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F!RST Power: Behind the Lines


On page 130 of Ron Suskind’s book “The One Percent Doctrine,” there is the detailed description of a fleshy, jaw-less, severed head believed to have belonged to an influential al-Qaeda deputy named Ayman al-Zawahiri. In almost Shakespearean fashion, the severed crown is passed around like Poor Yorick amongst a circle of FBI and information officials, hoping to confirm the death of Zawahiri, one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants.

“It felt like a boccie ball,” Suskind writes.

Welcome to the backroom of the war on terror. Please check your preconceptions at the door.

Suskind, a Wilmington native, Concord High School grad and Pulitzer Prize winner, lives by the philosophy that stories can change lives. It’s no surprise he authored one of the most talked about books of 2006, a non-fiction bombshell that discloses a wealth of previously unknown information about the George W. Bush administration following the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

“I hoped the book would both deepen and demystify this new kind of struggle we are engaged in, to allow the readers to take a kind of ownership of it,” Suskind says. “There are folks on the Right who say I took a whack at the president, but that really is him. This book will be at least a support and some nourishment for the principle of informed consent. And I think that’s the idea.”

The book is a hefty pill to swallow—every page reveals something new about the way our country is dealing with national security and the war against terrorism. The title refers to a mandate made by Vice President Dick Cheney: If something poses a 1 percent chance of a threat to America, he will proceed with military action as if the threat is a certainty. It was this line of preemptive, aggressive thought, Suskind postulates, that lead to conflict in Iraq.

Surprises keep coming. Suskind revealed that Al Qaeda came frighteningly close to another attack on New York in 2003, a release of a lethal chemical gas in the New York subway system. The plan was called off just 45 days before fruition. Also, Suskind writes, U.S. forces intentionally bombed Al Jazeera offices in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing journalist Tareq Ayyoub.

“Virtually nothing in the book did people know about publicly, which is really extraordinary,” Suskind says. “Right now, we’re classifying everything down to the lunch menu. That’s not the way we should be in a democracy. I think that system of secrecy, of classifying everything, everyone agrees, is broken.”

Secrecy is a very real theme in “The One Percent Doctrine,” which at times resembles a John le Carré spy thriller—though one with the fate of the planet at stake. Characters Bush, Cheney, Condaleeza Rice and former CIA chief George Tenet appear as the main cast, though the bulk of the action is put into play by men and women Suskind calls “the invisibles,” people hidden on the streets and the Internet who are actually waging the new breed of warfare.

“Mostly, wars are very public things,” Suskind says. “You have troops storming the beach, daily casualty reports, corespondents’ reports from the front line. So people usually have an ability to think clearly about their nation and its conflict and how they want to guide their leaders thereby. This is a different kind of war, fought almost entirely in secret. What it says is that, even with something as awesome as war, the American public is on sort of a need-to-know basis.

“It speaks volumes that I can write a book like this where every page has on it non-public information. In many ways, it’s so pertinent to the times we’re in. It just rings as a broken process.”

Suskind’s work didn’t go unnoticed. “The One Percent Doctrine” was a New York Times best seller, and in the months following its release, Suskind likely spent more time with Larry King and Anderson Cooper than with his wife and two teenage sons. Reviews for the book were even busier. The Washington Post wrote, “This is an important book, filled with the surest sign of great reporting: the unexpected. It enriches our understanding of even familiar episodes from the Bush administration’s war on terror.”

Dr. Samuel Hoff, a professor of history and political science at Delaware State University, takes it one step further: The book and Suskind’s research efforts, he says, could have some impact in the 2008 presidential elections.

“Coming out of this book is the question: What has this whole fight against terrorism in the post 9-11 community done to the Bush doctrine as it was originally espoused? And included in that is the strategy of preemption,” he says. “It’s turned that legitimate tool into something that’s seen as not being credible and has turned an effort to find alleged weapons into a nation-building effort that has cost us almost 2,600 lives from our military. I think that gets to the bottom line of what [Suskind is] saying. And it is disturbing.

“To some people, criticism of the current administration goes in one ear and out the other. But because fighting terrorism is going to be such a long-term struggle, [Cheney’s] 1 percent doctrine and the issue of preemption are going to be with us for a long time. So I do think those are going to be elements of the debate. In that sense, Ron Suskind is going to have some role in the 2008 campaign.”

“The One Percent Doctrine” is just one link in Suskind’s chain of novels and articles about President Bush. His previous work, “The Price of Loyalty,” picked apart the administration with help from former treasury chief Paul O’Neill. But by mid-2004 Suskind realized, like many Americans, he had no idea how the war on terror was being fought.

“To me, that story was so compelling—of bin Laden, who stood against America and survived,” Suskind says. “Those involved were concerned that the enemy was growing. We were having difficulty figuring out where they were, who they were and what they might do. That made me want to move with every ounce of my energy to help figure that out—what got us to this point, and what the future looks like. What so many said to me during reporting is that we don’t want another 9-11 with the American people in the dark. We don’t want that moment to have to be a reawakening. Maybe this book will help that.”

More than 100 human sources were tapped to report “The One Percent Doctrine”—senior officials from within the federal government, past and present. But full political immersion is nothing new to Suskind. His first real taste of the “big and busy public morality play” came when he was sophomore class president at Concord High. He followed that with bigger and better things at the University of Virginia, where he got involved on the campaign of Republican senator Rudy Boschwitz. In 1980 he became lead advance man for John Anderson’s presidential campaign and 1981 saw him managing a U.S. Senate campaign for Jack Downey (the man to whom “The One Percent Doctrine” is dedicated).

Just beneath the surface during Suskind’s ascent was a letter his father wrote on his deathbed. A well-known figure in Wilmington, Walter Suskind wrote to his sons about living a worthwhile life and achieving their goals. It made a powerful impact on Ron.

“The letter ends unfinished,” Suskind says. “And there was something about finishing that letter for him that always drove me. In some ways I’m still trying to finish it.”

Suskind eventually made his way to The Wall Street Journal, where he served from 1993 through 2000; he left as the paper’s senior national affairs reporter. In 1995 he penned a series of stories about inner-city honors students in Washington, D.C., that later became the book “A Hope in the Unseen.” The stories won him a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and sparked national debates about race and education.

In 2002 Suskind wrote two articles for Esquire magazine that were among the first to lower the microscope on the Bush administration.

For the next year or so, Suskind says, he’ll continue his whirlwind schedule of speeches and interviews about the issues his book has raised.

“In an era where assertion becomes fact, claim trumps authenticity. And where the message is repeated consistently, relentlessly, the hope [of the government] is that consent will be uninformed as possible. I think if I can stand in the way of that, I will have done something that my father would term worthwhile.”