The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, by Ron Suskind, Harper, 415 pages, $27.95
Ron Suskind has earned a reputation for exposing the secrets and probing the innards of the Bush administration. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he has now published the third in a trilogy on the administration's deceptions. The first two books, The Price of Loyalty (2004) and The One Percent Doctrine (2006), showed that well before September 11, 2001, the administration was intent on invading Iraq and overturning limits on presidential powers. Like the earlier books, The Way of the World has stunning revelations, but by interspersing accounts of midlevel officials involved in the war on terrorism and ordinary individuals who have been affected by it, Suskind also attempts to provide a rich portrait of the people caught in the vortex of history.
One revelation in The Way of the World has set off so great a political maelstrom that it has had the unfortunate consequence of diverting attention from other aspects of the book that are equally damning. The controversy surrounds Suskind's claim that the CIA forged a document to legitimate the invasion of Iraq after the fact. In late 2003, with the war in Iraq beginning to sour, and with evidence mounting that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction or any connection to 9-11, a British reporter in Baghdad came into possession of an explosive memorandum. Dated July 1, 2001, and signed by the head of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Jalil Habbush, it said that the Iraqi government had hosted Mohammed Atta, one of the masterminds of September 11, and that al-Qaeda had arranged for a shipment (presumably uranium) from Niger via Syria and Libya. Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw leaped on the story, and Fox News shouter Bill O'Reilly was beside himself with glee.
According to Suskind, the CIA forged the Habbush letter on the request of the White House. That implies a crime: If the CIA forged a document for the purpose of influencing American opinion, it would violate U.S. law. No wonder the White House and CIA issued vigorous denials immediately after Suskind's book was released.
But there is much more to The Way of the World than the story of the Habbush letter. Consider how the administration treated its allies. According to Suskind, the National Security Agency monitored the phone calls of German officials. And the CIA undermined a British intelligence operation by secretly sending an operative to Pakistan to slip information to Pakistani intelligence, which led to premature arrests in the plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic in 2006. According to Suskind, domestic political motives were again at work; the Bush administration intended the disclosure to help Republicans in upcoming congressional elections. But when the case finally went on trial in London this past September, a jury found insufficient evidence to convict any of the eight defendants in connection with the airliner plot, though it did convict three on general conspiracy-to-murder charges.
Suskind seems to settle one of the more contentious debates about the origins of the Iraq War: whether the Bush administration went to war on the basis of faulty intelligence or knew Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
"We knew," a senior American intelligence official tells Suskind over a meal at a Washington restaurant, going on to explain that a super-secret British operation had turned one of Saddam's senior intelligence officers. What follows is a riveting story, interspersed throughout the book, which gives the reader an inside view of how journalists get those blockbuster front-page stories that often bring cries that the press and the leaker are unpatriotic, or worse. Contrary to popular impressions, these scoops rarely come from a single source. Rather, they are the product of a painstaking, dogged pursuit that enables a reporter to accrete nuggets of information.
Thus, from his restaurant source, Suskind learns the name of the British intelligence agent who pulled off the remarkable operation: Michael Shipster. "Debonair guy. Brilliant. He's the best they have," the source tells Suskind.
Suskind seems to be able to get almost everyone to talk to him, even Richard Dearlove, former head of Britain's storied intelligence agency, MI-6. Again, using the classic journalistic technique of telling someone what you already know, perhaps purposely making a mistake, in the hope of getting the person to add information or correct it, Suskind spins out for Dearlove what he "knows" about Shipster's intelligence coup. Dearlove is astonished.
"How did you know about Shipster's visit?" he asks. Only a few people in the highest levels of the Bush and Blair governments were aware of the operation, which Suskind depicts as "one of the world's best kept secrets."
With Bush beating the drums of war, Shipster had several clandestine meetings with none other than Habbush, the head of Iraqi intelligence, who told him that if the United States did invade, it would find no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam had ended his nuclear and biological programs in 1991. According to Dearlove, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as well as Tony Blair in Britain, were apprised of the facts. To no avail, of course.
Suskind is every bit Bob Woodward's equal in burrowing into the Bush administration and getting officials to talk to him. Unfortunately, he has also adopted Woodward's practice of telling us what someone is thinking or doing, when it is hard to imagine how he could know. How, for example, does Suskind know what happened in a private meeting between Bush and Cheney, or what Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said to each other in a telephone conversation? He has lengthy verbatim quotations and the back-and-forth from discussions lasting hours. Did he have access to tape recordings? Or are they reconstructions? Footnotes would have helped, of course, but Suskind doesn't consider them necessary.
Along with exposing secrets and the mendacity of the Bush administration, Suskind tells some personal and poignant stories of ordinary people and through them probes further the consequences of the administration's war on terrorism. There is Usman Khosa, a bright American-educated Pakistani, whose roommates are a Jew and a Christian. He has a good job at an economic-consulting firm in the capital. One warm summer morning in 2006, as he is passing the White House, wearing a backpack, the cops yell at him to stop; he doesn't hear because he is listening to his iPod. They grab him, rip off his backpack, spread-eagle him, put him in handcuffs, and haul him off into a black SUV for interrogation. His interrogators insist that he must know how to detonate bombs since he is from Pakistan. They want the names and phone numbers of his friends.
After several hours, the police let him go. He walks across to Lafayette Park and weeps. Still, he doesn't lose faith in America, but his religious faith is challenged. He knows the D.C. party scene, and when two 20-something Pakistanis come to town, they immediately want to go to a strip club. First they want to eat, but only halal.
Usman is stunned. They want to go to a strip club but will only eat food permitted under Islamic law? "This is messed up, man," he says. "That's why I don't like Islam," why since coming to America, "I've become a bit of an atheist." When his friends hear that, they want to kill him.
For the most part, Suskind pulls off this weaving together of the political and personal, as he does in a moving story about the military judge who finally blew the whistle on the injustices of the military-commissions system at Guantánamo. But at times, Suskind's prose gets away from him; a reader won't lose anything by skipping the prologue, with the bathetic use of the "walk in another's shoes" image. And for all his obvious intelligence and sophistication, Suskind's analysis sometimes sounds simplistic. For example, he writes that after Wendy Chamberlain, ambassador to Pakistan after 9-11, retired from the Foreign Service, she had an epiphany while working in Sudan for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The goal of assistance, Chamberlain concluded, should be helping others, as opposed to doing what is best for the United States. No question that America's aid program needs to be radically overhauled, but Suskind's suggestion that the United States should just "do the right thing" hardly seems like much guidance.
Suskind's admiring treatment of Benazir Bhutto is another example of the book's limitations. He concludes that she evolved from a politician marked by corruption and a "lust for power" into a leader who might have transformed Pakistan and made the world a better place. Perhaps. But I could not help thinking of Bush claiming he had seen into Vladimir Putin's soul.
In another startling disclosure, Suskind reveals that the NSA, which was monitoring Bhutto's phone calls, overheard a conversation in which she gave her son the numbers of secret bank accounts "that hold the family's fortunes -- huge reserves of money that investigators have long suspected are ill-gotten." Suskind doesn't ask why the Bush administration was still supporting her after learning this information. Nor does he deploy his considerable investigation skill to probe the corruption allegations. Investigators in Britain, Switzerland, and Spain allege that the money is from kickbacks and bribes paid to Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, when he was in Bhutto's Cabinet. Now that Zardari is Pakistan's president, journalists should be scrambling to find out what the United States is doing with what it knows.
The lies told and the damage wrought by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism are fairly well known now as a result of the work of investigative journalists such as Suskind, Seymour Hersh, and Jane Mayer, who gives the best book-length account in her recently published The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. The challenge is how to undo the damage. For starters, there has to be some accountability for those responsible for Abu Ghraib and for the secret prisons where suspected terrorists were brutally tortured. Congress needs to conduct a serious investigation into whether, in fact, the White House forged the letter Suskind writes about. Above all, as Suskind notes repeatedly in The Way of the World, there is a need for "moral leadership" if the United States is to recover its reputation and influence in the world. A new president may help, but moral leadership must come from Congress as well. Given the large majorities that passed the PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act, it is hard to be optimistic. The first step, though, is confronting the facts, and Suskind's book helps us do that.