Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What Do Dick Cheney and Howard Hughes Have In Common?

One of the many strange things in the last 5 years is how certain people have influenced major events. Strange, crazy people. Or fanatics. Bin Laden, the 9-11 hijackers. Then you have Chalabi's ridiculous influence on the administration. Maybe we would have gone into Iraq the way we did without Chalabi. But perhaps not. And of course, the administration itself with its band of men-who-want-to-be-world-historical-figures. The ones with the Ph.D.s in political science especially.

I suppose it would be absurd to think that past events weren't shaped in the same way by individuals--Hitler and Mussolini. But Stalin? You have to wonder if someone Stalinish might have come out of the U.S.S.R. even if it hadn't been Stalin particularly. Maybe someone not quite so paranoid. But maybe someone worse.

There are some events where the presence of particular individuals and their personalities might not be a primary cause. Would we have had the Civil War without Lincoln? Maybe, eventually. There are many events, wars even, that seem collective in nature, the product of whole societies or of social forces beyond anyone's personal dictates.

Or maybe I only think that because I wasn't around at the time and things look fuzzier from way out. It just strikes me that the war in Iraq wasn't like this. The war on terror, that's a bit harder to say. But the war in Iraq seems very much a product of a small group of people and their very bad ideas.

This book review I link to below is somewhat terrifying in its descriptions of adminstration stupidity and wanton disregard for rights but it seems also to reveal that the particular characteristics of those in power matter very much in explaining events. The description of the torture of Abu Zubaydah shows how much a matter of happenstance this whole mess is. And how much it will remain so.

The 1% solution. This is Cheney's absurd attempt at practical rationality: "If there's a one percent 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."

I've written about this before (on another site I wimpily abandoned). During the buildup to the Iraq war members of the administration made claims to the effect that: If one anticipates a very great harm and the probability of that harm is very low one must act as if the probability of that harm is very high. Because it's a very great harm.

Basically, if you followed this principle, you would never leave your house. This was Howard Hughes' motto. And look where it got him.

Alas, they forgot to calculate the probability of harm involved in preventing the harm.

The Shadow War, In a Surprising New Light

One example out of many comes in Ron Suskind's gripping narrative of what the White House has celebrated as one of the war's major victories: the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations even after U.S. and Pakistani forces kicked down his door in Faisalabad, the Saudi-born jihadist was the first al-Qaeda detainee to be shipped to a secret prison abroad. Suskind shatters the official story line here.

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.

How could this have happened? Why are we learning about it only now? Those questions form the spine of Suskind's impressively reported book.

In interviews with intelligence officers, Suskind often finds them baffled by White House statements. "Why the hell did the President have to put us in a box like this?" one top CIA official asked about the overblown public portrait of Abu Zubaydah. But Suskind sees a deliberate management choice: Bush ensnared his director of central intelligence at the time, George J. Tenet, and many others in a new kind of war in which action and evidence were consciously divorced.

"The One Percent Doctrine" takes its title from an episode in late November 2001. Amid fears of a "second wave" attack after 9/11, Tenet laid out for Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice a stunning trove of new intelligence, much of which Suskind reveals for the first time: Two Pakistani scientists who previously offered to help Libya build a nuclear bomb were known to have met with Osama bin Laden. (Later, Suskind reports, the U.S. government would discover that bin Laden asked pointedly what his next steps should be if he already possessed enriched uranium.) Cheney, by Suskind's account, had been grappling with how to think about "a low-probability, high-impact event." By the time the briefing was over, he had his answer: "If there's a one percent 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."

This "Cheney Doctrine" let Bush evade analytic debate, Suskind writes, and "rely on impulse and improvisation to a degree that was without precedent for a modern president." But that approach constricted the mission of the intelligence and counterterrorism professionals whose point of view dominates this book. Many of them came to believe, Suskind reports, that "their jobs were not to help shape policy, but to affirm it." (Some of them nicknamed Cheney "Edgar," as in Edgar Bergen -- casting the president as the ventriloquist's dummy.) Suskind calls those career terror-fighters "the invisibles," and he likes them. His book is full of amazing, persuasively detailed vignettes about their world. At least a dozen former intelligence officials speak frankly in public here, as did former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill in Suskind's previous book, "The Price of Loyalty."

Crooked Timber

Answers: (A) Both dated Ava Gardner. (B) Their fear of a harmful thing makes them do something more harmful than the thing they feared. (C) Leo Di Caprio played both in movies about their 'sane period.' (D) Microphobia! (E) Poor delegators.


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