When tiny risks get extreme reactions

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June 25, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11

Ron Suskind

Simon & Schuster / 367 pages / $27

If Bob Woodward is the chronicler of the Bush administration, Ron Suskind is its analyst.

The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11 is his latest attempt to burrow beneath the cranium of this White House and expose the intricacies of the psychodrama within.

The title comes from a doctrine Suskind credits to Vice President Dick Cheney. As administration actors contemplated the various disastrous scenarios post-Sept. 11, Cheney ruled that if there was a 1 percent possibility that something has happened, act as if it has happened.

So, for instance, if the CIA finds that there is a slight chance al-Qaida has gotten hold of some anthrax, the government should go into action as if that has definitely happened.

It is a doctrine that gets a succinct analysis from Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize winner from the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I think it's stupid," said the expert on negotiation strategies. It is a view many other experts share.

"How often you worry about these remote possibilities is a debatable proposition," said Steven David, a security expert in the political science department of the Johns Hopkins University. "Instead, it would be better to worry about things that are more likely to happen, even if the results are not so catastrophic, like `Gee, once we topple Saddam Hussein, what do we do next?'"

Suskind, the former longtime Wall Street Journal reporter, first took the analyst role with The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill. That 2004 book was an early critical journey inside the current administration, led not by a professional critic but by the person Bush picked to be secretary of the treasury.

Just before that year's election, Suskind wrote an article for The New York Times Sunday magazine - "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." It is still widely quoted, mainly for a passage from an unidentified White House aide who dismissed Suskind as being part of "the reality-based community," saying that in the Bush administration, the belief was, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. ... We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The One Percent Doctrine continues this theme. It is at once a page-turning, blow-by-blow, inside-the-administration account of the days, weeks, months and, eventually, years that followed the Sept. 11 attacks; an apologia for the Central Intelligence Agency during this time; and a critical but nonpolemical analysis of why this particular group of people acted in the way that they did during this critical period of the American story.

The book has its share of highly touted revelations, none more memorable than the description of discovering on a suspect's computer plans for a simple device that almost anyone could construct and put almost anywhere that could be remotely triggered to release deadly gas. It was called the mubtakkar, Arabic for "invention."

It also recounts, as others have, the reaction of those whose job was to protect us in the days after Sept. 11, how all too often they reacted as top executives in any big business would - more interested in protecting their bureaucratic turf than in protecting the country.

But the individual points and revelations are not what give a book like this distinction. More important is the narrative, how the author connects the points, the journey the reader takes through the government, these personalties, and into the murky world of fighting an elusive enemy.

In this, Suskind seems content with the role that the White House aide gave him in the New York Times magazine story, being left "to just study what we do." The underlying point is that this administration is indeed addicted to acting, but it could benefit from spending a little more time studying. If it did that, it might discover that creating new realities is a bit more difficult than one might imagine.

The 1 percent doctrine is emblematic of that mindset.

"This implies that you would be willing to invade 100 Iraqs if one of them might be on the brink of having weapons of mass destruction," Schelling said. "I think if you look at the cost of invading 100 Iraqs versus the cost of facing one Iraq with a nuclear weapon, that looks like an awfully expensive choice.

"There are all kinds of things that have 1 percent chance of occurring," said Schelling, who won the Nobel prize in economics this year. "An American has more than a 1 percent chance of dying in an automobile accident sometime during their life. The only way to avoid that is not to ride in an automobile. But most people find that too much of a sacrifice to make to avoid that 1 percent chance of dying."

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