Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Another Look at The One Percent Doctrine

The Washington Post's superb "Angler" series on Dick Cheney and a post I'm writing on torture made me want to re-visit some sections of Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11.

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)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Digby Speaks!

I've long been a fan of Digby's writing, as many folks in the liberal blogosphere have been. Today, she broke with her anonymity to speak at the Take Back America conference, and it's not to be missed.

As I wrote over at her site, her characteristic wit comes across beautifully in her delivery. She offers a great history of the liberal blogosphere, a wry rebuttal of its critics, an on-target critique of the media and tremendous inspiration, all in a very short amount of time. If I want to bring anyone up to speed about what liberal blogging is about, why I blog (and also why I read and link Digby's work all the time!), I think I'll just link this video. It says it all so eloquently.

I sincerely hope that sacrificing some of her privacy won't cause her too much turmoil. Her writing has always been insightful and superb, but this speech was exciting, inspiring, and much appreciated. Brava! Thank you, Digby.

Feel free to try to out-gush me in the thread Dover Bitch set up at Hullabaloo.

I first saw this video over at Firedoglake.

You can see some of the other videos from the conference here (hat tip to Nicole Belle). I know I'll be trying to watch quite a few.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sergeant Sharon D. Allen

Sergeant Sharon D. Allen, whose great piece "The Circle" I excerpted in "How to Hear a True War Story," recently e-mailed me. She has three pieces in Operation Homecoming, has written a new book and is looking for a publisher. Her blog, with photos and excerpts of her writing, is www.sharondallen.com. As she notes, both Blogs for Bush and True Blue Liberal have linked her work. How many writers can claim the same?

As I wrote in the "True War Story" post, I don't think a specific political position is needed to support the troops or want to hear their stories. The same goes for hearing from civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. As is the case with American civilians, members of the U.S. military have a wide range of opinions on the current conflicts. It's not necessary to agree with every trooper's view on the current situation to support his or her right to speak out. It benefits all of us to hear more firsthand accounts.

That said, personally, I think Sgt. Allen's writing is pretty informative and witty. Here's a sample from her front page:

I came back from Iraq 20 lbs. lighter, slightly skittish to gunfire, with a working knowledge of Kurdish, a Southern Ohio accent, an inverted mime tan, and a 500-page book.

My journalesque collection of columns shows what it's like for an average engineer soldier in Iraq. It explores everything from handwashing uniforms when a sandstorm hits to learning Kurdish while playing volleyball with a Northern Iraqi militia. Dealing with the incredibly frustrating machinations of the Army while dodging bullets. This book explores the human side of the war. Typical Americans in an atypical situation and how they cope with it, by alternately leaning on each other and going off on each other.

From dealing with sand fleas to dealing with the death of a friend, this book records a year in Iraq with the 216th EN BN, a National Guard unit from Ohio. Often lacking necessary supplies, and always lacking creature comforts, these soldiers built and improved forward operating bases for the Iraqi and American militaries during Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

The lessons I learned include:










This site provides some of the columns, essentially cut straight out of my book, and some pictures from Iraq. 100 Things I Learned in Iraq: Lesson 55, Try Not to be Outside When a Chinook Lands is copyrighted but not yet published.

I know other folks know the military blogging community, and the Iraqi and Afghanistan blogging communities, better than I do. Feel free to pass on any other good sites in the comments. May they all keep writing, and may those in dangerous areas stay safe.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lloyd Alexander (and other memories of childhood literature)

Children's author Lloyd Alexander died last month, Thursday, May 17th. He had cancer. His wife, who he met in France near the end of World War II, died May 2nd.

The Washington Post's obituary is here and The New York Times' is here. His Wiki entry lists all of his works, while his author site hosts invaluable material for fans. Alexander is best known for his Chronicles of Prydain, inspired by Welsh mythology, and for The Westmark Trilogy. He won many honors, including the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the Newberry Medal and the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Alexander's final book, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, is due out this August. Alexander said that with Golden Dream…, "I have finished my life work." He had a good run.

Tolkien and Alexander were my favorite authors when I was twelve (they rounded out massive dollops of mythology, science and history). In addition to the great Prydain series, I always had a fondness for Alexander's The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha (1978). The other two great fantasy series I recall are The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

It's interesting to read the obituaries and biographies of Alexander, because his parents pushed him to be a banker. But he remarked, "Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain and so many others were my dearest friends and greatest teachers. I loved all the world's mythologies: King Arthur was one of my heroes." Jean Fritz, another superb children's author, is quoted in the NYT obit, where she wrote that the Prydain books were “fantasy in the great tradition" and that “Each of the books is a complete chronicle in its own right — exciting, highly imaginative and sometimes profound.” Adam Bernstein in the WP obit writes:

Mr. Alexander wrote more than 40 books and is regarded as one of the best-known writers of juvenile fiction of the past several decades. He won over adult reviewers with cliff-hanging plots, stylish prose and believable characters that make his fanciful, long-ago settings seem plausible and relevant.

Essayist Laura Ingram, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, said the books have "the special depth and insight provided by characters who not only act, but think, feel and struggle with the same kinds of problems that confuse and trouble people in the twentieth century."

Alexander himself wrote that "In books for young people, I was able to express my own deepest feelings far more than I could ever do in writing for adults."

Certain books or films just grab you as a kid. I read the third book in the Prydain series, The Castle of Lyr, in one day over the summer, partially because I was eager to get to what I heard was the better, fourth book, Taran Wanderer. (Actually, I finished The Castle of Lyr after hours under my nightlight, horrible for my eyes I'm sure, but that's the magic of literature.)

I came to the real Tolkien late, at the age of twelve, when my sixth grade teacher assigned The Fellowship of the Ring, which I wound up loving. I was a bit surprised, because I had actually never read The Hobbit (apart from the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter in class), for peculiar reasons. Growing up, my brothers and I had a pretty large library of children's records, and one of them was for the Rankin-Bass animated film of The Hobbit, which only my older brother was allowed to stay up and watch when it debuted on TV because my younger brother and I were deemed too young. The Rankin-Bass Hobbit is a pretty crude job at times — the Battle of Five Armies at times cuts to a god's eye view of dots fighting. The album had a book of great stills from the film, though, and some of the voice work was quite good (John Huston made a great Gandalf, and Brother Theodore was a fantastic Gollum). However, their Bilbo Baggins came off as an insufferable goody-two-shoes. When I discovered that Tolkien was in fact wonderful, and Bilbo was far more interesting than Rankin-Bass had made him, I started reading The Hobbit concurrent with Fellowship. Although I knew the basic story already, it was great fun.

My mother is a librarian, who not long ago earned a Master's in Children's Literature (when I was a kid she read me The Magician's Nephew before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as some children's lit folks advocate). The D.C. area where I grew up is fantastic for book clubs, book readings and signings. My mother and several of her friends (many of them also librarians) would often go to hear children's authors. This means we have quite a few signed children's books around, but also that as kids we got advance copies of many books. It made for cool bragging rights at school to get a copy of Superfudge a week or so before the other kids. The one drawback was that I remember having to sit through the teacher reading us Superfudge in class after I'd already read it (but honestly, that happened all the time throughout elementary school). In any case, when Lloyd Alexander was coming to town, my mother asked me if there was a book I wanted signed, and I supplied my well-loved, slightly battered copy of The Black Cauldron, since it was my favorite book in the Prydain cycle (I've still never seen the Disney film, since I saw in the ads they'd made Gurgi into a happy, talking puppy thing). I knew that some people look askance at offering non-pristine copies at signings, but even as a kid I figured Lloyd Alexander would appreciate the gesture all the more. Reading through the obituaries and his writings, I'm pretty sure I was right.

The best children's authors, and best storytellers, just get the magic of it all. The National Council of Teachers of English once wrote that story is the fundamental unit of mind, and they're absolutely right (as many psychologists would agree). We think in stories, we organize facts into stories, and try to make sense of the world and our lives through stories. There's obviously a wonderful bond, gift and experience in a parent reading to his or her kid (and kids often allow adults to read to them when it's unnecessary, more to humor the adults or for the bond). There's also something very special about a kid diving into a book on his or her own, getting lost in a world, and allowing his or her individual imagination to fly away. I haven't read Alexander's books since I was a kid, but I'm tempted to pick them up again (and dig up an old book on Welsh mythology) to see how I react to them now. Still, I know Lloyd Alexander understood the magic. Here's his own words, in a brief piece titled, "On Fantasy":

When asked how to develop intelligence in young people, Einstein answered: "Read fairy tales. Then read more fairy tales." I can only add: Yes, and the sooner the better. Fairy tales and fantasies nourish the imagination. And imagination supports our whole intellectual and psychological economy. Not only in literature, music, and painting spring from the seedbed of imagination; but, as well, all the sciences, mathematics, philosophies, cosmologies. Without imagination, how could we have invented the wheel or the computer? Or toothpaste? Or nuclear weapons? Or speculate "What if—?" Or have any compassionate sense what it's like to live in another person's skin?

For me, writing fantasy for young people has surely been the most creative and liberating experience of my life. As a literary form, fantasy has let me express my own deepest feelings and attitudes about the world we're all obliged to live in.

A paradox? Creating worlds that never existed as a way to gain some kind of insight into a world that is very real indeed? The paradox is easily resolved. Whatever its surface ornamentation, fantasy that strives to reach the level of durable art deals with the bedrock of human emotions, conflicts, dilemmas, relationships. That is to say: the realities of life.

As adults, we know that life is a tough piece of business. Sometimes the most heroic thing we can do is get out of bed in the morning. I think it's just as tough for young people. On an emotional level, a child's anguish and a child's joy are as intense as our own. Young people recognize their own inner lives while they journey through a world completely imaginary.

I don't mean to imply that works of realism haven't the same profound effect on young readers. Of course they do. More often than not, however, realism tends to deal with material of immediate, current interest; with, to use a word much overused, what is relevant. All well and good. But there's a difference between what is relevant and what is merely topical. The topical goes away after a while, to be replaced by the next fashionable subject; the newest literary disease of the month, as it were. The best fantasy it seems to me, is permanently relevant. Because it deals metaphorically with basic human situations, it always has something to say to us. Also, I think that fantasy offers a certain vividness and high spiritedness unique to itself. We shouldn't underestimate the value of sheer fun, delight, and excitement. In any art, boredom is not a virtue.

Dealing with the impossible, fantasy can show us what may be really possible. If there is grief, there is the possibility of consolation; if hurt, the possibility of healing; and above all, the curative power of hope. If fantasy speaks to us as we are, it also speaks to us as we might be.

(I must pass on one warning. Lloyd Alexander wrote a book of short stories in the Prydain world called The Foundling to accompany the actual series. The stories give some nice background on the world and key characters, but do not read the short story "The Sword" before completing the Chronicles of Prydain, unless you want a major plot point spoiled in the final book, The High King.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Rightwing Cartoon Watch #21 (5/14/07 — 6/3/07)

The new installment is here! In this even-larger-than-usual installment, covering three weeks (5/14/07 - 6/3/07), most but not all conservative cartoonists mourned Jerry Falwell and opined angrily on immigration. Gas prices were a surprisingly popular topic. Meanwhile, the usual gang lambasted Democrats for criticizing Bush, for opposing Bush, and for - voting in accord with Bush! Huh? Remember, kids, whatever the Democrats do, they're baaaaad!!!