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The Cheney Supremacy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 19, 2006; 1:30 PM

The part of Ron Suskind's new book that's getting all the attention this morning is his chilling disclosure that al-Qaeda apparently planned, then called off, a hydrogen cyanide gas attack in New York's subway in 2003.

But the longer-term significance of Suskind's new book -- his second major expose of the Bush White House in three years -- will likely be how it documents Vice President Cheney's singularly dominant role in the foreign policy and national security decisions typically attributed to President Bush.

Where other journalists smarmily imply that Cheney is in charge, or credulously relate White House assurances that he's not, Suskind appears to have gotten people with first-hand experience to actually describe how Cheney operates -- and what he has wrought.

I haven't yet seen a copy of it myself, but starting with its title, Suskind's new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," looks to be all about Cheney.

Writes Suskind on his Web site : "What is the guiding principle of the world's most powerful nation as it searches for enemies at home and abroad? The One Percent Doctrine is the deeply secretive core of America's real playbook: a default strategy, designed by Dick Cheney, that separates America from its moorings, and has driven everything -- from war in Afghanistan to war in Iraq to the global search for jihadists."

Time magazine this week is running an excerpt from Suskind's book. In an introduction, Time writes: "Two months had passed since 9/11, and at the highest levels of government, officials were worrying about a second wave of attacks. CIA Director George Tenet was briefing Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the White House Situation Room on the agency's latest concern: intelligence reports suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had met with a radical Pakistani nuclear scientist around a campfire in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"Absorbing the possibility that al-Qaeda was trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Cheney remarked that America had to deal with a new type of threat -- what he called a 'low-probability, high-impact event' -- and the U.S. had to do it 'in a way we haven't yet defined,' writes author Ron Suskind in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11.

"And then Cheney defined it: 'If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis . . . It's about our response.' Suskind writes, 'So, now spoken, it stood: a standard of action that would frame events and responses from the Administration for years to come.' "

In an appearance on NBC's Today Show this morning, Suskind had this to say about the "one percent doctrine" -- which he also calls the "Cheney doctrine": "What it does is it embraces suspicions as a threshold for action."

Matt Lauer: "You think there are grave dangers in this type of policy. Why?"

Suskind: "The fact is for us as the most powerful nation in the world, what it does is it sends us into a kind of tactical ferocity where we're following everything, where we can't even have a one percent chance not be handled with the full force of the U.S. The difficulty is there is backlash when you act that way. . . . "

Lauer: "Are you suggesting that Dick Cheney drives the policy of the administration?"

Suskind: "The evidence is that Cheney is the global thinker. Bush is an action-based man, but he operates within a framework that Cheney largely designed."

The excerpt from Time, while concentrating on the gas attack, includes a scene in which Bush appears fairly easily influenced by Cheney.

Suskind describes one particular meeting Bush had in the Oval Office with Cheney and other officials in the days after the CIA had delivered the news that the gas attack had been planned and then apparently called off by Zawahiri.

"The President and the Vice President sat in the two wing chairs, each with his back to the fireplace. 'We need to figure this out,' Bush said, 'as long as it takes. We need to get our arms around this thing.' . . .

"The Vice President was intense. 'The question is why would Zawahiri have called them off? What does it indicate about al-Qaeda's strategy?'

"Bush cut him off. He was more interested in Ali [the informant behind the information].

" 'Why is this guy cooperating with us? That I don't understand.' . . .

"Bush became focused on the players. . . . [Then] Bush, in tactical mode, pressed them. 'Who came to New York?' and 'Are they still here, somewhere?'

"The answer from the CIA briefers: 'We don't know.'

"As Bush dug deeper, Cheney moved to reframe the discussion. Did al-Zawahiri call off the attack because the United States was putting too much pressure on the al-Qaeda organization? 'Or is it because he didn't feel this was sufficient for a "second wave"?' Cheney asked. 'Is that why he called it off? Because it wasn't enough?' "

And apparently, Bush finally came on board.

" 'I mean, this is bad enough. What does calling this off say about what else they're planning?' Bush blurted out. His eyes were wide, fist clenched. 'What could be the bigger operation Zawahiri didn't want to mess up?' "

And here's another telling scene: When Tenet and some of his briefers initially headed over to the White House to tell Bush about the new threat, Tenet has to go first, to "prebrief Bush for four or five minutes," which Suskind writes is "common practice" so that "Bush could be authoritative and updated when others arrived."

Suskind Watch

This is Suskind's second major book-length contribution to understanding the Bush White House.

His first came in January 2004: "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill." That book, which Suskind based mostly on interviews with the former Treasury Secretary, offered the first long, hard look at the workings of the Bush White House from a key insider.

Its two main themes: 1) That the president was disengaged ("like a blind man in a room full of deaf people") and managed by his staff (encircled by "a Praetorian guard"); and 2) That the White House was intent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein long before 9/11 ("It was all about finding a way to do it.")

Both of those points slowly but surely made their way to becoming conventional wisdom in Washington.

Suskind has also authored several seminal magazine articles about this White House.

His October 2004 piece in the New York Times Magazine added the term "reality-based" to the political lexicon.

It described a meeting in 2002 with a "senior adviser" to Bush: "The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.' "

Writing for Esquire back in January 2003 , Suskind got the former head of Bush's office of faith-based initiatives, John DiIulio, to spill his guts: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," DiIulio told him. "What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

Tony Snow, Media Critic

Tony Snow toured the morning talk shows yesterday. His message: That Bush doesn't make decisions based on polls, and that Americans are overly impatient with the war because of all the negative media coverage.

It's a position Snow cleaves to even in the face of evidence that, if anything, the media is understating how dire things are in Iraq.

Here's Snow on CNN 's Late Edition: "The president understands, and I think anybody would understand, that a war that is long and a war that, at many times, has been portrayed not in terms of the successes that are being enjoyed in 14 provinces which are now living peacefully but instead -- what do you see?

"You see exploding cars in marketplaces in Baghdad. You see pictures of gore, where the terrorists are able to define what is victory, simply by planting a bomb somewhere."

Finally, Blitzer confronted Snow with the latest piece of evidence suggesting how badly things are going -- this one from the government itself.

"BLITZER: The Washington Post published a fascinating cable today, a report written by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to the State Department -- it was signed by Ambassador Khalilzad -- in which it painted a very, very grim -- you read this cable. . . .

"SNOW: Yes.

"BLITZER: . . . a picture of what's going on in Iraq right now. I know that many have complained that the news media is only focusing in on the negative, but here the U.S. embassy in Baghdad paints a pretty stark picture of what's going on right now.

"Let me just read a line for you. 'Beginning in March and picking up in mid-May, Iraqi staff in the public affairs section have complained that Islamists and/or militia groups have been negatively affecting their daily routine,' and it goes on to the harassment and the threats and the killings that have been going on. It's a pretty damning indictment of the current situation.

"SNOW: No, it's actually a reflection of the realities there. And. . . .

"BLITZER: And the reality is gloomy."

"SNOW: Well, that's taken in mid-May."

Actually, Snow was wrong, that cable was sent just hours before Bush arrived in Iraq last week; this cable was from mid-May.

Snow insisted: "The president didn't go there with rose-colored glasses, Wolf."

In all three interviews, Snow was asked right off about the plight of two missing servicemembers in Iraq. But then he complained about the media focus on the two men.

Here's Snow on Fox News Sunday : "The thing is the way the war is being covered -- and we've seen it right now. We have two U.S. servicemen -- and God bless them. We hope they're okay. We're focusing on them and we forget that since Zarqawi was killed, hundreds of bad guys have been rounded up."

And here he is on CBS's Face the Nation ( text and video ): "But the president's also said it's a funny war because somebody by a single act of violence or if, in fact, an American service -- or simply the fact that two American servicemen are missing -- that becomes the big story, rather than the fact that you've got almost 60,000 forces on the ground going after bad guys. We've apprehended hundreds of bad guys since Zarqawi died."

And if Snow's position blaming the media wasn't intellectually dishonest enough already, it turns out he's also inconsistent.

One of my readers, Derek Todd, recently pointed out that Snow complains about negative coverage in Iraq -- except when he complains there isn't enough.

Case in point: Snow's June 8 briefing . First came the standard line: "We have been crushing the opposition, but what happens is the opposition has been controlling the airwaves with scattered, fragmentary acts of violence."

But then came reversal: "Now, I think it's important for the American people to understand the nature of what's going on in Iraq, which is -- this gives us a chance to illustrate it -- nobody carried a big story over the weekend about the fact that Zarqawi's people had deposited eight or nine heads in a box -- I say eight or nine because the press accounts vary. That's grotesque. It had enormous effect there, didn't get reported here."

Says Todd, my reader: "You guys can't win." No kidding.

Battle of the Bulge?

On CNN, Snow suggested that Americans would have wanted to abandon World War II if they'd been polled in December 1944. "The president understands people's impatience -- not impatience but how a war can wear on a nation. He understands that. If somebody had taken a poll in the Battle of the Bulge, I dare say people would have said, wow, my goodness, what are we doing here?"

Liberal blogger Juan Cole writes that Snow's analogy is wrong and defamatory.

Snow Distances Self From Rove?

Here's Snow on CBS, either distancing himself from Karl Rove personally -- or suggesting that Rove's political work somehow falls outside the official White House umbrella.

"SCHIEFFER: Let me--let me just ask you about the quote that Karl Rove put out, because he clearly is trying to make this a part of the coming campaign. . . . When have Democrats been cutting and running?

"Mr. SNOW: Well, I'm not going to--I'm not going to get into the middle of Karl's political fight. But let's talk about. . . .

"SCHIEFFER: But that's--you're on the same team. . . .

"Mr. SNOW: I'll let Karl carry the political football."

Here's a follow-up question: If what Rove is doing is not official White House business, and not fair game for the press secretary to have to explain, then what's Rove doing on the payroll?

Rove's Big Challenge

Jim VandeHei and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "White House political strategist Karl Rove emerges from the CIA leak case with his reputation scuffed, his power slightly diminished, and Republicans counting on him, once again, to help rescue their House and Senate majorities."

But VandeHei and Balz make an interesting point: "Bush endured the worst stretch of his presidency when Rove's powers inside the White House were at their peak. . . .

"Aides present at the time said Rove would hold strategy meetings on Social Security after it was clear that the plan was dead on Capitol Hill. No one in the room felt comfortable to challenge him -- even though, as one participant recalled, they would whisper afterward about the futility of their efforts."

James Traub writes in the New York Times about Rove's bold prediction in 2000 that Bush's election would usher in an era of virtual one-party rule, like William McKinley in 1896.

"A great deal can happen between now and November, not to mention between now and 2008, but the Boy Genius certainly looks a lot less brilliant than he did a few years back."

Murtha on Rove

Raymond Hernandez writes in the New York Times: "Representative John P. Murtha , the Pennsylvania Democrat and Vietnam War veteran pushing for a quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, on Sunday mocked Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, for championing the war while 'sitting in his air-conditioned office on his big, fat backside.' "

Clift on Rove

Eleanor Clift writes in Newsweek: "Rove is following a time-honored tactic: hang a lantern on your problem. Iraq is George Bush's biggest problem, ergo Rove's strategy: showcase the war, frame the choice between victory and defeatism, put the Democrats on the defensive. . . .

"It's appalling that an administration led by chicken hawks dares to build an election strategy based on lecturing combat veterans, but it is devilishly clever, and it might work."

Rove's New Shotgun

The Associated Press reports: "The owner of the South Texas ranch where Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion chipped in on the gift of a shotgun for presidential aide Karl Rove last year."

That was just one tidbit from the 2005 financial disclosure statements filed by White House staffers last week.

Pardon Watch

Tom Brune writes for Newsday: "Now that top White House aide Karl Rove is off the hook in the CIA leak probe, President George W. Bush must weigh whether to pardon former vice presidential aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the only one indicted in the three-year investigation. . . .

"The White House remains mum on the president's intentions. Spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to comment Friday.

"Bush has powerful incentives to pardon Libby, however. They range from rewarding past loyalty to ending the awkward revelations emerging from pretrial motions, a flow that could worsen in his trial next year."

Scandal History

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "It's been a collection of scandals and problems without handy monikers. But the Bush administration has had enough of them to begin nudging the needle on the presidential scandal-o-meter. . . .

" 'There is something that is different about the current administration and more worrisome about this,' said presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, a University of North Carolina professor emeritus. 'The kinds of problems that administrations have had in the past have usually involved bad behavior by an individual on his own.'

" 'What's different about this administration is that the behavior involves important matters of policy of breach of security,' Leuchtenburg said."

Rearranging the Chairs

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in today's New York Times: "Every weekday morning at 7:30, a coterie of senior advisers to President Bush gather in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to chart the day's course. For years, they took the same seats -- until Joshua B. Bolten arrived and, without warning, rearranged the chairs.

"That might sound like fodder for a joke about shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, but to Mr. Bolten, who became Mr. Bush's chief of staff in April with a mandate to get the beleaguered White House back on track, it was serious business. . . .

"Mr. Bolten, in his first interview since taking the job, professed not to care about the polls. 'My measure will be, are we doing our jobs well?' he said. 'And if we are and our poll numbers are still low, I'll still be very proud of what we're doing.' "

Not much to show for, after getting the first Bolten interview, is it? But wait!

John D. McKinnon wrote in Saturday's Wall Street Journal: "In his first interview since becoming White House chief of staff in March, Josh Bolten said he is trying to make the Bush administration more open, particularly reaching out to Congress, where relations have been badly strained.

"The changes range from the president's more frequent meetings with lawmakers and Iraq-war critics to the seating chart at 7:30 a.m. senior staff meetings, where press secretary Tony Snow and congressional liaison Candi Wolff are being given more prominent positions. . . .

"In addition, Mr. Bolten is encouraging -- and sometimes demanding -- a higher energy level from White House staff, at a time well into Mr. Bush's second term when 'it's easy for the staff to slip into the doldrums,' he said."

And Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher write in Saturday's Washington Post -- also based on a Bolten interview: "Newly installed White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said yesterday he has completed his shake-up of President Bush's operation after two months in which he eased out familiar faces, brought in some fresh blood and imposed other changes in an effort to salvage a presidency."

They note: "He has added few personal touches to his office, but one is a 1916 Norman Rockwell painting of a boy jumping from a moving car onto a runaway train to try to save the day."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online Wednesday at 1 p.m.

White House Hotties

As I mentioned on Friday, the Wonkette blog held a White House Hotties contest.

You think the White House doesn't read blogs? Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News: " 'We're having fun with this one,' says a Bushie."

This morning, Wonkette announced the winners : Karl Rove's executive assistant, Taylor Hughes; and former Rove intern David Copley.

Is it that Rove hires particularly cute people? Or that he runs their campaigns? Or both?

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