If there is a one percent chance that terrorists will acquire a weapon of mass destruction, we must treat it as a certainty and respond accordingly. This is the “one percent doctrine” that Dick Cheney proposes in Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine. This book has been getting a lot of press for its criticism of the Bush administration, but that mainly shows what politically polarized times we live in. Everything is seen through party-colored glasses. This is not to say that Suskind isn’t critical, but the main subject of the book is the sometimes panicked, sometimes inept, but also sometimes brilliant and heroic secret war against terrorists that has taken place since 9/11. And the surprise is the starring role that the much-maligned CIA plays.
The redemption of the CIA and George Tenet is the subtext of this book. For years, the CIA has been the scapegoat for every failure, and, given the official secret nature of their work, the only way for it to respond has been through leaks to the media. That’s what fuels this book. It’s a tricky bargain that these ex-CIA officers (and perhaps some current ones as well) make with Suskind, because Suskind doesn’t work for them and writes about their moral failures in chilling ways. Tenet has always seemed like the kind of man who kowtows to the powerful, and for all the virtues he displays here, The One Percent Doctrine does nothing to erase that point of view. If Bush wants a mentally-ill, low-level Al Qaeda operative tortured, Tenet says “Yes, sir!” And after delivering a report that gives the CIA’s assessment of Saddam’s arsenal of WMD (dubious, needless to say), Tenet tells the President that the case for WMD is a “slam dunk.” He knows Bush isn’t going to read the report, after all.
So Tenet has a lot to answer for. But reading how the CIA methodically yet quickly went about shutting down Al Qaeda’s capabilities, and the decisions they had to make, is fascinating. One story related over the course of the book has to do with the tracking of electronic fund transfers. The CIA gets the total cooperation of the owners of Western Union, the largest wire transfer company in the Third World. Their work is franchised, and it turns out that much terrorist money was going through the Western Union offices owned by a single Bahraini. This guy wasn’t a terrorist, just an opportunist. The CIA basically forced him to turn over his network to them, and at one point the CIA was actually running Western Union offices in Pakistan used by Al Qaeda.
One can see the bind the CIA found itself in after this triumph. They could use the information they had acquired to immediately start shutting down and arresting some terrorists and terrorist-financing organizations. But to do so would reveal that they had this inside financial track, and would cut off future intelligence from this source. This is the kind of morally ambiguous situation than is often at the heart of great spy fiction.
Eventually, Al Qaeda caught on and in 2003 went electronically silent. It took a lot longer for Al Qaeda to realize their money was being watched than the CIA originally anticipated. No more wire transfers, no more cell phones, etc. Money is no longer transferred electronically, but instead comes in briefcases full of cash or bullion.
(This makes the controversy over the New York Time’s recent disclosure of the government’s surveillance of SWIFT all the more absurd. Since everyone who has ever done a wire transfer through a bank knows about SWIFT, and since Al Qaeda already had already stopped using wire transfers in 2003, it seems a bit anticlimactic for the NYT to report about it. And yet there have been hysterical cries of “Treason!” against the NYT. The NYT reporting on SWIFT now is like publishing accounts of secret plans to invade Europe in July, 1944. It has no effect on anything.)
Especially chilling is the account of the Mubtakkar Device, a low-tech but apparently operational device for delivering cyanide gas. It would only be effective in enclosed places—like subways. Even more than nukes, this is what gave the CIA nightmares. The ability to build nuclear weapons or transport them was not something that one could easily imagine of Al Qaeda. But Mubtakkar Devices were shockingly easy to construct.
Despite the remoteness of the nuclear threat, there is a lot about the attempts to shut down the A.J. Khan network and the “help” we got from our alleged ally, Pakistan. The scary weakness of Musharraf within Pakistan is a theme touched on at time in The One Percent Doctrine.
Indeed, one of the problems we faced in our execution of this doctrine was the quality of our allies. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the worst, and Bahrain is none too cooperative. (Libya, weirdly enough, was one of the most cooperative governments—they were under threat by the Islamists, too, and it fit in with their decade-long attempt to be welcomed back into the club of nations.) Only when they feel threatened in an existential way do they come through. At a certain point, Al Qaeda instructs its followers in Saudi Arabia to attempt to overthrow the government. This, in fact, was the goal of 9/11—the idea was that the U.S., staggered by the blow against them, would withdraw from Saudi Arabia leaving it vulnerable to an Islamist coup. It was a remarkable miscalculation. 9/11 energized the U.S. and made its citizens more willing to project American force overseas than they had been in decades. No one except for a laughable fringe of “revolutionary socialists” protested the invasion of Afghanistan. As David Cross said, even Nader would have sent troops to Afghanistan.
But if Al Qaeda misjudged American public opinion, so did Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. They had been itching to take out Saddam once and for all since the last war. 9/11 gave them an excuse, and the one percent doctrine seemed to justify it. The problem is that we now know that rumors of Saddam’s WMDs were greatly exaggerated, to say the least. And as this long, seemingly fruitless war keeps grinding through money and soldiers, American public opinion is shifting. The problem we now face is that as more American soldiers die, and as more atrocities are committed by insurgents, by our Iraqi allies, by our own troops, and by American torturers, different segments of the American population will grow disgusted, despondent, weary, etc.
(I am not suggesting that our soldiers are eager or likely to commit atrocities. But as time and constant threat bear down on them, those soldiers who are mentally and/or morally weak may succumb to terrible temptation. Out of an army of hundreds of thousands, there are sure to be some microscopic minority soldiers who are psychopaths or criminals, and another tiny minority of soldiers with weak wills who can be lead by a charismatic psychopath to do terrible things. This seems to be what happened at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. As time passes, it’s bound to happen again and again.)
Even more dangerous is the effect of Iraq on young, would-be radical Islamists. The One Percent Doctrine chillingly quotes a memo where Rumsfeld asks whether or not we are neutralizing terrorists at a rate slower than they are being recruited. The implication is that Rumsfeld thinks we are not, and that if anything, the terrorist recruitment rate is climbing. Iraq is therefore a strategic victory for Al Qaeda. While we have effectively disabled many of the tools used by the terrorists, they may be making up for it in the number of warm bodies they control.
One must always keep in mind that former members of the CIA are using this book to send a message. It’s a message that Suskind basically agrees with. This message is that the war against Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups is being fought diligently, but that Cheney and Rumsfeld have screwed up so badly that we may be losing it. Is this sour grapes on the part of Tenet and the other old-school CIA types? I think there is an element of that, but at this stage, the strategic error of invading Iraq must be admitted.