The Untold Story of al-Qaeda's Plot to Attack the Subway

In an exclusive excerpt of The One Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind reveals how officials learned about an al-Qaeda cell that came within weeks of striking the New York City subway system with poison gas

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Public Eye: Signs on the New York City subway urge riders to report any suspicious activity

Two months had passed since 9/11, and at the highest levels of government, officials were worrying about a second wave of attacks. CIA Director George Tenet was briefing Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the White House Situation Room on the agency's latest concern: intelligence reports suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had met with a radical Pakistani nuclear scientist around a campfire in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Absorbing the possibility that al-Qaeda was trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Cheney remarked that America had to deal with a new type of threat — what he called a "low-probability, high-impact event" — and the U.S. had to do it "in a way we haven't yet defined," writes author Ron Suskind in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11. And then Cheney defined it: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." Suskind writes, "So, now spoken, it stood: a standard of action that would frame events and responses from the Administration for years to come."

In the following excerpt, Suskind describes the government's reaction to information about a different WMD threat: hydrogen cyanide gas. As in the rest of the book, he illuminates the constant interplay and occasional tension between the "invisibles," the men and women in the intelligence and uniformed services actually fighting the war on terrorism, and the "notables," high-level officials who "tell us that everything will be fine, or that we should be very afraid, or both." Suskind, who won the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, wrote the 2004 best seller The Price of Loyalty, an inside look at the Bush Administration. In The One Percent Doctrine, Suskind finds that the notables and the invisibles have at least one thing in common: a "profound sense of urgency." TIME's exclusive excerpt:

In late May 2002, the National Security Agency had a gift for the CIA, and NSA Director Mike Hayden was on the phone to deliver it. They had as precious a dispatch as any since 9/11.

It was a communication from a designee of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda chief had not used a cell phone or satellite phone since 1998. He was very careful. A ring of deputies, below the level of an Ayman al-Zawahiri or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, carried messages for him. The United States had determined who some of them were. They made calls, or sent e-mails, on bin Laden's behalf.

One such communication was passed to a mysterious character in Saudi Arabia who — on the intercepted signals intelligence — went by several aliases, the most compelling of which, translated from Arabic, meant "Swift Sword." Two things were clear. Bin Laden seemed to be alive and well and providing guidance from some location in the tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; and Swift Sword was al-Qaeda's representative on the Arabian Peninsula. His hand seemed to be in several places at once in the kingdom, guiding several cells of angry opponents of the regime. The instructions from the top of al-Qaeda: Turn your operational focus toward the overthrow of the Saudi government.

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