Suskind's tale that U.S. intelligence believed al-Qaeda plotted a hydrogen-cyanide gas attack on New York City subways in 2003 only to have it aborted by al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, because, some U.S. intelligence officials surmise, it wouldn't be dramatically bigger than al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks is excerpted in this week's issue of TIME. U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed Suskind's reporting, including Zawahiri's decision to halt the attack. A former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Suskind is also the author of the 2004 book The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, which won acclaim as one of the first bare-knuckle accounts of the Bush administration's preoccupation with Saddam and its disdain for independent thinking by Cabinet members.
Suskind insists nothing revealed in the book will give any kind of edge to al-Qaeda. "I very carefully vetted everything making sure it was something al-Qaeda already knew, or that al-Qaeda would not be advantaged by over the past two years," he tells TIME. "Nothing in this book will in any way help those who have destructive intent and violent desires." Beyond the subway-gas plot, there are other disturbing revelations in Suskind's book that will serve as fodder for terror analysts and pundits to debate, and devour, in coming days:
- The capture of Abu Zubaydah, the head of recruiting for al-Qaeda, by U.S. and Pakistani officials in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in 2002, was hailed by the Bush administration as a key blow to the al-Qaeda network. "The capture of Abu Zubaydah is very helpful in making it more difficult for them to successfully reorganize," said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary at the time. "Al-Qaeda has many tentacles but one of them was cut off." But Suskind reports that the CIA learned that Zubaydah had suffered a head wound during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In fact, in a diary captured by the CIA, he wrote as if he were three different people. In reality, Suskind reports, he actually was merely a low-level al-Qaeda drone, "like the guy you call who handles the company health plan." A CIA official told Suskind that Zubaydah was like "Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace, shaking hands," after the fighter was punch drunk and well past his prime. Nonetheless, Bush characterized him as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States."
- Suskind reports new details on Delta Force's shipment of a hatbox-sized container to Dulles Airport in Washington's Virginia suburbs in mid-2002. The round metal box, Army green with "US GOVERNMENT" emblazoned in yellow, purportedly contained the severed head of Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy. He supposedly had been killed in December 2001, and buried in an Afghan riverbed. With a $25 million bounty on his head, Afghan tribal chiefs provided the jawless head to the U.S. military. The skull, Suskind reports, still had a bit of skin attached to its crown when the container finally was opened inside a room at Dulles, and its forehead had an indentation, consistent with a lifetime of pressing one's head against stone or dirt to highlight one's commitment to Allah. "If it turns out to be Zawahiri's head, I hope you'll bring it here," Bush told his briefers "half in jest," Suskind writes. But DNA testing ultimately revealed the skull wasn't Zawahiri's. It was shipped off to an FBI warehouse on Staten Island.
- U.S. intelligence officials warned Britain in 2003 that the alleged leader of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London had been in touch with extremists who were plotting to blow up synagogues in the United States, the book says. Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the four suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London, was banned from flying to the United States in 2003.
- The book also reports that the FBI teamed up with First Data Corp., the company that owns Western Union. That alliance provided Israel with vital information about Palestinian terrorists.
- Suskind writes that CIA officials threatened to harm 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's kids, ages seven and nine, if he didn't cooperate with his interrogators in Thailand. "So fine," Khalid Sheikh Mohammed responded to the threat, according to one of Susskind's sources. "They'll join Allah in a better place."
The book challenges the claim, made in Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, that CIA chief George Tenet told Bush in late 2002 that the case that Saddam had WMD was a "slam-dunk." That phrase has hung like a noose around Tenet ever since and been widely derided as perhaps the most notorious, and erroneous, claim to justify the invasion of Iraq. Tenet, Suskind says, was stunned to read what he had purportedly told the President when he saw an excerpt from the book in the Washington Post in April 2004. While the President wasn't quoted as a source for that remark, he had been interviewed by Woodward for the book. Tenet "wondered how the President could recall so clearly something Tenet himself didn't remember saying," Susskind writes, and felt the White House was setting him up as a "fall guy" for the bad intelligence that many in the CIA believed came from the Pentagon and members of Vice President Cheney's staff eager to overthrow Saddam.
Such score-settling has a long and honorable history in the annals of Washington reportage. But Suskind won't say if Tenet, or his allies, played a role as Suskind's key sources trying to set the "slam-dunk" record straight. "I can't get into the sourcing," he tells Time.