Journalist Suskind criticizes White House's unprecedented secrecy

by Lindsay Barnes | 8/10/04 5:00am

As a journalist, distinguished visiting Rockefeller Center scholar Ron Suskind has become increasingly frustrated with President George W. Bush and what he calls a "dome of silence around the White House" on policy issues.

When Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill resigned on Dec. 6, 2002, Suskind thought he had found a way to put a crack in this seemingly impenetrable dome of secrecy.

Four hundred one days and 19,000 White House documents later, Suskind and O'Neill did just that when they appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" and told their story -- a story that was relayed in greater detail two days later when Suskind's book "The Price of Loyalty" hit bookstores, shedding light on an administration Suskind says operates in the dark.

"O'Neill said that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, as a member of the National Security Council, and said it was all about Saddam from the first meeting in January 2001," Suskind said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "That's something everyone I interviewed who was in that meeting agrees on. It was not about why but about how."

Suskind said that the particular process O'Neill described is indicative of the way the Bush administration builds policy cases.

"There's no 'why' stage, no starting point, no process of figuring out all we know and then building a case," Suskind said. "O'Neill isn't alone on this. Bush makes a decision and then asks [Secretary of State Colin] Powell or O'Neill to go get evidence supporting it."

Bush keeps a very tight-knit circle of advisers, keeping many cabinet members uninformed, Suskind contended.

"Powell is often left out of the loop on foreign policy discussions. O'Neill was often left out of the loop on economic discussions," he said. "Left and right are [White House Chief of Staff] Andy [Card] and [Vice President] Dick [Cheney]."

This lack of accessibility, both inside and outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and not any particular partisan tendencies was what Suskind said led him to write "The Price of Loyalty," and not any particular partisan tendencies.

"I try to make readers feel essentially as though they are inside the building. My goal is to have him known. I'm not pro-Bush or anti-Bush, I'm pro-fact," he said.

According to Suskind, O'Neill shared this sentiment of wanting to get at the truth, which is why he agreed to be the primary subject of "The Price of Loyalty."

"In all the time I've spent with O'Neill, I haven't detected one note of vindictiveness, which is what encouraged me when I was writing the book," he said. "He is outraged by people who ignore the primacy of facts."

Suskind said this sort of secrecy at the White House is unprecedented in the modern media age.

"Presidents since Kennedy have all assumed that it's part of the job, part of the demands of the office, to have at it with the press and for them to have at it with you," he said.

Comparing Bush with previous presidents, Suskind noted there's a marked difference in the way Bush has dealt with the media.

"Reagan had 30 press conferences by this point in his presidency in what was then considered to be a quiet time. George W. Bush has had 12. His father had 80 by this point."

After the midterm elections went heavily in the Republicans' favor, everyone has taken notice of the apparent success of these tactics, including the Democrats, Suskind said.

When asked whether or not an administration under John Kerry would be any different, Suskind responded, "Certainly, everything will be tried, but Kerry is much more deliberate and seems to have a taste for describing the pros and cons of complex issues in public. It would be hard for me to imagine a Kerry administration being this strident."

Suskind will deliver a lecture called "Informed Consent in the Era of Spin" Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Filene Auditorium.