Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “The One Percent Doctrine”

August 26, 2006
Roscoe, NY

Finally, there's a book that explores the application of mathematics to American foreign policy. The title of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, 2006) comes from something Vice President Cheney said at a White House meeting:

On the surface this doctrine certainly sounds reasonable. In gauging a degree of response to a potential undesirable event, the probability of that event has to be scaled by its horrendousness. A low-probability event of potentially devastating effect becomes more critical than a high-probability event that isn't nearly as bad.

Yet, there's obviously something wrong with the 1% Doctrine because it has led to atrocities like Guantánamo and the Iraq War, and the problems become evident in Suskind's book. It is the theme of his book that the 1% Doctrine has guided Bush administration policy from the time of its conception, with devastating results.

The first problem is that a 1% certainty is very easy to meet. Hunches, whims, intuitions, and feelings can't be entirely wrong, so there must be a certain probability that they are correct. Even if the probability is only 1%, that meets the Cheney criteria. After the criteria is met, further research or analysis becomes superfluous because you're already in response mode. An initial hunch has negated the need for seeking the truth. Any evidence that contradicts the original hunch has to be ignored because enormous resources and commitments have already been devoted to the problem. As Suskind concludes late in the book,

The second problem is that in communicating with the American people, the administration never bother to mention the 1% Doctrine. This omission has caused a great deal of confusion.

For example, when the administration intimated about connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, they should have emphasized that the probability of such a connection was only 1%.

A similar caveat should have been applied in the President's 2003 State of the Union Address. Although the White House had been warned three months earlier that information about Iraq and nuclear weapons was not correct (Suskind, p. 176-177), the President said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.” (p. 191) The President should have clarified by adding “There's a 1% chance this is actually true.”

These caveats might have avoided the faulty perceptions that continue to exist among the American people. A recent Harris Poll from July 5-11, 2006, indicates that 64% of Americans agree with the statement “Saddam Hussein had strong links with Al Qaeda” and 50% agree that “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded.” (These numbers can be found here, towards the top of the page.)

Although Suskind doesn't talk about Guantánamo much, you can see how the 1% Doctrine applies there was well. If there is a 1% chance that one of the detainees will trigger a mubtakkar (a device for releasing cyanide gas, perhaps in the New York City subway system, as described on pages 194-198), then there's no choice but to keep this person locked up indefinitely. He can't actually be tried, of course, because no American civil or military court uses the 1% Doctrine for determining guilt.

The other problem is that the 1% Doctrine isn't applied consistently. For example, suppose there's a 1% chance that climate change resulting from increased CO2 emissions will have a devastating effect on future human life unless steps are taken immediately to stop it. Even global warming skeptics should be able to accept this 1% probability, so shouldn't it then be treated, in Cheney's words “as a certainty in our response”?