Mark Danner

Weapons of Mass Destruction and Other Imaginative Acts

scandal is our growth industry. In our era, revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment and expiation but to more scandal.
Books of The Times

A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
By Ron Suskind
415 pages. Harper. $27.95.

Scandal is our growth industry. In our era, revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment and expiation but to … more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turn out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors, which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. Unpurged and perpetually unresolved, scandal transcends political reality to become commercial fact.

Unfortunately, and somewhat misleadingly, “The Way of the World”by Ron Suskind comes smartly dressed in the garb of the genre: an embargoed release, strategic leaks to whet journalistic appetites, author interviews across the cable networks. And the book delivers, serving up two interlinked revelations that add materially to the W.M.D. megascandal: first, that more than three months before initiating the Iraq war President Bush and his highest officials received information, via the British, from Iraq’s intelligence chief, Tahir Habbush, that Saddam Hussein had destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction years before — information that the officials “buried”but that turned out to be true. And second, that after paying off Mr. Habbush to the tune of $5 million and resettling him in Jordan, White House officials used him to run a scam on the American people, drafting a letter over his name, backdated to the summer of 2001, in which Mr. Habbush informs Hussein that he has been training Mohammed Atta, soon to be the leader of the 9/11 attacks.

This forged letter, meant to establish beyond doubt a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, was leaked in December 2003 to an Iraqi politician and longtime C.I.A. asset — Ayad Allawi, soon to be named the first interim prime minister of Iraq — and thence made its way, via a prominent British journalist, to the front page of The Daily Telegraph, and from there into the American press, receiving prominent treatment in various places, including “Meet the Press”and an Op-Ed column by William Safire in The New York Times. Perhaps, as you nursed your coffee that day, you saw the program or read the piece? According to Mr. Suskind, that was your government at work.

Despite White House and C.I.A. denials, Mr. Suskind’s case, if not definitive, seems strong; and had Hussein not been captured the very day the article appeared in The Telegraph, the C.I.A.’s handiwork might have had a significant political effect. The letter also helpfully mentioned that Iraqi intelligence and “a small team from the Al Qaeda organization”arranged for a shipment from Niger to reach Iraq, presumably a reference to the elusive yellowcake that President Bush referred to in the notorious 16 words in his State of the Union address in January 2003. If you are going to use your intelligence service to fill the politically damaging holes in the case for war, you might as well fill all the holes.

Now using the C.I.A. to manipulate domestic politics in this way is — if one might venture to use a quaint word — illegal, and thus, as Mr. Suskind points out, “the sort of thing generally taken up in impeachment hearings.”In the age of frozen scandal, with a handful of months left of George W. Bush in the White House, such hearings are unlikely, though perhaps it is not utopian to hope that Congress, controlled now by the opposition party, might use its subpoena power to look into the matter. And though this particular scandal combines in an irresistible way all the darker aspects of the present administration — secrecy, self-dealing and the kind of solipsistic arrogance best embodied in Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld‘s vow that, in the occupation of Iraq, “We will impose our reality on them”— one can’t help regretting a bit that its shadow, self-projected as it is, has loomed so large over what is a complex, ambitious, provocative, risky and often maddening book.

In a crowded, highly talented field, Mr. Suskind bids fair to claim the crown as the most perceptive, incisive, dogged chronicler of the inner workings of the Bush administration. To him we owe many of the signature expressions of the era, among them “Mayberry Machiavellis” (from his essential and prescient 2003 Esquire piece on Karl Rove and John DiIulio, first chief of President Bush’s “faith-based initiative”) and “reality-based community”(from an October 2004 article for The New York Times Magazine). A Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Suskind is at heart a storyteller whose chosen yarn, told and retold, is the “education of the innocent,”whether that wide-eyed rube is Mr. DiIulio; or Paul O’Neill, Mr. Bush’s first treasury secretary, whose rude and ill-fated coming of age is impeccably detailed in “The Price of Loyalty”; or the bevy of national security professionals whose desperate preoccupations as they improvise a “war on terror”are vividly described in “The One Percent Doctrine.”

Behind the highly promoted scandals in “The Way of the World”lies a complex web of intersecting stories, the plotlines of a varied traveling company of actors whose doings Mr. Suskind chronicles with meticulous care: an Energy Department intelligence official charged with preventing “the markets”from supplying terrorist groups with enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb; an Afghan teenager brought to Denver as an exchange student; an Illinois lawyer determined to save her client, a Libyan — perhaps a terrorist, perhaps an unlucky baker — who seems to be slowly dying in his Guantánamo Bay cell; a former prime minister of Pakistan, immersed in a doomed crusade to retake her office; a Libyan-born Islamist cleric — and police informant — expelled from his perch at a “radical”London mosque; a Pakistani financial analyst rousted by Secret Service agents for making the mistake of adjusting the volume on his iPod at just the wrong moment. These narratives and others perform, in Mr. Suskind’s hands, an intricate arabesque and manage, to a rather remarkable degree, to show us, in this age of terror, “the true way of the world.”

Amid the intense and vivid storytelling here, Mr. Suskind takes many risks and not all succeed; the book will be criticized for sentimentality and a kind of wide-eyed, communal optimism that are easy to ridicule. Still, the reporting is solid and often sublime: one doesn’t have to believe entirely that Benazir Bhutto, twice Pakistan’s prime minister, twice deposed, was “evolving, in public”and “creating a powerful counterpoint to bin Laden’s saga of violence and salvation”to find Mr. Suskind’s account of her last campaign chilling and powerful.

And the revelation of an effort to steal and sell fissile material in Georgia’s now celebrated “breakaway region”of South Ossetia — one of “three dozen significant attempts”to traffic in such material, mostly uranium, since 1994 — is only the most terrifying of a dozen or more newsworthy disclosures in this book, all of them reflecting darkly on the obsessive secrecy, political ruthlessness, ideological single-mindedness and breathtaking incompetence of the Bush administration.

In a time less sated with scandal, many of these might have made headlines on their own account. Alas, scandal — subject, like everything else, to inflation — has become a highly overpriced commodity. At bottom, Mr. Suskind is intent on posing deeper questions: about transparency and the “dying cult”of secrecy; about “defining human progress together”; about the “lack of imagination about what the nation might yet become.”These are hard, frustrating, complicated matters to which he offers only tentative answers, some of them vague, sentimental, even naí¯ve. But he is brave enough to try to discover, through relentless reporting and a sustained and admirable act of sympathy, the right questions. In this age of scandal, we must be grateful to him for that.

Mark Danner, the author most recently of “The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History,”will publish “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War”next spring.