Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. His earlier books include The One Percent Doctrine, The Price of Loyalty and A Hope in the Unseen.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Judiciary Committee say they will review allegations the White House ordered the CIA to forge and disseminate false intelligence documents linking al-Qaeda and Iraq. The revelation is among several in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind’s explosive new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Suskind joins us for the hour to talk about the letter controversy and the thin denials that have followed its disclosure. He also reveals details of his lengthy conversations with the late Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto and her frustrations with the Bush administration in the months before her assassination, and discloses the previously unknown case of an interrogation "cell" beneath the White House. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The House Judiciary Committee has announced it will review reports that the White House in 2003 ordered the CIA to forge and disseminate false intelligence documents linking al-Qaeda and Iraq. The CIA forged a letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence to Saddam Hussein. It was backdated July 1, 2001 and stated 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta was trained for his mission in Iraq.
This is an allegation reported in an explosive new book, out last week, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind. It is called The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. The book alleges the Bush administration had learned months before the war from the former head of Iraqi intelligence that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, but he was paid $5 million, and the CIA forged a letter from him to convince Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to al-Qaeda.
House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers said he was "troubled” by the claims in the book and that his staff would "conduct a careful review of Mr. Suskind’s allegations and the role played by senior administration officials in this matter." The White House, former CIA director George Tenet, the former CIA officials who were Suskind’s sources have all flatly denied the claims in the book.
Ron Suskind, the author of The Way of the World, joins me here in our firehouse studio for the hour.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s not only the House Judiciary Committee, but also the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Select Committee on Intelligence is also saying they will investigate?
RON SUSKIND: Absolutely, yeah. It’s interesting, because there’s been a push and shove this week with actually sort of non-denial denials, if you look carefully at what the various folks involved have said. There’s a lot of pressure that’s being brought to bear on certainly all the participants. The book is full of on-the-record comments from actual participants. It’s essentially not my claim; it’s people involved talking about what they did and when, in terms of the letter. And that’s why some of them have felt real heat. Obviously, this could end with a constitutional crisis, and their testimony is central to that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s step back for a minute. Why don’t you lay out your allegations?
RON SUSKIND: Yeah. Here’s what happened, this sort of tale of Habbush. He is the Iraqi intelligence chief currently for Saddam Hussein at the time we’re marching to war. What the book shows with great clarity, from many, many off-the-record sources, as well as those who were speaking on the record for attribution, is that coming through 2002, the case for war was a rickety structure, and I show exactly how that occurred. They knew a great deal, prior to the start of 2003, about how hollow the case for WMD was inside the administration. In January of 2003, the United States and the UK, Britain, set up a secret back channel with the current head of Iraqi intelligence, who slips out of Baghdad and starts meeting with us in Amman, Jordan. It’s an extraordinary, high-risk mission. The British intelligence official is the lead man. He’s meeting with Habbush — is the name of the Iraqi.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Richard Dearlove?
RON SUSKIND: No, this is a fellow named Michael Shipster, who’s head of the Mideast for British Intelligence. Of course, the reports float instantly up to the White House and to Downing Street, and right off the bat, Habbush says there are no WMD. He in fact has great credibility here. He, as the intelligence chief, runs the biological program. He talked about it being closed down. He went through letter and verse on all of the other various allegations of WMD.
And as well, Amy, he said something fascinating. He talked about the mind of Saddam Hussein — all of this, of course, would be shown to be true publicly, rather grandly, later — but that Saddam was fearful of the Iranians, he explained to us. You know, he doesn’t think the United States would ever want to invade a country like Iraq. You guys have already made that decision, and Islamic radicalism, the big threat, that’s not here. He was afraid of showing the Iranians, whose nascent nuclear program he knew was ramping up, that he had no weapons, that he was a toothless tiger, so-called. That was his fear, of course, all of which explains his behavior, all of which was briefed up the ranks through the White House starting in early January of 2003.
Interestingly, when the President first hears that Habbush, our secret source, is saying there are no WMD, he says, “Well, why don’t you tell him to give us something we can use to make our case?” That’s his first reaction. Of course, as the briefing moves forward, there’s great consternation, because the case for war now, well, that structure, that rickety structure, has essentially fallen over.
What do we do in February, when the final report is delivered? George Tenet briefs it to the President, the Vice President, Condi Rice. As he walks down, he says, “They’re not going to like this downtown,” he says to one of his aides. Of course, they don’t. At that point, though, we have a relationship —-
AMY GOODMAN: George Tenet?
RON SUSKIND: George Tenet said -—
AMY GOODMAN: Briefs it?
RON SUSKIND: Yeah, briefs it to the President. And at that point, interestingly, we have a relationship with this man, Habbush, who has been in on this high-risk mission, and we’ve agreed to resettle him. Alright, well, the fact is, we invade Baghdad, Baghdad falls, Habbush gets out to a safe house in Amman, Jordan, as according to plan.
And then, during that spring and summer of 2003, as it becomes clear to all the world what the White House was briefed earlier, that there are no weapons, of course, this Habbush character becomes, let’s just say, radioactive inside of the White House. What are we going to do with Habbush? And as one of the key CIA officials says — and, of course, the White House has denied none of this, and they certainly — you know, they can’t deny any of this — is that everyone was terrified that Habbush would pop up on the screen during that summer of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. At that point, we dotted the “I”s and crossed the “T”s on his deal and agreed to pay him $5 million.
AMY GOODMAN: Who agreed?
RON SUSKIND: The White House, the administration. It’s — the United States government pays him $5 million. At this point, even those inside of CIA say it can only be considered hush money, because we didn’t use him for anything. You know, the CIA was saying, “Look, he’s an expert on Iraq. Go talk to him.” But, of course, as the summer progressed, he’s the last person the White House wants to talk to.
But come fall of 2003, they come up with some way he might be useful, and that’s when the genesis of this letter clearly emerges. I have it dated around September, because people involved recall exactly where they were. And the White House orders the CIA to have a letter fabricated from Habbush to Saddam, as you said, backdated July 2001, which solves all of the White House’s political problems. As one person at the CIA said, it was a check-the-box for all of the White House’s yawning political nightmares at that period. At that point, of course, they’re being accused of going to war under false pretenses, an enormous historical charge.
The letter pops up just as planned. The mission is carried through, and everyone sees it, roiling the global news cycles. Tom Brokaw goes on and on on Meet the Press about it. William Safire writes about it in the New York Times. CNN — of course, O’Reilly flaunts it for four days straight.
That is illegal. It is illegal for the CIA to run disinformation campaigns on the United States. It is against CIA statutes and amendments. That’s why we have such a crisis right now — certainly the White House does — because this is the kind of illegality that, frankly, they’ve dodged up to now. At this point, the evidence is clear, and they can’t dodge it.
AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind, you describe the role of Con Coughlin, the reporter from the London Sunday Telegraph, who obtained the forged CIA letter. He was interviewed on NBC’s Meet the Press in December of 2003, shortly after he published an article based on the forged letter. Let me play an excerpt.
CON COUGHLIN: It’s an intelligence document written by the then-head of Iraqi intelligence, Habbush, to Saddam. It’s dated the 1st of July, 2001, and it is basically a memo saying that Mohamed Atta has successfully completed a training course at the house of Abu Nidal, the infamous Palestinian terrorist who, of course, was killed by Saddam a couple of months later. Now, this is the first really concrete proof that al-Qaeda was working with Saddam.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is Con Coughlin?
RON SUSKIND: He’s a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London.
AMY GOODMAN: And his significance in being the one to put out this letter?
RON SUSKIND: He’s, let’s just say, someone friendly with the administration, a neocon favorite.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened next.
RON SUSKIND: Well, interestingly, what happens next in terms of the letter is it pops up again, just as intended. But interestingly, I think the thing that undermines the letter after a week or so is people say, “My goodness, that’s an awful lot in one letter, solving so many of the White House’s problems all at once.” And I think that’s ultimately what undermines the letter’s credibility going forward. People say it just doesn’t smell right. And Newsweek reporters started to dig in. And generally the sense, even though the letter popped up again later, generally the sense was that this doesn’t seem quite right, this is probably a forgery.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to some of the responses to your explosive allegations, like the former CIA director, George Tenet. He says, “The second nugget in the book involves a supposed order from the White House to me at the CIA to have my staff fabricate a letter connecting Iraq with Al Qa’ida and the attacks of 9/11. Suskind says that CIA was directed to get an Iraqi official to copy the bogus information in his own hand — and then cause it to be leaked to the media.
“There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort. [...]
“The notion that I would suddenly reverse our stance and have created and planted false evidence that was contrary to our own beliefs is ridiculous.” Those, the words of George Tenet.
RON SUSKIND: The key line in there is the "to best of my recollection." I mean, Tenet, of course, has had problems up to now. I dealt with him a great deal on my last book, The One Percent Doctrine
. The reason reporters don’t call George up to now is because he says essentially he doesn’t remember “slam dunk,” he doesn’t remember briefing the President before 9/11. I’ve known George for a long time. What I did hear is, I talked to the direct participants who actually executed, were involved in, the step-by-step of the process, and they testify on the record in the book. And I think people in the know, certainly in Washington, understand why George is the last man you want to call on something like this.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about Robert Richer and John Maguire — Robert Richer, former head of CIA’s Near East Division, former deputy chief of clandestine operations in the CIA, and John Maguire, the former CIA official. Talk first about their significance and them as sources for your book.
RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, these people spend hours and days with me. I mean, it’s not a fleeting encounter. As you know from books, I have more than a hundred sources. I have — this is my third book in five years on the Bush administration. The first one, on Paul O’Neill, the main character, 19,000 documents. I’m an investigative reporter. These books are astonishingly thorough. And in these cases, hour after hour, we discussed exactly the particulars of these missions, especially the issue of Habbush. So there’s not a doubt as to exactly what they said to me.
What’s clear here, and the thing that people are — reporters are trying to dig out, is exactly what sort of pressure was put on certainly Rob Richer, who’s the actor in that particular statement I think you’re about to read.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Richer’s response — again, former head of CIA’s Near East Division — says, “I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind’s book.”
RON SUSKIND: You know, that’s a very narrow legalistic response of — lawyers in Washington have called, saying that’s actually a non-denial denial, because, in terms of chain of command, Rob Richer is not actually on George’s chain of command, if you will. It goes around to Rob Richer. There are people between them.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean George Tenet.
RON SUSKIND: George — yeah, George Tenet. Rob Richer is not on George Tenet’s chain of command, specifically. You know, the fact is, is that this particular response is one that actually, after a day or two, as people looked at it and said, “I don’t think that’s particularly credible.” And what I did, ultimately, Amy, is I posted something — I have never done before as a journalist in twenty-five years, I don’t expect to have to do it again — I actually posted the transcript of a long conversation Rob Richer and I had digging into the particulars of this particular issue and exactly what he remembered, specifically from his own experience. I put it on my website, ronsuskind.com, and that, frankly, quelled some of the clouds that were kicked up by this.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to actually go to a bit of that transcript, but first we’re going to break, and then we’re going to get other comments on your book and have you respond. We’re talking to Ron Suskind. His explosive new book is called The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Ron Suskind. The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism is his explosive new book. We’re talking about those who are refuting what you have to say, your sources — or kind of refuting. Now, as you said, Ron Suskind, you have posted transcripts —-
RON SUSKIND: I think they’re under pressure and -— they’re under pressure and ducking.
AMY GOODMAN: Who do you think Ron Richer [sic.] is under pressure from?
RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, Rob Richer is —-
AMY GOODMAN: Rob Richer.
RON SUSKIND: I mean, you can name a list as long as your arm right now. The White House clearly saw that this one part of it could result in impeachment hearings, and it could be a problem, because they could happen rather quickly. The fact is, is that the evidence is all laid out, edge to edge, in the book. Again, I didn’t rely in this book on the off-the-record sources. I have many off-the-record sources, but what I got in this book, because I understood that we might have, let’s just say, dilemmas going forward, are people on the record talking at length about this particular Habbush mission.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the partial transcript, that we’ll put up right now, you say to Richer, “Now this is from the Vice President’s Office is how you remembered it -— not from the President?” you’re asking him, and you’re talking about the letter.
RON SUSKIND: He said before, when we talked about it — he says, “I’m sure it’s from the Vice President’s Office.” This is an effort, Amy, to drill down, almost like a deposition, to exactly what he remembers from his own experience.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he says, “No, no, no. What I remember is George saying, 'we got this from' — basically, from what George said was 'downtown,'” referring to a Tenet.
RON SUSKIND: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: “Which is the White House?” you ask.
He says, “Yes. But he did not — in my memory — never said president, vice president, or NSC. Okay? But now — he may have hinted — just by the way he said it, it would have — cause almost all that stuff came from one place only: Scooter Libby and the shop around the vice president.”
You say, “Right.”
Rob Richer says, “But he didn’t say that specifically. I would naturally — I would probably stand on my, basically, my reputation and say it came from the vice president.”
You say, “Right, I’m with you, I’m with you. But there wasn’t anything in the writing that you remember saying the vice president.”
He says, “Nope.”
You say, “It just had the White House stationery.”
And Rob Richer says, “Exactly right.”
RON SUSKIND: Yeah. We went through this over and over and over again. And Rob actually understood that this would be a very heated moment. This happens, Amy, sometimes with sources, especially these fellows here who I think are actually rather heroic. They said, “I’m going to trust truth at to the end of this era.” These guys have been walking around, in some cases, with this lump in their chest for a long time. But when they stand up, embrace truth, and they get hit by a wave — and it’s really a tidal wave — you know, the fact is, even the stoutest find their knees buckle.
AMY GOODMAN: John Maguire, the former CIA official, former deputy chief of Iraq Operations Group with the CIA —-
RON SUSKIND: Yeah, he actually ran Iraq -— he ran Iraq for CIA, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He said, “I never received any instruction
from then Chief/NE Rob Richer or any other officer in my chain of
command instructing me to fabricate such a letter. Further, I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter and as to how it circulated in Iraq.”
RON SUSKIND: The book doesn’t allege anything that he’s stating there. The book shows clearly what happened. Maguire — as people read the book, they’re like, that statement doesn’t actually reflect what’s in the book. The book just shows him talking to Rob Richer — Maguire — about the letter, about its contents, about generally its origin. And at that point, Maguire was moving on to a new job, so I say in the book it’s passed to Maguire’s successor for execution. So there’s an example where Maguire, who had not read the book at that point, had it characterized wrongly by Richer, whomever Richer was working with, and then responded to something not in the book. You know, it’s interesting, because this is part of a kind of practice of careful sort of kick-up-the-dust deception, in terms of statements like this that experienced reporters have seen from time to time.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about what the American Conservative is saying, the newspaper.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah, that’s interesting.
AMY GOODMAN: They’re saying that the order actually went to the Office of Special Plans, headed by Douglas Feith, not the CIA.
RON SUSKIND: Well, what they’re saying, interestingly, Amy, is that they felt that that was the origin of the idea, was Doug Feith in the Office of Special Plans in the Department of Defense. Certainly, that may well have been a part of a conversation between the White House and Feith’s office. That — of course, those things happen three, four times an hour at certain times like this. And if Feith’s office came up with the concept, passed it to the White House, that’s — well, that’s the same thing. Ultimately, the order comes clearly, in the recollection of participants, from the White House to the CIA. If the White House talked to other people in coming up with this concept, well, that’s something for investigators to dig up.
AMY GOODMAN: Could some of the pressure on Rob Richer be coming from what he’s currently doing? He helped to co-found Total Intelligence Solutions. That’s the Blackwater intelligence spin-off with Cofer Black and others.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah. Well, you know, the fact is, you know —-
AMY GOODMAN: This means big contracts.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah. Rob is a contractor and has been for a long time. At this point, much of his focus and, I think, his time is spent largely with King Abdullah of Jordan, who he helped push up into his current status as the King of Jordan. And so, you know, Rob is a contractor. He has a mixed profile. Right now he is with the King of Jordan.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain. Go back and explain how he helped to push him into office, as you allege.
RON SUSKIND: It’s quite a story. The book is full of stories. I mean, people say it’s like a movie. It’s very cinematic, because, essentially, it’s sort of like America, the movie, at this time of crisis.
You know, Richer, back in -— well, in the ’90s, was a CIA operative, you know, in Jordan. In those days, King Hussein, then the King of Jordan, said, “I have this young son. He’s a guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a little bit wayward. And maybe Rob, as a bit of an older guy, maybe you could spend some time with him.” Well, Rob Richer and Abdullah become fast friends, and Rob ends up being kind of a guy who helps shape Abdullah. At one point, you know, people inside of CIA are saying, you know, Rob is the man who makes Abdullah.
Well, Abdullah, of course, is a strong-willed guy himself, and he rises up the ranks so that he actually becomes the next king. He’s a dark horse candidate when King Hussein dies in 1999. And at that point, Richer is so close to Abdullah that essentially he is one of the most important men in the United States government. And that’s the way it moves going forward, and that’s why, Amy — because they have this honest broker, tell each other, friend-to-friend relationship — that’s why we’re able to set up Amman, Jordan as the safe house for Habbush to meet with the British intelligence chief. Rob Richer, of course, sets that up. That’s part of the US-British sort of joint effort here. All of it’s laid out, edge to edge, in the book, you know, spy thriller fashion.
AMY GOODMAN: OK, let’s go to Condoleezza Rice. Last week, Politico’s Mike Allen asked the Secretary of State about your book. This is an excerpt.
MIKE ALLEN: There’s a new book by Ron Suskind, which says the White House ordered the CIA to falsify intelligence about Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda. Is it possible the US government forged a letter from Iraq’s intelligence chief to Saddam Hussein?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The United States government didn’t forge a letter, the White House in which I was working. And I think the people —-
MIKE ALLEN: And they didn’t direct it?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And I think the people who he -— as I understand it, the people that he quotes as being sources for that have denied it.
MIKE ALLEN: And so, you think it’s impossible that such a letter was created?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The United States — the White House was not going to ask somebody to forge a letter on something of this importance.
MIKE ALLEN: And so, you believe that did not occur?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Did not occur. The intelligence might have been wrong. That’s now clear.
MIKE ALLEN: Right.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Not because people weren’t working very hard, but when you have an opaque regime like Saddam Hussein’s regime, that had used weapons of mass destruction before, that had them before, one can understand how the judgment may have been wrong. But the decision to go to war was based on the strategic threat of Saddam Hussein, the fact we’ve been to war against him before, the fact that he still threatened his neighbors, and the fact that we were told that he was reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction.
AMY GOODMAN: Condoleezza Rice, responding to your book. Ron Suskind, your response to her?
RON SUSKIND: Well, Condoleezza Rice really ought to look hard and deep into exactly who was behind the letter that George Tenet receives that’s passed down the ranks. Again, there is not a shadow of a doubt in the reporting. It is exhaustive, it is thorough, and it is in the book on the record.
At this point, though, the question is, will the White House engage in a kind of block, push back, executive privilege role as the investigations move forward, or will they say, “Well, maybe we’ll throw someone over the side, maybe we’ll open up”? Frankly, I think it’s probably the former.
Interestingly, here, what you’ve got is a situation where Rice is laid out in the book in a couple instances, including the fact that she’s asked by Tim Russert, in a key moment in the book, during Meet the Press in 2006, when another Iraqi — you know, the foreign minister, that report comes out that the former minister had talked to the United States and said there were no WMD. He’s a much smaller character than Habbush, the intelligence chief. And she says to Tim, “No, no, Tim. That was just one source who said that.” That’s a lie. It’s just a lie. She knew all about the Habbush mission. Everyone in the White House knew about the Habbush mission at the very top.
Obviously, she doesn’t want to respond to that. And at this point, as you could see, as she sort of says, “No, no, that couldn’t have happened,” you know, that is, again, what we learned during the Nixon years is what’s called a non-denial denial. "I have no knowledge, not that I want to have knowledge, not that I dug to find knowledge. I have no knowledge." And right now, what we’re dealing with is a prickly situation that’s both contentious, controversial and tendentious politically.
AMY GOODMAN: What could the Senate Intelligence Committee, what could the House Judiciary Committee find out?
RON SUSKIND: Well, they’ll find that everything in the book is true, is what they’ll find out. I mean, that’ll — it actually won’t be very difficult if they simply get people in under oath. You know, they’ll have to duck, or they’ll have to risk perjury.
AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind, there are so many issues around the world that this book touches on and gives details about.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: For example, well, right now, we had Iran in the headlines again today. You talk about the US snubbing of Iran. Talk about what happened.
RON SUSKIND: Well, again, everything in the book is specific. It is from comments of participants. Here, we have an extraordinary moment in 2003. You know, you talk about why did we go into Iraq. Clearly, when you talk to neocons, what they do come up with is that it was a great experiment in behaviorism. The view was Saddam Hussein was actually an easy mark, that he was captive and toothless. That was the view. And we’ll make an example of him to show other rogue dictators not to express similar temerity in challenging America. That was the concept, especially in terms of the fact that WMD are now carried on civil technology. You can’t stop these dictators from getting weapons of mass destruction. There wasn’t a way essentially to stop that from happening, so the word in the White House documents is, how do we dissuade them, other people? Saddam would have been — that’s the idea — the example.
Now, interestingly, what happens at this point is, you know, as we are moving to war in this period, this snubbing of Saddam Hussein, rather, this making an example of Saddam, actually has a yield, Amy. The Iranians, once we have 150,000 troops in Iraq, are like, my goodness, well, their behavior is actually getting shaped. They say to the British, who they still have relationships with, they say, “You know, maybe it’s time for us to meet with the Americans.” And they all but crawl across broken glass to say, “Can we help, at this point? You know, we get it, alright?” Interestingly, they were ready to help with al-Qaeda, which had a group inside of Iran under house arrest. The Shura Council at that point was talking to a group of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia about buying Russian suitcase nukes. All of that, of course, got people very agitated. Iran also said, “We can help with Iraq. We can help with Afghanistan. We know these countries.”
What happened is, at this point, a CIA chief flies over there. He’s not used to doing these sorts of missions. He’s late in the flight. He gets the wrong hotel.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Jim Pavitt?
RON SUSKIND: Jim Pavitt, that’s right. He leaves the Iranians in the hotel for hours. They’re calling up the Brits livid. The Brits are calling us, saying, “Where the hell is Pavitt?” They’re calling us. Ultimately, we end up snubbing the Iranians and all but creating — at this moment, remember, this is the “real men go to Tehran” moment for the administration. We’ve snubbed the Iranians and all but create the oppositional Iran that has caused such havoc in the years since.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s move from Iran to Pakistan. Right now, there’s a big move to impeach the president of Pakistan. Talk about your findings in relation to Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto.
RON SUSKIND: Just briefly, one of the big themes of the book is the enormous gap between word and deed, between official spoken morality and sweeping statements and the dark practices of the United States, all of which are coming out. You know, the fact is, that doesn’t work in a hearts and minds era of increasing transparency. It just doesn’t. And ultimately, it bleeds away the most precious fluid, our moral authority, which is the source of true power in the world. The book says it again and again.
Now, here’s an example, with Benazir Bhutto, who I spend the last six months of her life with. I’m seeing her all the time, talking to her sometimes every other night.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, the fact is, she ends up becoming, in a way, an agent of US values, a vessel of them. You know, and Bhutto, of course, is corrupt right down to her socks, has been for years. She is a South Asian political boss. That’s the way it works there.
But what happens as it goes through these last six months of her life, she sort of inadvertently, as she says to me in her last days — we’re in Quetta together, just before she dies. We’re getting chased around town by suicide bombers. We end up in the house of a warlord, which is the only safe place in town. And, you know, after all of our discussions, she’s like, “You know, Ron? You know, I’ve been talking about these democratic values my whole life, but finally, just in the last month, I’m really starting to understand their power.”
Part of it is Musharraf’s missteps, putting her under house arrest, the terrible explosion in Karachi that killed 500 people, many of them her supporters. You know, she’s seeing bigger crowds. She’s becoming again a kind of hero martyr in the country, something she never expected. Musharraf’s numbers are plummeting, Bhutto’s are rising. She says to me, “Frankly, my success and his failure are now the same things. There’s not going to be coexistence. It’s putting the United States in a choice position. They’ve got to choose. And clearly, they’ve chosen Musharraf over me.”
AMY GOODMAN: But hadn’t they brought her back? Actually, the US pushed her back to shore up Musharraf.
RON SUSKIND: That’s right, absolutely, but, you know, the fact is, what becomes clear is that democracy — not our kind, but maybe their kind in Pakistan — really took hold in Pakistan because of the missteps of force, both, you know, encouraged by the United States and carried forward by Musharraf, and Bhutto suddenly actually is becoming the thing she imagined, maybe even hoped for: a real vessel of democratic ideals, which might have, frankly, turned the tide in that whole region.
You know, interestingly, at this moment, Bhutto says, you know, “Look at my situation. I’m now going to wash away the entire Musharraf power structure, because the fact is, is I’m rising, and he’s plummeting. That’s one opponent. Also, the jihadists are realizing that I might create a counterpoint in this whole region to bin Laden. So now I’ve got two enemies, of course, who have been in an unholy alliance — dictatorial power, messianic radicalism — for many years, and I have no protection. Why? Because Dick Cheney won’t make the phone call.” We go on and on about this. She says, “Why? Explain it to me, the idea that they assured me Cheney would make the call to Musharraf simply to say, ‘You’re the dictator, make sure she is protected. She has to make it to election day. If she doesn’t, we’re going to hold you responsible.’”
Bhutto, at this point, realizes she’s essentially been abandoned because the US has chosen illegitimate power over spoken principle. It’s an extraordinary finish to her life of real clarity and also clarity about, oddly, the power, truly, of democratic ideals, if you actually believe in them. You know, it’s an extraordinary story.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does President Musharraf say? What does the general say?
RON SUSKIND: Well, there’s an amazing moment where Musharraf — I have this, you know, from our variety of sources, obviously, is that Musharraf says to Bhutto at a key moment, when she says, “Am I going to be protected?” he says to her, “Your safety is based on the state of our relationship. Make no mistake.” I mean, it’s all but a — like a Mafia threat. And this is something that the United States, frankly, deep down understands, too. They let this process unfold. And ultimately, folks around Bhutto now are saying that she was abandoned by America, and they’re using Musharraf’s comment, again, on the record in the book — I’ve talked to Bhutto about it many times before she died — as a cause to help impeach Musharraf now in Pakistan and maybe even take it further than that.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you when she was assassinated?
RON SUSKIND: I had just gotten back. You know, it’s — you know, I went to Afghanistan after I saw Bhutto. I saw her ten days before she died, and then I was just here in America. And it was quite harrowing.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, we’ll switch gears. I want to find out about this cell under the White House where one young man was interrogated. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. If you’d like a copy of our show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Our guest is Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His book is The Way of the World. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush maintained there was a strong Iraq-al-Qaeda connection until August 2006. Here are just excerpts of his statements about the connection over the years, from 2002 to 2004 to 2006.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
Well, the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
And nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — Iraq — the — the lesson of September the 11th is take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq. I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill to achieve an objective. I have made that case.
Some of President Bush’s assertions over the years. Our guest is Ron Suskind. His explosive new book is called The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Tell us about your assistant.
His name is Greg Jackson. He’s a great kid. He went to Harvard, and he’s been out a couple of years. And he was up in New York the day that I was with Bhutto in Washington, the day Musharraf said that about our relationship and your safety. And I sent Greg up to New York to do some sort of color reporting about demonstrations and, you know, security precautions, because Bush and Ahmadinejad that day were both speaking at the UN at the same time.
Greg went up there and was just doing what a reporter does, you know, sort of taking notes, looking around, and he is detained by officials up there, including a State Department intelligence official, various folks in law enforcement, taken aside and essentially grilled for an hour and a half. They put him off in a kind of an area where they can sort of go at him. And they, of course, are very intent to know who he is.
He says, at one point, “I’m Ron Suskind’s assistant in the next book.” They say, “Oh, really. What’s the next book about?” And then they say, “Who are his sources for the book?” They end up taking his notes and also, in a way, kind of threatening him, saying, “Look, we know who you are.” They run his name through every computer in the planet, his mother, other people he knows, certainly me, as well. And at the end of the day, they said, “If anything happens up here in the next week, we know where to find you.” This is a violation of Greg’s First and Fourth Amendments.
At the time, lawyers who work with me said, “Let’s do something.” I said, “No, I’ve got a book to finish.” But, you know, it’s the kind of intimidation that the White House has really made its signature over this time period, chasing sources for people like me or Jim Risen at the New York Times, Dana Priest at the Washington Post, threatening them, saying, “My goodness, if we get you, it’s going to be curtains.” And the fact is, is that in some ways Greg is a kindred of the opening character in the book, who’s detained under the White House.
Well, let’s talk about that: detained under the White House. This is a kid who has just graduated from Connecticut College.
Yeah, he’s a great kid. His name is Usman Khosa. He’s really kind of the pride of Pakistan, one of the best students in Lahore. He comes to America. He’s a great student here. And he’s an economic consultant in Washington, walking to work. His office is just a block from the White House. He keeps his suits at the office, so he’s in his gym shorts. He’s got his iPod on. He’s walking in front of the White House. He looks wrong. He’s fussing with his iPod. Someone at Secret Service sees him. They take him down. They drag him into an interrogation room under the White House — there actually is one.
But first, they, say, ripped his backpack off.
They rip his backpack off. People are running. They think a bomb is about to go off. Usman is pleading with them, saying, “No, please!” He says, “I went to Dartmouth for a summer program.” He’s trying to throw out every credential he can. Ultimately, none of that works. He’s dragged into this interrogation room. He spends a day literally in hell.
Under the White House?
Under the White House, if you go in the west gate down through a hall. And it’s the classic — with the camera and the light bulb and the cement walls. Usman really is sitting here — again, he’s a brilliant kid — and he’s saying, one wrong answer to these questions — it’s like the flipping a coin — is the difference between here and me in Guantanamo Bay. In some ways, he’s a kindred of many other characters whose fortunes have been much darker. And Usman, at the time this is happening, of course, I have George Bush just above him running through his day, full of official pronouncements about America’s virtue, while Usman, of course, is beneath the ground, feeling the voyage of the damned.
Even though he’s terribly afraid, he says — at least you quote him in the book saying — he couldn’t get out of his mind that, oh, my god, there’s a cell in the basement of the White House, this place that he passed all the time.
Yeah, and he loved — as a lot of immigrants do, he loved looking at the White House. You know, in a way, the challenge for Usman and the challenge for much of the book is, I follow him over the two years after this moment as he struggles to re-imagine America and re-imagine his place in America and whether there is one. You know, in some ways, that’s the real challenge we’re facing now as we try to repair America’s place in the world, its moral energy, is whether these values still are going to have resonance. And Usman’s experiment — his life is, in a way, an experiment about that.
You talk about his father, and you talk about September 11th, his father a top security official from Pakistan.
Yeah. Yeah, he’s here — it’s interesting, because he’s here doing a seminar down south when the 9/11 attacks occur, and he comes up to Connecticut College to see Usman just a few days after. And he gives a tutorial in the dorms about what’s really happening in Pakistan. And ultimately, he says to Usman, “Usman, hold onto your dreams. Don’t let those be troubled or darkened by what’s happening now.”
And interestingly, Usman, as other characters in the book, are really, in a way, testing American values at a time of peril and trying to get past so many of the perfidies, so many of the awful, harrowing disclosures of what the government has done, not only from other reporters, but certainly in this book, to say: where we go from here, in terms of America and its role in the world and American ideals? That’s, in a way, why the word "hope" is in the book, because you see people trying get their legs back and trying to restore their own moral compass. Interestingly, for either an individual or for a nation, you know, following one’s moral compass, it’s not that different. You know, ultimately, it takes basic things like truth, humility, compassion, honesty, saying “I’m ready to move forward, based on what I will say clearly I have learned.”
Georgia has been in the news a lot. Russia has been in the news. You talk about uranium stings. You talk about the Armageddon Test. You talk about the threat of nuclear Armageddon.
This is the big threat we’re really facing right now, and all the folks involved are wild-eyed with fear. Why? Because America’s diminished status in the world has meant we don’t have the moral authority to lead the real battle of this era: keeping uranium out of the hands of terrorists. The world is awash in uranium at this point. The terror networks are out there along with states, rogue states, just wanting their own little bomb. They want to buy the stuff. You buy thirty-five pounds, you’ve got yourself a bomb like Hiroshima.
And the key, in terms of the challenge we face now, is that unless America figures out a way to restore its moral authority in the world by essentially believing in American oaths and sticking with it, rather than, you know, a back-door, secret foreign policy that ruins our relationships with friends and undermines our credibility and our status, unless we do that, we are going to probably have a real problem.
And the Armageddon Test, just so you know, is one of the main characters — it’s a weave of them — who’s the guy in the government who’s responsible essentially for getting to the uranium before the terrorists do. What he wants to do, out of desperation, frankly, is send teams out just to find out how easy it is to buy this stuff on the world black market right now, to buy it, have these teams, sent out by the US government, buy it and bring it back into the United States to show our vulnerability as well, to shock the beast, the United States government and the world community, to show exactly the nature of the threat, especially the nature of the threat with America’s moral standing now in the basement.
Well, ultimately, he gets thwarted. In twists and turns, he tries mightily, but the bureaucratic energies of the United States to stand in his way and, importantly, the fact that the United States simply can’t embrace a level of truth, the government, like that, and that ultimately is what undermines him. And interestingly, Amy, at the end of the process, this fellow Rolf Mowatt-Larssen says one of the real problems is secrecy. The fact is, it’s destructive. Let’s get everything out in daylight. This hyper-secrecy culture that the government has slipped into and, frankly, carried forward is what ultimately will kill us.
He meets with Stephen Hadley.
AMY GOODMAN: He meets with Mike McConnell. He meets with Michael Hayden, the top intelligence people.
He has briefed the President for years. He’s a top guy, yeah. He’s a top guy. He’s —
But he gets nowhere.
Essentially, no. And even though they admit to him, “We have no plan. We have no plan on this score,” the most important ostensible issue of this period, the United States at this point is lessened. And the fact is, the world, much less American people, can’t afford for us to be in this reduced status, because, frankly, you can’t herd cats when you’re the United States at this moment.
Speaking of uranium, did your investigations lead you to who was really behind the Niger yellowcake uranium theory that Saddam Hussein was buying from Africa?
Well, you know, it seems like it was an echo chamber of those Italian forged documents, and, you know — and frankly, what’s interesting is that you put that on one side, really a false claim, and then there’s another disclosure in the book right on the point of the real uranium threat, is that I show that, in terms of Georgia and Russia, which is now blowing up, is that there’s a huge crisis in 2003 then, when there’s a smuggling route from Russia through Georgia with highly enriched uranium, the real good stuff, the stuff that is used in bombs. We challenged the Russians at that point. Again, the United States is — you know, the status is such the Russians just almost ignore us. But they said, “Look, we’re on the case.” And they say, “We’ve got it handled.”
Ultimately, in 2006, there’s a second incident. It’s the same network. The Russians won’t tell us that. What it shows is that, ultimately, uranium might have been smuggled across three years there. This is exactly the nature of the crisis. The United States, being the black hat in much of the world rather than the white hat, cannot lead on this most crucial issue. And as you can see from this current situation with Georgia, you know, Bush says this or that, Putin all but laughs at him, like, “And you’re telling me what? Considering what you’ve done? Ultimately, you’re down in the mud with us now. Get used to it.”
And really, the challenge in this election season is how do we go about the difficult process, when there’s so much collected economic and military power in one place in America, to restore moral energy? I frankly tell people you should go read stuff from Martin Luther King or Gandhi. They’ll help you. They’ll help you figure out the way it is actually done. And it takes values that frankly the United States government is anathema to embrace.
Speaking of young people, you go to Guantanamo. At least, you talk about what’s going on there —
AMY GOODMAN: — and particularly focus on one young man.
There’s an extraordinary story. The man who is really the unknown character that creates that Supreme Court case, Boumediene, that restores habeas rights to Guantanamo detainees —
The most recent case.
Just most recent case, just ruled. I actually get in the case of that man. He’s a guy, a baker from Afghanistan, who was swept up as they dropped, you know, the bounty literature — you know, feed your village, give us someone from the Taliban. He is innocent. What I did here, Amy, is I used my sources to get actually into the classified so-called information on this man. It is utterly absent. It is nonexistent.
What happened here is that by virtue of this one innocent man’s status, various twists and turns unfolded that finally causes a self-correction, a modest but important one, where the United States again is forced by the Supreme Court to embrace the great writ of habeas corpus. The book, in this way, shows what single individuals can do, not just this man, Ghizzawi, the baker, but his lawyer, Candace Gorman, an extraordinary advocate, who really keeps him alive. Right now, just so you know, I talked to Candace, Ghizzawi, the man who created such change, is dying in Guantanamo, and she is fighting desperately to keep him alive, against the resistance, frankly, of much of those in the US government.
And the Holocaust survivor’s son, the military tribunal judge?
That’s quite a story. He is the military tribunal judge who looks over the Ghizzawi case when it comes in front of the tribunal. He’s kind of a ringer, because he’s actually a former intelligence guy, among mostly lawyers in this process. And he looks at the evidence and said there isn’t any here on this guy. He rules he’s not an enemy combatant. That fellow, Stephen Abraham, again, another basic heroic traditional American character trying to restore America to its proper place, says, “I’m not going to back off. This man is innocent.” One innocent man is all it takes to stop a system in America, the way it’s supposed to work. He’s the guy who basically pushes back. Abraham is a Holocaust survivor’s son, as you say, and he says it’s about justice.
He all but gets fired from Guantanamo. But ultimately, years later, he files a deposition, saying, “I’m a credible witness. I was actually a judge.” That causes the Supreme Court to flip, grant certiorari to the case, Boumediene. And that ultimately is sort of the heartening part of the book. Americans are taking hold of this issue across the country to say this government doesn’t really represent me, and I’m going to do something about it with my own actions.
And finally, the UN refugee commissioner that you profile.
Yeah, she’s an amazing character, too, Wendy Chamberlin. She was the former Pakistani ambassador under Bush, but she moved away from all of that, becomes the refugee commissioner. And Wendy says something extraordinary. She says, “You know, at day’s end, if we’re true to our oath, we don’t really have enemies, certainly no enemies that can’t be easily defeated. If we want to be secure, America has to start embracing a kind of authenticity, to say we’re not going to do back-door, ugly things that end up ruining our status in the world. The oaths, the values are strong enough. If you believe in them, the world will bend toward you, even on the most specific issue of information that will help us be secure.”
Look, ultimately, it may be too much to ask the world to want us to succeed. We have so much wealth, so much power. But they can’t want us to fail. They can’t want us to have our comeuppance by virtue of the actions of the government, or we will get our comeuppance. That’s part of the theme of the book. It’s a bit of a kind of clarion call as to where America might yet go.
What is the way of the world?
The way of the world is something Benazir Bhutto says to me just ten days before she dies. You know, she talks about her life, and she talks about this sort of interesting fact of her being a Muslim woman who has led men. And she says, “Well, you know, I let them think they’re saving me, but, of course, I’m saving them.” She says, “But oddly, that’s where the problem starts, because then I say, ‘I saved you, and now here’s what I want,’ and make it transactional. See, that’s a lie.”
She says, ‘The way of the world, when it really works, is such that we save each other. Everyone rises together. That’s always been the tradition of humanity.” And she gets this at the end of her life. She sees it. And she also sees that maybe she won’t get to that up ahead, that land that she sees so close. And that’s really, again, a reestablishing of things people know as American tradition.
Ron Suskind, I want to thank you very much for joining us. His book is The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.