The U.S. is "indefensible"

Former Bush insider Ron Suskind discusses the London bomb plot, and says the president shouldn't claim we're safer than we were before 9/11.

Published August 11, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind's latest book, "The One Percent Doctrine," a history of how the Bush administration has fought the war on terror, was the product of Suskind's remarkable access to some of the highest-level decision makers in that war. After the revelation Thursday that British authorities had apparently disrupted a terror plot that may have reached or exceeded the scale of 9/11, Salon spoke with Suskind to get his perspective, and the perspectives of his sources, on the day's events.

Have you spoken with any of your sources in government, or now out of government, and if so, what are they saying?

Well, they're saying a variety of things. They're saying this sort of event would actually fit with the general thinking as to what al-Qaida has planned for a so-called second wave to 9/11: numerous airplanes blowing up over the airspace of the United States would, in the mind of the terrorism experts I'm talking to, comport with our view as to al-Qaida's playbook in terms of a second-wave attack to follow 9/11. It would be very visible, there would be lots of casualties, and planes blowing up over large urban areas would of course create havoc.

I thought one of the really fascinating points in your book was that al-Qaida may not have been thwarted from attacking us after 9/11, but they may have made a strategic decision to focus their efforts elsewhere. Are you hearing, or do you think, that this is a strategic shift back to the American mainland?

Well, the thinking is that al-Qaida has the ability to attack us at any time or place of their choosing, that we should not view the passage of time as a kind of proxy for victory and view it in any kind of self-satisfied way, that we're doing something that's stopping them from this next destructive moment. What we know about al-Qaida is that they think very long-term. We think in news cycles; they think in decades.

They have spent a good deal of energy thinking about what is appropriate to follow 9/11. It could take years for them to come up with something that is a sufficiently destructive next act in this drama that they are driving. If the next attack is bigger than 9/11, what it does is create an upward arc of terror and anticipation between that second act and whatever follows, however many years later. I think the other thing that's important here, that the book shows, is really, more than anything else, discretion. They're making decisions. They may not have actually been trying to attack the United States in these ensuing years. Even though folks in government have sort of been taking some credit for the fact that there hasn't been an attack, I think they know better.

Is it possible also that there's a political strategy to this, that they feel they've lost some status to Hezbollah and they're trying to reestablish themselves in the minds of the Arab street?

No doubt. I think that if folks here sat down with some of the leaders of al-Qaida they'd probably be less surprised than they might expect. They do things for political reasons, they do things for tactical and strategic reasons, they read and study what's happening around the world, and the fact is, there is a struggle as to who will lead the world jihadist movement and revolution. Right now, [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah and the folks in Lebanon are the center of attention. I'm sure al-Qaida, which has no enormous love for Hezbollah, is saying, "Let's make this a healthy competition as to who is the true leader." There may be something to that. Certainly I think that would fit with the general analysis of what drives their behavior.

We've been hearing recently, with the announcements of other terror plots, that this was the big one, this was serious, and then we hear, well, maybe not. Do you think this could end up like that?

I think that now the game has changed a bit. There's more rigor and more transparency built in to the system. In the first few years after 9/11, there was a thinking by governments like the United States and Britain that essentially they could say whatever they feel they must say, and reveal whatever they decide they would like to reveal, and sometimes, because all that is locked in a vault, that gives them kind of a creative liberty. I think that's changing year by year, month by month.

Now they are understanding that if they make a claim as to the seriousness of an event in this current environment, where lives are disrupted and fear passes around like a spore, they will have to show evidence that it is as serious as they have claimed. I think they understand, finally, that a part of the challenge here is not to fall into a "cry wolf" kind of tailspin, because people do want to know. They're claiming it was a significant attack close to its operational moment, and I think that in the current environment, where people are clamoring for more transparency, both in Britain and the United States, taking ownership of this war on terror as citizens, they're going to have to show the proof. I think they know that, and that's why I think it probably is credible in this case.

The president, in his remarks today, said that the country is safer than it was prior to 9/11. Do you think that's true?

I am not ready to make that claim. And I think the president probably knows that he shouldn't make that claim with any real enthusiasm.

Why is that?

The disclosures in the book, after years of research, and the understanding that is shared by most of the folks right at the very cutting edge of the counterterrorism community, is that the United States mainland is in significant measure indefensible. Al-Qaida will attack at a time and a place of its choosing. They retain capability, they have spores and wannabes and imitators that are very hard to detect because they don't have to be hooked in to any kind of structure or hierarchy, and there is a wide array of people abroad, and I think probably frankly here in the United States, who are auditioning for eternity in the jihadist community.

Is there any danger to that line of thinking, to thinking we've become safer?

To feel safer, to say we are safer than we were -- though it may be politically advantageous -- nudges people, I think, to a kind of complacency, a kind of self-satisfied surety, a feeling that they haven't attacked us in the five years since 9/11 so something must be working. The fact of the matter is, it may mean absolutely nothing that they haven't attacked us in the past five years. As I point out in the book, they may not have been trying to attack us. They are probably waiting for a time and place significant and dramatic beyond 9/11. If we start feeling this sort of self-aggrandizing regard for our abilities and capabilities, we will fall prey to exactly what they are hoping we will: We will be less rigorous.

One of the things that I think is clear about the moment we're in now is that in a way this is a new kind of war, a new kind of conflict we're fighting now, with a kind of global insurgency. We know insurgencies, we've seen many of them through history, and very often it's the case where gleaming armies come down from on high with banners waving and march in to some homeland or other to fight insurgents. It almost never works. Whatever moral claim that the army has made as the trumpets blare soon sinks into the ugliness of destruction, especially amongst civilian populations. In Iraq, in the Israel-Lebanon situation, and in other parts of the globe -- in Afghanistan, to a certain degree -- we are seeing precisely this model. If in not thinking with, let's just say, next-era clarity about the nature of these enemies and what best to do about them -- where we are not involved solely in tactics, which is mostly what has been driving us, tactics where we're often running around like a chicken with no head, and instead thinking about strategy, where actions fall into a larger good, a larger model that essentially bespeaks progress -- we are going to create more and more people around the world who are angry at the United States. The fact is, by virtue of our power, our authority, that's always going to be the case. But if that group, that angry mass of people, grows and grows, and some percentage of them, in this era, are apt to turn to violence, we could be facing a very difficult situation.

If one out of 1,000 people who are angry turn to violence, maybe that's a manageable number. If it's 10 out of 1,000, well, that's a lot of people. If it's 100 out of 1,000, we're facing an army beyond anything we can challenge in terms of even our vast capabilities, especially in an era when individuals, based on the extraordinary power of the information age, can carry the destructive power that was once reserved for nations. That's a very troubling combination, and it becomes a troubling combination if we are creating armies of people who are bent on destruction and violently angry at the United States. If our tactics are creating a metastasizing, a growth of that number, then our tactics are not working, plain and simple.

You believe that's happening?

I think it is.

You say in your book that to understand the actions of the U.S. government after 9/11, "it is important to understand ... how desperate they were ... [they] were essentially blind and waiting, with dread, for a 'second wave.'" What we're hearing today is that in the wake of this plot, British Home Secretary John Reid is saying that "we may have to modify some of our freedoms in the short term." Do you see parallels there?

I've said many times, and I say in the book, that the central challenge of this war on terror is to win it with both tactics and some coherent strategy while not compromising those things that make us distinctive as a democracy and distinctive in terms of the long human pageant.

I think the big question for those in the counterterrorism community, in the administration, many of those around the country, is what happens after the next attack and what can we do to think clearly about where the lines ought to be drawn in terms of privacy, in terms of civil liberties, what the public ought to know -- not the least, but the most it can possibly know -- and that we should try to draw those lines now, before the next attack occurs, so that they're in place, with oversight, with transparency, and with these key issues not being left to the political mandate of whatever party's in power. That's just a formula for some things occurring that we might later regret.

Whichever party's in power, whoever's in the White House, power has a way of aggregating itself, and that's why we need checks here that are agreed-upon, that occur during the intervening period between attacks. After the next attack -- and I think it's a matter of when, rather than if -- then the conversation again becomes one dominated by fear. Conversations dominated by fear almost always have outcomes that we later regret.

The level of alert for U.S. aviation has been raised today. Why raise the alert level after the plot has been foiled?

I think part of the reason they tend to do that is they're not sure, exactly, of all parts of a potential attack. They may have found one part, but there may be other parts. Certainly al-Qaida has been known to act simultaneously in several places at the same time, to act in a kind of contiguity, and I think that's probably why we tend to do this. Also, when we break up an attack, there's a kind of a scattering phenomenon, where people who may be in place now have to flee so that they are not caught. Sometimes you catch people then, and that's why we do what we're doing now.

Is there a lesson people should take away from today's events?

One of the things that I think is particularly harrowing is the part in the book where the FBI and the CIA realize that they've lost terrorist suspects who are now in America somewhere. That's a harrowing bit of disclosure. It's something that keeps people up at night inside of the government, and it's something that is a real cause for concern right now. We may have broken up, clearly, a significant cell that was coming from London bound for America, but there may be al-Qaida operatives inside of America who remain a mystery to us. I think that shows that the system's not really working as advertised, and we don't want to be in a situation later where there are extraordinary casualties based on false advertising. Let's just leave it at that.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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