In Ron Suskind’s bold new book, “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist critically examines the Bush presidency and addresses what he calls “America’s diminished moral authority.” To coincide with the book’s Tuesday release date, Suskind appears live on TODAY on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the revelations contained within the book. Tune in at 7:10 a.m. both days to catch Meredith Vieira’s interviews with Suskind.
Prologue: Border crossing
From the dawn of time, human beings have been attentive to signs of distinction — the approach of a tribe with a different manner or dress, posture or skin color. The swift sizing-up of friend or foe, and acting upon it — upon suspicion — was often a matter of survival. Those faculties became finely tuned over thousands of years. Now, in a world of vivid, colliding images and technology’s bequest of awesomely powerful weapons, we struggle to leap forward, to reshape instinct enough to reach across the divides of us and them, peak and valley. And to do it in time.
That shared effort is, at the very least, a starting point for a working definition of “hearts and minds struggle,” that smooth, slippery phrase on the lips of people across the world. Its definitions are often self-interested and oddly narrow, but they nearly always rest on a fundamental two-part question: Can disparate people ever truly understand one another, and is such understanding necessary for them to coexist? There’s considerable dispute over the matter. Some knowledgeable observers say that bringing diverse peoples together mostly serves to exacerbate distinctions and fuel divisiveness, something we can little afford in an era of such unleashed destructive capability. They point to countless bitter conflicts along borders, and within them, and recommend tall fences. Others contend that the world is steadily becoming borderless and blended, and that such conflict — the friction caused by the conjunction of opposites — must be endured, and mastered, on the way to discovering shared interest and common purpose.
One rare area of agreement? That the answers — whether proof of insurmountable divides or of indelible human bonds — are found by walking in the shoes of the “other.” The other? Could be anyone, really, from the person who seems to hail from a distant planet — the traditional “other” of a different race or status, ethnicity or history — to someone just like you but who’s seen things you haven’t, illuminating things that alter one’s path in the world. All of this, of course, is ancient advice; the shoes are a favored metaphor that underpins everything from “love thy neighbor as thyself ” to “know thine enemy.” The key is picking some good shoes. And there are some, right now, in the summer of 2006, walking through America. One pair belongs to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. He’s the man who tries to figure out whether terrorists are about to wrap, or already have wrapped, their hands around this era’s Promethean fire — uranium or plutonium — in sufficient quantity to make a nuclear weapon. He’s been the government’s leading man on this twisting, harrowing task since 9/11, first at CIA and just recently at the Department of Energy. That’s means he’s spent nearly five years regularly briefing the president and the vice president and kicking down doors here and abroad to ask unsettling questions. Either he’s the most important man in the U.S. government or he’s Chicken Little. He’s not sure himself, which is why his shoes are good for walking. You don’t know where they’ll lead. Neither does he. When he finds out, we’ll all find out — and hopefully it’ll be before there’s a catastrophic event.
Right now his feet are up. It’s late on Friday afternoon, July 14. He’s reclining at his office in the basement of the Department of Energy, where he’s the head of intelligence — a division that will grow from 100 to 350 by year’s end — glancing over the dispatches of the president’s meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, proudly hosting the G8 conference in Russia for the first time, wanted to start the gathering on a cooperative note. This was accomplished by signing an agreement with the United States to co-lead a multilateral effort to combat nuclear terrorism. Rolf had reviewed drafts of the agreement, though he’s not hopeful it will do very much. There are several agreements, much like the one Bush and Putin have just signed, that have been admirable in intent but severely lacking in follow-through and execution. They depend, as with all agreements, on the enthusiasm of the signatories.
If Russia and the United States — the old cold war combatants who brought these weapons to the world — are not working together, not much will occur. And the relationship is strained. The United States says it wants to help Russia secure its stockpiles of material. The Russians say, with a note of impatience and resentment, that they can handle their own affairs. Rolf, who did two tours for CIA in Moscow and helped catch moles like Aldrich Ames, doesn’t draw much comfort from Russia’s assurances. He knows too much. “Know thine enemy” has, of course, a modern, institutional translation. It’s called “intelligence.” The most valuable intelligence has always been human intelligence — spies, or moles, in the opponent’s camp — which has helped shape conflict since the Trojan War. Rolf happens to be one of the few people, anywhere, who has “run” operations against the great enemy of the past, the Soviet Union, and against this era’s pernicious opponent, al Qaeda. He thinks almost every day about the many lessons the United States learned in decades of recruiting and managing Russian spies, and if any of those hard-won lessons might be relevant right now.
The United States, mind you, has never been very good at espionage, and it still isn’t. America has developed only three spies inside the al Qaeda terrorist network since 9/11. One, codenamed Lovebug — a Kurd and an associate of Iraq’s al Qaeda chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — signed on in 2002 and worked hard, offering contextualized intelligence worth terabytes of electronic surveillance. He left, vanished, and then returned to the fold just a few months before he was killed in early 2004. Rolf helped manage Lovebug, and he thinks often about why Lovebug came back. What was going through his head, and how do we find his successors? The world is too big, destructive materials are too widely available, and the footprint of a terror cell — maybe only a few guys in some apartment — is just too small. Without another Lovebug, several of them, telling us what’s being planned, a nuclear event in a major U.S. city is not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. If you want to walk in Rolf’s shoes, you’re going to hear a lot about walking in the shoes of his top-priority “other” — namely young Muslim men whose decisions, one by one, are driving global events. Sitting in his office, he tries to connect a few dots about what the terrorists may be planning. He flips through an array of classified dispatches of electronic intelligence. He looks over interrogation transcripts from Guantánamo Bay. He knows, more surely with each passing minute, that we are blind without moles, that al Qaeda is looking for uranium and there’s plenty of it out there. With as little as thirty-five pounds, a sophisticated group could build a Hiroshima-size bomb. We’d never see it coming.
That’s why he can’t sleep. He calls his wife. Tells her he’ll be home late, asks what his teenage girls are up to this Saturday night, and just hearing her voice — a woman, God bless her, who’s traveled at his side through five foreign CIA tours — reminds him of what he hopes. He hopes he’s Chicken Little.
Halfway around the world, George W. Bush walks to the end of the driveway of his villa and looks up at a blimp, full of electronic equipment, floating a few hundred feet overhead. It’s Saturday, July 15. He stands there silently on the blacktop, waiting for Putin to pick him up in a golf cart and drive him to the day’s events. Both of these things irritate him. Bush doesn’t like waiting and he hates when other people insist on being in the driver’s seat, which is where Putin has been throughout their relationship. He knows now that it might not have been that way. He was warned, and he didn’t heed the warnings. In fact, they came months before his famous meeting in June 2001 where he said he felt that he was looking into Putin’s “soul.” He had talked to Putin several times before that, even during the presidential campaign, and he felt the man was his friend. Once Bush arrived in office, various Russian experts at the NSC tried to warn otherwise.
They said that Putin was a trained KGB agent, and a good one. He wants you to think he’s your friend, they said. That’s his skill. Soon enough, they had a remedy. Putin was going to a meeting in Vienna in February 2001. He’d be staying in the presidential suite at the Hotel Imperial. CIA had an old listening device implanted in the wall of the suite. All they needed to do was replace the battery. Bush is a guy who needs to make things personal — it’s how he’s always organized a complex world — and he felt that he’d developed a bond with Putin. When CIA made its offer, his response was that you don’t wiretap a friend. Condoleezza Rice said it was “too risky, it might be discovered.” CIA said that if it was, it would probably heighten Putin’s respect for Bush. Bush settled it — it was a gut decision. No dice.
This was an early sign of an extraordinary dilemma, one that would come to define America’s posture in the world: Bush’s powerful confidence in his instinct. It might be called a compensatory strength, making up for other areas of deficit. He’s not particularly reflective, doesn’t think in large strategic terms, and he’s never had much taste for the basic analytical rigors embraced by the modern professional class. What he does is size up people, swiftly — he trusts his eyes, his ears, his touch — and acts. While he has an affinity for stepping inside the shoes of others, his métier is often brutally transactional rather than investigatory or empathetic: he is looking for ways to get someone to do what he wants, and quickly. This headlong, impatient energy fueled his rise, as anyone knows after watching him strong-arm a big-money contributor, parse friend from foe, or toss a script and preach, heart to heart, to supporters in the Republican base. It’s how Bush — like many bullies who’ve risen to great heights — became the president. Once he landed in the Oval Office, however, he discovered that every relationship is altered, corrupted by the gravitational incongruities between the leader of the free world and everyone else. Everything you touch is velvety, deferential, and flattering. To fight this, presidents have been known to search furiously for the real, for the unfiltered, secretly eavesdropping on focus group sessions far from Washington, arranging Oval Office arguments between top aides — a Gerald Ford trick — or ordering policy advisers, as Nixon often did, to tell them something the advisers were sure they didn’t want to hear. These men, even with their overweening confidence, embraced a unique kind of humility, recognizing they were in a bubble and fearing they would make historic mistakes.
Bush, with his distaste for analysis and those who contradict him, didn’t go down those paths, and he seemed unconcerned, unlike other presidents, that isolation would prompt errors in judgment. Instead, he began taking policy advice from old cajoling friends whose relationships predated his ascendancy or from visiting pastors speaking frankly in their everyman voices of faith. A man who trusts only what he can touch placed in a realm where nothing he touches is authentic.
It’s a diabolical twist worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Either would have written it as a tragedy. Because, over the years, the bullying presence of Bush — making things personal without hesitation or limits — became the face of America. It was an effect caused by much more than his confrontational public pronouncements. Despite his advisers’ admonitions that his relationships with other world leaders were, like so much else around him, manufactured, he felt that they were real and easily managed; that foreign leaders would submit to his persuasive charms and persistence and do what he wanted, even if it was against the interests of their countries. Blair was “a good man, a friend, who got it”; Saddam was “the guy who’d tried to kill my Dad”; as for Putin, “I was able to get a sense of his soul,” Bush said. He’s “straightforward” and “trustworthy.” When each man defied the will of the president — in small ways or large — Bush saw it as disloyalty, and responded in unproductive, gut-driven ways. After eventful years and Bush’s re-election, the nation and its leader became inseparable, as America, itself, was viewed as angry, reckless, petulant and insecure, spoiled and careless, with a false smile that concealed boiling hostility.
All this leaves Bush — and America — with limited options by the summer of 2006. Yesterday Bush and Putin launched the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, a small multilateral step in the right direction that seems to augur well for future collaboration. But in other venues, the Russian president’s been busy telling foreign leaders to beware of the American hegemon, a fervent complaint, a challenge, that is drawing an enthusiastic response from countries who feel that they’ve been bullied and from the pride-starved Russian people.
Meanwhile, various uranium-smuggling networks are operating in Russia, and al Qaeda, ever ready to buy, is rapidly reconstituting itself in the lawless tribal regions on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Bush had seized upon that early wiretap opportunity, he would have heard Putin’s real voice and been confronted, from the start, with the hard reality that presidential relations were not personal. They were strategic, with Putin and other world leaders, state-based or otherwise. While Bush has spent years relentlessly questioning intelligence briefers about the personality of bin Laden and Zawahiri, wondering, “What makes them tick? What’s driving them?” — trying to make it personal so he can engage forcefully, emotionally — he won’t acknowledge, even at this late date, that these men he hates, these religious fanatics, are executing a fairly elegant strategy that can be countered only with care and dispassion. And with all the setbacks, now well into his second term, the president still won’t admit — even to himself, it seems — that you can’t run the world on instinct from inside a bubble.
The president looks at his watch and then up at the blimp. Yes, he’s been waiting like some kind of idiot in the driveway for five minutes. A reporter from Newsweek approaches gingerly and asks if Putin wears his “dour KGB face” in their private meetings or if he’s more relaxed. Bush points up to the spy balloon and quips, “That’s your phrase, not mine.” Just then, the Russian screeches up in his golf cart and they’re off, with Rice in the backseat, for a day of meetings and press conferences, where, hour after hour, Putin displays his assiduously earned leverage. That night, George and Laura Bush, along with seven other world leaders and their spouses, settle along a vast, spectacularly adorned table inside the Peterhof Palace, built by Peter the Great, as waiters in powdered wigs serve a seven-course meal of lobster and beluga caviar and beef Stroganoff with truffle sauce. Putin looks admiringly across the table. Everything is carefully crafted. All relationships at this level, after all, are strategic and manufactured. This gathering is a moment of triumph for him. Outside the palace, a trained bear in a pink polka-dot tutu had regaled the guests by walking on its hind legs and performing somersaults, and now Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, offers an appropriate story, clearly tested by her aides in advance, about the recent shooting of a rare wild bear in Germany. This prompts a surprising response from Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. In a flight of free association, he begins to search aloud for every English word or phrase he knows that contains the word bear. He must be improvising. How rich.
“Teddy bear,” he says, serenely, as world leaders begin to chuckle. “We must bear criticism.” More gaiety. Yes, go on! He pauses. “Unbearable.” And the room dissolves in laughter.
Back in America, in Northern Virginia, a longtime U.S. intelligence official is puttering through his Saturday afternoon. He’s running errands for his wife, something bosses in the intelligence community haven’t done very much of since 9/11. But there’s less and less to do for those who’ve worked years in America’s clandestine service recruiting sources and running undercover operations. CIA, as America’s primary intelligence agency, doesn’t exist as it once did. It now lies beneath the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a fast-growing, thousand-plus-employee agency, and is ever more insubstantial beside the growing intelligence division of the Department of Defense, which controls 80 percent of America’s $50 billion annual budget for intelligence. Old agents and intelligence managers in both halves of CIA — operations and analysis — have fled to private contracting firms. New recruits have been hired in a hurry. Half the agency’s workforce now has five years’ experience or less.
The official’s been there for decades and was there, on site, during America’s brief springtime of robust human intelligence — the year or so after 9/11 — which ended with the military campaign in Iraq, as anti-American sentiment became the currency of global opinion and terrorist recruitment skyrocketed. The United States hasn’t caught a top terrorist of any real value in two years. Even if many Muslims hate al Qaeda, they don’t want to help the United States. If someone were to see something pertinent in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Yemen these days, he’d most likely look the other way. Let America get its comeuppance.
This state of affairs is untenable — a loss of intelligence capability that will end in disaster — and he thinks about why, about how America went from a country that people wanted to help in its time of need to one they’d just as soon see humbled. And each time he goes through this exercise, he comes back to Iraq and the suspicions of so many, in the United States and abroad, that we went to war under false pretenses. He thinks it’s the key reason the United States has lost its moral authority in the world. People — at the agency and around Washington — dismiss it, the whole mess, saying it’s all past tense, let it go. But he knows more than they do — more than all but a dozen people, maybe fewer, inside the U.S. government, with two of them being Bush and Cheney. He knows there was a secret mission a few months before the war — a top-drawer intelligence-gathering mission that the United States was involved in — that found out everything we later learned. That there were no weapons. And we knew in plenty of time.
But what he knows — this troubled public servant — is itself only a glimpse of something much larger, and still submerged. It is a violation of American principle and law that lies, quiet and sure, beneath the country’s misfortunes. And, like a demon, it must be exorcised before dawn.
The next morning, a sunny, cloudless Sunday, Candace Gorman’s low heels crunch across the sandy paths of Guantánamo Bay. She tries to make conversation with the guard escorting her; he’ll have none of it. He’s a young soldier, tall and blond, and he seems angry at her. He leads her silently to a small second-floor room in the complex and locks her inside. The man sitting at a table across the room, his leg chained to the floor, looks quizzically at her. “How do I know you are who they say you are?” he says in serviceable, accented English. “Maybe you’re someone here to trick me.” Candace fumbles through her purse and hands him a business card. He shrugs. “Anyone could have printed one of these.” All attorneys registered in Illinois have to get a new bar membership card each year, and Candace, a pack rat, has kept them all. She digs through her briefcase for her official ID. She finds it after a minute, and last year’s, too. And the one from the year before. Five minutes later, twenty-six laminated cards are lying on the table. She’s had the briefcase for a quarter century.
“Welcome, Mrs. Gorman, and thank you for coming here. I have imagined it.”
“Thank you, Mr. al-Ghizzawi, I am officially your lawyer.”
With that exchange of consent, Candace Gorman, a fiftyish civil rights lawyer from Chicago, mom of three teenagers, steps to the edge of a border, a low, long table separating her from a man the U.S. government calls among the “worst of the worst.”
They settle into this odd, longish room, used for both interrogations and attorney visits, with its small table, two chairs, and cell in the corner — an eight-foot-square cage with a cot, a toilet, and a door, now open. Candace pulls out her file, which contains two notes her client has sent her about his declining health. “How are you feeling? That’s the first thing.” Ghizzawi sighs, and begins to list his ailments and their history. His health began to decline in 2004, and he’s been in increasing pain ever since. He’s been vomiting constantly; his stomach is raw. He’s lost about forty pounds. There is pain in his left side, in his back and his right leg — the one chained to the floor beneath his chair. Candace watches him carefully as he speaks. He’s about five feet ten — but he can’t weigh more than 120 pounds. He’s pale, yellowish, and weak. She doesn’t want to ask him too many questions to start, thinking about how many have already been thrown at him in interrogations. So she talks about herself and mentions that she works on cases involving civil rights. The term seems unfamiliar to him.
“In the U.S., we have rights that people have to be treated the same regardless of their religion, their race, or whether they are a man or a woman, and these rights are defended by laws. If a company or the government breaks those laws in regard to someone, I represent them. I file lawsuits in the federal court.”
He nods, tentatively.
“And I think your rights are being denied, because you have the right to at least know why you’re being held.” But before that sentence, about rights denied, is halfway spoken, Candace’s mind seems to slip backward, locking onto something she’d buried during the months of principled debate and legal struggle just to get here: this man might actually be a terrorist. Her victims of race, age, or sex discrimination were just working people. Mr. al-Ghizzawi could be Taliban, or even al Qaeda. She pushes the thought from her mind. Beside the point. This is about due process, about letting the law do its work.
First, she needs to get his story straight, and she does: How he was a baker in Afghanistan who moved with his family, as the bombs fell, to a new town. As a Libyan and a stranger, he was summarily accused of being a terrorist and handed over to U.S. officials in early 2002 in return for a sizable bounty. Candace fills one legal pad after another. Ghizzawi becomes more engaged, hour by hour, wanting to know everything about Candace and her family. She says her father, nearly ninety years old, has recently become ill, and they talk about that. “You’re lucky to have a father who has lived such a long, full life,” he says. She smiles — yes, that’s true — and then tries to keep that slippery thought (He could be a terrorist) in her grasp.
“One morning,” he tells her on the second day they’re together, “I saw a tiny flower, a rose, growing in the sand just beyond the bars of my cell. I thought, I am like that rose. Neither of us belongs here.”
Candace feels her eyes welling up. Shake it off. “So what are you reading?” she says, changing subjects. There’s a book lying open on his cot. He complained earlier about not being able to get the reading materials he wants, especially scientific or medical books to assess and perhaps diagnose his medical condition. He tells her it’s Moby-Dick, an abridged version in both Arabic and English.
She’s delighted — tells him, “It’s one of the most famous books in the English language” — and they talk about the plot and characters.
“I know it is a very good book, very famous,” he says. “But I don’t understand, why does Ahab want to kill this whale so very much? It was just a leg. He only lost a leg. It’s not like he lost his arms or his family was killed. He is still able to be a captain. Why so much vengeance to get the whale?”
“Well, he’s obsessed.”
Ghizzawi shrugs. “This guy just doesn’t give up. I don’t understand.”
She looks at him, befuddled. Soon she’ll be leaving; they’ve been talking for nearly three days. And nothing is adding up. Could he be a terrorist and not understand Ahab’s obsession with his target? Or a hard-bitten Taliban fighter who finds common cause with a rose? She snaps to and bites down hard on reasonable suspicion. But it’s all moot. Guilty or innocent, this man deserves the due process of law. Period. She tells him, matter-of-factly, that she plans on filing a variety of appeals to get at the evidence arrayed against him. Might take a month, maybe two. He watches her talk, his feet, filthy and blistered, shuffling in green foam flip-flops, like the ones kids wear at the beach. From the talk of plans and dates, he knows she’s leaving. “I really need medical help,” he says, softly. “This is what I need the most. I’m afraid. Please, I don’t want to die here.”
The world stops, for an instant, as a man, a Muslim who’s been swept around the world by history’s currents to a jail cell in Cuba, pleads for mercy to a woman from Chicago, a lawyer, a mom, and a Christian, who, suddenly off balance, tries to grab hold of principles formed across millennia — through Hammurabi and Blackstone and Learned Hand — to break her fall. It is faith in the law she turns to.
It’s all she can offer really, she thinks, as that Aristotle quote — a law school standard about how “the law is reason, free from passion” — pops into her head.
This is not personal.
But, of course, it is — as is this intensely personal book. It’s about how people, in America and abroad, are trying to grab hold of what may be one of the most powerful forces on earth — moral energy — which flows, most often and most fully, from the varied and connected chambers of the human heart. Dig deeply enough and it becomes clear that the great public institutions, and the law itself, are actually built on the most intimate of human qualities, such as honesty or forgiveness. Each of the characters mentioned thus far is driven — sometimes unwittingly — by very basic human values. Rolf is stumbling forward, sleepless, looking for simple truths to help him burn off fear. Candace is trying to find a place within the law for a powerless Muslim man and to prove, at least to herself, that justice is maybe more about compassion than judgment. George Bush has an important role, too. As people lament America’s diminished moral authority and point to the president’s actions and image as the cause, they are using Bush as a fixed point — something to push against — in charting new paths. That would apply, for instance, to the intelligence official who carries an enormous lie in his churning gut. It is one of the great lies in modern American political history. He wants simply to say we’re sorry, and we’ll learn from our mistakes, as all truly great nations must.
It’s a sad turn at a time of crisis — as religious fanatics search tirelessly for history-ending weapons — that the conduct of nations and of leaders, both duly elected and self-appointed, is so unimaginative and self-defensive. And that America has lost so much of the moral power that the world now desperately needs it to possess. That dispiriting truth is something the characters in this book, like so many others across the planet, have begun, at long last, to see as a starting point. It’s a starting point for their journeys, each quite personal, to find a moral compass, and a way forward.
From the book "The Way of the World" by Ron Suskind. Copyright © 2008 by Ron Suskind. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. this book at the HarperCollins Web site.