Most news junkies should be familiar with its most explosive, damning account: Bush telling the briefer flown out to Crawford to warn him about bin Laden attacking the U.S., "All right, you've covered your ass now." (Barton Gellman's review in The Washington Post covers many of the key passages in the book, including the Crawford briefing and some of the material I'll be excerpting below. This earlier post also provides some context on the bin Laden revisionism by the Bush administration.) I've also previously quoted passages from The One Percent Doctrine on the infamous sixteen words in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech and a section on Bush's general immaturity and naiveté.
All quotations come from the edition linked above, the first hardcover edition printed by Simon & Shuster, New York, 2006.
Suskind offers several interesting passages about Abu Zubaydah, a member of al Qaeda captured by the U.S. in March 2002:
What, for instance, did all of this mean upon the capture of Zubaydah? A freeing of rhetoric, for the "wartime" President to say what he felt desperately needed to be said.
Which Bush did, first, in a speech at the Greenwich, Connecticut, Hyatt Regency on April 9, 2002. "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belong," the President said to raucous cheers from a roomful of Republican Party contributors. [p.99]
Suskind describes how Bush, Cheney, Rice and the gang heavily promoted Zubaydah as a criminal mastermind in public, the third-ranking member of al Qaeda and so on. The intelligence community assessment was far different:
"This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," [FBI agent Dan] Coleman told a top official at FBI after a few days reviewing the Zubaydah haul. "That's why they let him fly all over the world doing meet and greet. That's why people used his name on all sorts of calls and e-mails. He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights...He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable, you know, the greeter... Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace shaking hands."
This opinion was echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President. While Bush was out in public claiming Zubaydah's grandiose malevolence, his private disappointment fell, as it often would, on Tenet—the man whose job he'd saved.
"I said he was important," Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?"
"No sir, Mr. President."
Back in Langley, Tenet pressed subordinates over what could be done to get Zubaydah to talk. His injuries were serious, but he'd been moved from a hospital near Faisalabad to several locations in central Pakistan. The CIA found some of the finest medical professionals in America. CIA agents alighted at their medical offices and soon they were on flights to Pakistan.
"He received the finest medical attention on the planet," said one CIA official. "We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him." [p.100]
Obviously no one should die, be tortured or otherwise suffer greatly merely so someone in power can save face over reckless boasts. Of course, this doesn't seem to be an accident or one-time event with Bush, as someone in the intelligence community makes clear:
"Around the room a lot of people just rolled their eyes when we heard comments from the White House. I mean, Bush and Cheney knew what we knew about Zubaydah. The guy had psychological issues. He was, in a way, expendable. It was like calling someone who runs a company's in-house travel department the COO," said one top CIA official, who attended the 5 p.m. meeting where the issue of Zubaydah came up. "The thinking was, why the hell did the President have to put us in a box like this?"
What they'd soon realize was that this was the President's management style. A way, as he would often quip, to push people "to do things they didn't think they were capable of." [p.101]
The incompetence, the public overstatements and misstatements, are a feature, not a bug.
Perhaps the only thing worse than lying to the public (although it's debatable) is diverting actual resources based on highly suspect intel:
"Zubaydah's injuries—gunshots wounds to the leg, groin, and abdomen—had been successfully treated by the finest U.S. physicians in late April and early May. The doctors repaired internal bleeding, a fracture, and organ damage.
He was stabilized by mid-May and, thus, ready. An extraordinary moment in the "war on terror" was about to unfold. After months of interdepartmental exchanges over the detainment, interrogation, and prosecution of captives in the "war on terror"—as well as debates over which "debriefing" techniques would work most effectively on al Qaeda—the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered. [p.111]
Suskind describes a number of alerts and investigations undertaken based Zubaydah's highly suspect, coerced statements. Did the people ordering action on this almost entirely bad intel ever stop to question, "hmm, maybe this guy isn't credible"…? Did they ever say, "perhaps this interrogation method isn't effective"…? Suskind's book suggests some people knew it was wrong, but apparently that did not include Cheney or Bush.
Suskind offers many passages throughout about Bush's maturity and anti-intellectual, anti-reflection management style:
George W. Bush was sitting in the Oval Office receiving reports on progress throughout much of each day. He was now, as often like to say, "a wartime president." Whether he had changed after 9/11, or had simply discovered qualities that had lain dormant, he had surely found his métier. Bush had long been comfortable making quick decisions without the luxury of precedent or detailed study and investigation. In his first nine months, this had prompted concerns among some senior staff in the White House, members of the cabinet, and seasoned handed in Congress—was he reading the materials, was he thinking things through? Now, a staccato rhythm of swift decisions seemed to be the thing needed. There was no precedent to what had been done to America and what the country now faced, and that was liberating. The moment demanded improvisation, a demand that freed Bush. Left unfettered, and unchallenged, were his instincts, his "gut," as he often says, and an unwieldy aggressiveness that he'd long been cautioned to contain.
Other top officials soon learned what Tenet knew when he called in Cofer Black. Military or intelligence advisors who'd killed men—the more visceral, the better—knew that tales of combat would be readily received by a leader who was most focused, always, when he could make things personal. Tactile. Visceral. The President himself designed a chart: the faces of the top al Qaeda leaders with short bios stared out. As a kill or capture was confirmed, he drew a "X" over the face. "Making progress," he'd joke, ruefully.
On that score, he'd had a particularly glorious Presidential Daily Briefing in early December. An Afghan military chief told CIA operatives that Zawahiri had likely been killed in an air attack near the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Tenet excitedly made the report to Bush at the morning briefing. Bush grabbed a lead pencil with the presidential seal, marked an "X" across the wide, meaty bespectacled face of the Egyptian, a man whose importance to the Islamic jihad movement all but matched that of bin Laden. There was rejoicing in the Oval Office. [p.72-73]
As it turns out, they were wrong about Zawahiri. Suskind describes how Bush like operational details of military operations, perhaps one of the few areas aside from sports where Bush is a "detail guy." Bush definitely loves tough talk and the image of strength.
Meanwhile, Suskind writes a great deal, interspersed throughout, about Bush's bubble and how it was built with Bush's implicit and explicit approval. This section concerns the NIE at the center of Plamegate:
The thinking of several former Nixon administration officials, including Cheney, was not that the [Watergate] break-in and similar actions were the problem. The problem was that the President should have been "protected" from knowledge of such activities.
A president, in this model, can even say, in a general way, that he'd be happy if something were to occur—and have his subordinates execute such wishes—and still retain what, during the Reagan administration, was termed "plausible deniabilty." That was what Ronald Reagan essentially did by telling advisors that he wouldn't mind if they found a way around congressional bans on aid to the anti-Communist contra rebels in Nicaragua, but then, when later questioned in a videotaped deposition, saying that he hadn't "any inkling" of what they actually did.
For some presidents, like the first President Bush, this didn't work. He demanded to know everything pertinent in making decisions, so he wouldn't make mistakes. Presidents generally don't like being surprised. or ending up on a "need to know" basis. The idea of being inexplicitly briefed to water down accountability, or of using oft-reviled inefficiencies of government "process" to counteract the heightened transparency of the media age, is repugnant to them.
With this new George W. Bush presidency, however, Cheney was able to shape his protective strategy in a particularly proactive way. Keeping certain knowledge from Bush—much of it shrouded, as well, by classification—meant that the President, whose each word circles the globe, could advance various strategies by saying whatever was needed. He could essentially be "deniable" about his own statements.
Whether Cheney's innovations were tailored to match Bush's inclinations, or vice versa, is almost immaterial. It was a firm fit. Under this strategic model, reading the entire NIE would be problematic for Bush: it colud hem in the President's rhetoric, a key weapon in the march to war. He would know too much.
If somehow the contents of the NIE were revealed, the White House could say that the report was too cumbersome and that Bush had only read the one-page summary. [pp. 174-5]
Suskind also provides frightening details of at least one important diplomatic meeting at Crawford where embarrassingly, Bush simply did not receive even a cursory briefing beforehand. While Bush has never been much of a "reader," hence all the verbal briefings and Bush's insistence on meeting people face to face so he can gauge them, apparently the Office of the Vice President has routing power for almost all documents and decides what Bush will see or not see. In the Crawford incident, apparently Cheney's office simply did not give Bush the basic information that he obviously needed, and the results were nearly disastrous (perhaps I'll excerpt that section at some other point, but it's fairly long). The larger point is that, as the Angler series confirms, Cheney controls most of the flow of information to Bush and gets in the last word, in addition to often framing the agenda in the first place and offering other input along the way. I'm struck by how bored, disinterested and lacking in self-respect —and respect for the office—Bush must be when I hear of these incidents. It's been a consistent theme for Bush, well captured in Dan Froomkin's May 8th, 2006 piece, "Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?"
I've written many times before about the Bush administration's decision-making process. Many conservative policies frankly are just bad, and even a perfect execution of them cannot turn out terribly well (for the general public, that is). The same holds true for many conservative perspectives. The Cold War perspective the Bush administration entered with (and still has, to some degree) was at least eight years out of date and never adequate for dealing with the threat from al Qaeda (threats they were warned of by the outgoing Clinton administration but did not act on). Still, the Angler series reinforces the most crucial point: the Bush administration makes bad decisions because Bush has happily let Cheney and his cabal completely undermine a rational decision-making process. Honest brokers do not last long, and are often shut out entirely.
The above passage from Suskind hints at another important theme. The Bush administration and their many allies are essentially the Nixon and Reagan administrations all over again. The crime of Watergate to them was getting caught, and they have vowed to prevent that. Several good writers have touched on this dynamic, but for a good overview I'll link Digby's observations on the Rove-Nixon connection and the Iran-Contra connection. These authoritarian conservatives are dangerous, and will not ever stop voluntarily. Their misdeeds need to be exposed, because only being permanently discredited with the public at large will impede them over the long run.
As Josh Marshall points out, while the detail in the Angler series is welcome, the broad strokes have been known for some time to those paying attention. Still, if the Angler series has made even Mister Mistaken Bourgeois Conventional Beltway Wisdom himself, David Broder, finally realize that Cheney's game is not how things have always been before and there's a serious problem here, it may deserve the Pulitzer for Public Service, if nothing else.
(If you missed it, the superb Frontline episode "The Dark Side," which can be watched online, interviews Suskind and many of the subjects in his book. It's one of the best pieces on Cheney and what Lawrence Wilkerson called the Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal" you're likely to see.)
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)