People wondered if DiIulio, a tough, brilliant guy, was threatened. This, remember, is months before the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame incident. But people—some prominent people, including some inside the administration—were outraged. DiIulio’s memo was quite sober. He said he liked the President; that he was trying to help, that the “lack of a policy apparatus” meant the President have a proper, thoughtful rendition of available choices to help him make sound decisions. Without it, he’d make mistakes, some of which might carry disastrous consequences. The calculus of that memo—and the White House’s reaction—was troubling to many thoughtful people in government with similar concerns. Many of them, then, became sources. And so it built.
Please tell us about your book “The Price of Loyalty.”
Suskind: So much to tell. I could go on for quite a while—in the paperback I do write about ten pages on its origins and the reactions to it. It’s really a book about the battle between the old traditions of analysis and the new ethic of message, message, message and continuous campaigning. Paul O’Neill is the protagonist, a man whose journey illuminates so much that surrounds him. Scores of people cooperated with the book and many of the key disclosures came from people other than Paul. That’s important to note, I think. And the book started, in early 2004, a year of books that started to finally demystify the Bush White House. A sign of the book’s soundness, now, two years on, is that almost all of the disclosures in it are now part of conventional, accepted understanding of this administration and these times.
You have made documents available that were the basis for that book. Please tell us why you feel it is important to do so.
Suskind: I pressed Paul for anything I could get my hands on and, by various twists, he ended up passing me a disk with 19,000 documents, virtually everything that crossed his desk. In terms of breadth and diversity, they are among the largest unauthorized disclosure of internal documents. They formed the key foundation for much of the reporting and many explained a great deal about what was actually guiding the government. The book, I wrote, was an exercise in transparency, and releasing key documents to the public (by posting them on my website) extended, and expanded, that experiment.
Please tell us about your book “The One Percent Doctrine” and how it evolved.
Suskind: A few months after publication of “Price,” I was thinking about how little I actually knew about this key issue of our times—the so-called “war on terror.” I, like everyone, had heard the official pronouncements from the President and his team. But, in terms of anything beyond that, my knowledge was thin. I live in Washington with my wife and teenage sons. I needed to make decisions about nature of the threat, our level of risk, and vulnerability. I began to feel it was my obligation as both a journalist and a citizen to go beyond the official-speak (which I had learned was often startlingly self-interested and omissive) to find out everything that was knowable. That was the start. What surprised me was that the most knowledgeable people in counter-terrorism were also the most frightened.
The book takes readers inside the battle, so they can judge for themselves the arc of the struggle, what we’ve learned, what we haven’t, and what we might do better as a nation. There are numerous disclosures in the book. But, at the same time, I tried to write it with the same narrative energy of “Hope” and “Price,” to have readers feel like they’re inside a spy-thriller—all of it true—with the planet’s future at stake. I’m not sure if I managed all that, but my heart was in it, and reader reaction has been strong.
How do you believe this country can fight terrorism and preserve individual rights?
Suskind: It won’t be easy. Especially after the next terrorist attack, which I think, sadly, is a matter of “when,” not “if.” How we respond will—just like after 9/11—shape the character of the country. The day after, in other words, is almost as important as the day of. We need to think of our battle against these ardent, violent, shadowy jihadist armies in a new way.
How do you feel about current issues such as freedom of the press, protection of sources, and the individual’s right to know?
Suskind: I will say only this: if the government, or any other—and especially a one-party government—had its way, the consent would be as uniformed as possible. We have not reconciled the principles of accountability and transparency with dictates of fighting war largely conducted in secret. Right now, the system of classifying documents, where everything down to the lunch menu is being stamped secret, is broken. There is no one inside of government who advocates for the public to know more, not less.
What would you say to administration insiders and supporters who take the position that it is disloyal to give the public an opportunity to learn what is going on in their government when the administration wants to operate secretly?
Suskind: I’d ask them this: when was the last time any of them pushed to de-classify a document that showed the government in an unfavorable light?
In your New York Times article “Without a Doubt” you discussed the faith of President Bush and its effect on the administration’s policy making. Have you seen any changes since the president’s re-election?
Suskind: Nothing of note. The President is still guided, in large part, by his preternatural certainty, much of it faith-based. It is clearly being confronted by pernicious reality, especially in Iraq. The question: will that filament of faith grow brighter as the challenges around the President grow?
What are your thoughts on the recent personnel changes in the administration?
Suskind: Cheney remains in charge. That’s all that matters.
How do you feel about the ruling of U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor on August 17 finding the administration’s secret wiretap program unconstitutional? Do you think the ruling will stand in the face of strong opposition from the government?
Suskind: I haven’t read her decision yet. Until I do, I should withhold comment.
The United States is divided on many issues, domestic as well as foreign. What do you think are the most important issues facing the next administration and what type of personality, demeanor and management style at the White House will best meet the challenge?
Suskind: The next administration has a chance to alter America’s profile in the world. I can’t imagine anything more important. We live in a political culture where it is all but impossible to admit error, especially when the lives of so many young men and women have already been lost along a path chosen.
The charge most feared: that all those young Americans will have died “in vain.” It often takes a next administration, a next President, to say “mistakes were made,” and we will now move in a bold, new direction. The next occupant of the big white building will have to exercise leadership on a largely uncharted terrain, where the old models, of armies and bombers, will not be appropriate to fight a new kind of conflict. I wish him, or her, luck. They may need it.
Can you tell us what book you are working on that we can look forward to next?
Suskind: I’m still riding this wild bull. “One Percent” came out just two months ago on June 20. I’ve been busy with book tour and, of late, doing interviews about the foiled London plot. I have some ideas, but nothing has taken shape. Maybe by the fall. When it hits, I’ll know it. «