the gas chambers, and al-Qaeda and other
terrorists around the world have been trying essentially for years to figure
out a way to deliver it.
Well, what they came up with was this device called the mubtakkar, which is
inelegant portable delivery system. It's sort of like two mason jars together
in a little paint can, I think is the best way to put it. Between the two
jars, one of which has, let's say, sodium chloride, the other some hydrogen
substance, hydrochloric acid or whatnot, and then in-between, a sort of
triggering catalytic element that--a seal that can be broken with a cell
phone, just like the other bombs that mixes these two liquids quickly and
sends out a fairly potent cloud of the deadly gas. This mubtakkar comes to
our attention, and it's--you know, it causes something just short of panic
inside of the CIA. A device, a model, is built and is brought to the
president, and he is, you know, startled. Now that's the first step.
The second step is that we don't know what they may or may not do here, and we
tap an inside source inside of al-Qaeda management; he's linked to them. Up
to now, Terry, no one has felt just publicly that we've had a human
intelligence source connected in tight to the al-Qaeda leadership. We do in
fact, and I call him Ali...(unintelligible).
GROSS: We do or we did? The impression I got...
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, yeah...
GROSS: ...from your book is that we no longer have him.
Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah, we no longer have--we sort of decommissioned him in early
2005 or 2004 because we were afraid he might get revealed by his assistance
for us. But, at this point, we turned to Ali. He had done good things for
the US government for a few months. Everything he had said had been reliable,
had tracked. So we go to him and we say, `What do you know about this
mubtakkar idea?' And he says, `Well, actually quite a bit.' And he tells us a
startling thing. He says, `In fact, there is a Saudi leader of al-Qaeda who
recently met with Zawahiri about an operational WMD cell in the United States
that in the fall of 2002 through early 2003 cased the New York City subway
systems with the intention of using a mubtakkar advice, maybe several devices
and that 45 days away from zero hour, Zawahiri called them off. The key is
not called them back but called them off.
This information that gets passed to the CIA and right, of course, to the Oval
Office and the Situation Room, it's just a startling moment, because,
essentially it gives us our first real clue into the key questions as to what
al-Qaeda is really thinking.
GROSS: What are some of the possible ways of interpreting why Zawahiri, the
number two in al-Qaeda, called off this planned attack against the New York
Mr. SUSKIND: You know, that, of course, becomes the fierce debate inside of
the US government at the very top, obviously, the president, the vice
president, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, everybody, you know. There are a
variety of positions at the start. One is that maybe he called it off because
we're putting, you know, effective pressure on the al-Qaeda structure at this
point. Some people felt that. That, though, I think was overwhelmed by
another sort of counterargument. The question of, is that because this, this
thing, my God, I mean, mubtakkars in the New York City subways, could cause
potentially thousands of death, that that wouldn't be enough of a second wave,
that's the key term. What is the second wave strategy? Meaning that would
not be sufficient to what al-Qaeda is actually planning and wanting for an
attack after 9/11, the second wave attack. The view now is that, A, the
passage of time without a follow-up attack after 9/11 should not give anyone
confidence that some sort of victory has been won. You know, in some ways,
al-Qaeda thinks in long terms, in decades, longer. We think in news cycles.
We have a country with attentional issues, let's just say. In some ways, it's
clear they're counting on that. They're counting on us feeling
self-satisfied, successful, maybe dropping our guard, maybe just not seeing
the thing that's coming, because the key in terms of what the most informed
people in the US government feel is that the second wave, the next attack,
will be bigger than 9/11, that's the idea, so that it creates an upward arc of
terror and anticipation between the second and whatever follows that. You
know, fear and terror without, you know, the kind of handle of real knowledge
is, of course, what al-Qaeda is all about.
GROSS: Well, in your book you say that US officials' assessment is--at the
Homeland is indefensible and al-Qaeda is going to attack at a time of its own
Mr. SUSKIND: Yeah.
GROSS: What leads you to that conclusion? I mean, what were you hearing
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, I found virtually no one--and I talked to just
about everyone under the sun with direct knowledge of the United States'
position, its strategy on the war on terror--virtually nobody believes that,
in fact, the porous borders of the United States are truly defendable against
an ardent and targeted arrival--attack by al-Qaeda. A variety of things came
up in the research for the book but, you know, frankly, we're bracing--I live
in Washington. I've got my wife, my kids. You know, I said at one point,
`Geez, you know, no one knows nothing about the war on terror, really. I know
what the official speak is, what I'm hearing. But, you know, there must be
more, and God knows, there's so much more.
You know, the fact is--Terry, is that the idea that we can protect America is
probably as much posture as it is reality, and it's a posture that clearly
al-Qaeda, you know, doesn't buy, and they're probably right to not buy it.
That's what the research shows.
GROSS: Is this a good thing, you telling Americans that our government thinks
that our borders are indefensible?
Mr. SUSKIND: You know, the guiding principle of this book is that the
American people should know now, five years almost since 9/11, what al-Qaeda
certainly knows and in many cases has already responded to in terms of their
strategic posture. You know, the dilemma of this war on terror is that it's a
war fought in secret. You know, that's a conflict. That creates a new kind
of tension for us here in this country in a democracy, and a guiding principle
of this project, from the very start, is that this book will contain
disclosures, things, information, that al-Qaeda already knows and in many
cases has already responded to in its strategies.
At some point, there are people in the government who cooperated at various
levels who, I think, believe this as well--they do believe it. They were
asked many, many times, `Is this something that will somehow be dropping a
card in our hand, in terms of this global game of cat and mouse, of kill or be
killed, and in every single case, they said, `No, it's not.'
GROSS: My guest is Ron Suskind. His new book is called "The One Percent
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ron Suskind. His new book is
called "The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its
Enemies Since 9/11." Let's get to the 1 percent doctrine, which is the title
of your book. Why don't you explain--I mean, was it officially called a
doctrine before you described it as a doctrine, and what is it?
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, some people in the government call it a rule, the 1
percent rule. A few use the word `doctrine.' It's really the guiding
principle, again not disclosed at this point, but it truly is the centerpiece
of the United States playbook in this war on terror, and the genesis of it,
interestingly, is shown as though you're sort of walking in the shoes of the
participants in the book, and I think that's important to show how they arrive
at this idea. And it's from a meeting in November 2001 where the vice
president is being briefed about the most dire threat at that point, which is
disclosures that Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with bin Laden and
Zawahiri and, you know, apparently offered them clues as to how to build
nuclear weapons. Cheney's being briefed on this in the Situation Room. There
are folks from NSC and the CIA there as well. And as it starts, he sort of
stops the proceedings and he says, `You know, we need to think in a different
way about these low-probability, high-impact events.' And then he stops, and
the briefing continues, and it's a harrowing briefing. I mean, it's just two
months after 9/11. We're worried about a second wave attack. This is really
the shared nightmare. And then he stops it, and he says, `Look, if there is a
1 percent chance that al-Qaeda can get its hands on WMD, we need to treat it
as a certainty. It's not about our analysis or the preponderance of evidence.
It's about our response.' That's the key, the key thing in that second part,
is that `It's not about our analysis. It's about a response.' We are never
going to be able to essentially abide by the evidentiary rules of analysis, of
search and find in this kind of effort. It's about action, action even if we
have just a 1 percent suspicion.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the potential problems that you see with that
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, the potential problems is that everything
merits a to-be-sure response by the awesome powers of the US government, and
when those responses may not be justified, like the sweeping up of lots of
folks with Arab names or the capturing and rendition of people who may have
very, very little inclination or evidence that is pertinent to us, certainly,
many of the excesses we've seen in terms of torture, all of those fall into
this category. As well, frankly, much of the debate as to Iraq and WMD. You
know, on the outside, in public, we were arguing about evidence or evidences
or not evidence. Internally, though, many of the folks said, `You know,
evidence is beside the point. We've already sort of given up our belief that
evidence is really going to matter deep down.'
GROSS: Did people in the FBI or CIA complain to you about this 1 percent
doctrine? Did they complain to you that it made it difficult for them to
focus on the most serious of plots?
Mr. SUSKIND: Of course. You know, that is part of the difficulty. What if
it's 10 1 percent threats. What if it's 100? What if it's 1000? What, A,
does that mean for the capacities or resources of this US government? What
does it mean in terms of the people who might be bruised or worse in us,
essentially saying, `Better safe than sorry, you now are under arrest or your
phone line is tapped or all manner of things that essentially'--look evidence
is at the key of so much of what we call `age of reason' and `enlightenment
ideals' that essentially are the foundation of a democracy and certainly this
country. This is loosing us from those moorings.
GROSS: If people in the Bush administration and in our intelligence agencies
believe as you report they believe, that an attack--another attack is
inevitable, then what's wrong with a 1 percent doctrine in which a 1 percent
threshold of a plot is enough to try to investigate it?
Mr. SUSKIND: There is nothing inherently wrong or right about the 1 percent
doctrine. What people are going to do is argue about it. You know, on one
side, you have the issue of essentially a separation, a divorcing of action
from analysis and evidence, and we know the perils of that. On the other
hand, those who say yes and will say, `Yes, Dick Cheney, go forward,' are
going to say, `Is this really the best we can do in this era to create a
strategy for a war that's probably going to go on right up to the lives of our
grandkids?' That's a debate, and it's one that's clearly unfurling and will
unfurl because of the book over time, you know, from here going forward.
GROSS: One of the things under investigation now is how telephone companies
have cooperated with the National Security Agency and have handed over records
that allow the NSA to see who's calling who. You found that there's a
corporation called the First Data Corporation that actually offered to help on
the war on terror in any way it could. You say they're one of the world's
largest processors of credit card transactions and they own Western Union. So
what have they done in their attempt to cooperate with the Bush administration
on the war on terror?
Mr. SUSKIND: One of the great controversies is the union between the US
government and these large companies. It's very controversial. It does
create a crossing of key lines in American life. These companies are often
brand names around the world, as well as here in America. We know about the
telecom companies. Here is the first instance where we basically see the
other half, is that this giant global net, this matrix that they built after
9/11 sort of as a communications head on a financial body, it's this giant
terrorist-catching machine. And on the financial side, the lead player was
the First Data, which is this credit card processing giant which owns Western
Union. They approached the government a few days after 9/11, and FBI managed
Many of the sweeps where thousands of Muslim men were swept up or interrogated
around the country in the year, two years after 9/11, were driven under the
surface by the financial information which does tell you an awful lot, not
that the NSA stuff doesn't get you started, but the financial information
tells you pretty much everything you'd want to know. And First Data was
really running that show. I mean, FBI and First Data set up a kind of
out-location near a big First Data processing center so they could work
together and essentially tap into the First Data giant mainframes.
And then it gets even more interesting as Western Union, which is early on
identified as maybe the gem inside of First Data. They have thousands of
offices around the world. They're run by folks who are largely independent.
First Data--rather Western Union is used by the 9/11 hijackers to move money.
Western Union takes a step into, I think, a whole another realm. What they do
is is as they're being passed from FBI to CIA, they set up a kind of wire
transfer trap whereby a bit of information would be offered to Western Union,
and they would, through a process where it's paper, meaning they go through,
you know, a justice department office, and essentially Western Union knows
someone is about to send a wire transfer. The key is who picks it up, and
they also then can trace who's picking it up and then give it in real time to
folks in the intelligence community. In the case of the book, they
essentially offer this information to Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence
bureau, and it changed the balance of power on the West Bank, and the big
question is should US companies be doing this? US companies with huge sort of
communities of customers who frankly are unwitting. They don't know. Is it
better that they not know? Is it better that the brand names of America,
Fortune 100 companies, Fortune 500 companies, are in this sort of secret
arrangements with the United States government--the United States government
and ultimately governments around the world.
GROSS: What kind of controversies do you expect to be involved in now? And
do you think terrorists are wondering what you know? Do you think people in
the administration are wondering what you know? And, you know, what kind of
whirlwind are you expecting to be caught up in now?
Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, it's hard to gauge what's going to happen or
what will follow. The administration's known about the book pretty much since
the start. There are people in the administration who were helpful, frankly.
Obviously many who were not in the administration. You know, I can firmly
state, if anyone from the jihadist community is listening, that everything I
know is in the book, that there is nothing pertinent held back. And I think
that ultimately people recognize that, you know.
It's a very tricky time to be a journalist and to be involved in this kind of
reporting in this area. You know, I think, though, that that's part of what
we're facing in terms of these struggles, you know. How do you do what you
need to do in a democracy so that there is informed consent, so people
essentially are empowered by knowledge rather than simply fear that is rooted
in ignorance? Or `My God, I know what's out there but I can't know too much.'
I think people are strengthened by it, and I think that America has shown that
in the past and we'll have to show it in new ways in the future.
GROSS: Ron Suskind, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SUSKIND: Oh, sure, thank you, Terry. It's been lovely.
GROSS: Ron Suskind is the author of "The One Percent Doctrine."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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