Jan Frel / AlterNet – 2006-01-07 07:13:00
(January 5, 2006) — I don’t want to review New York Times reporter James Risen’s book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, as much as share the raw, new powerful allegations it contains.
But there are two things about Risen’s work that bear mentioning up front. First, it reads like one long reported news article, and not like a hot current affairs book loaded with flair and color. So it’s boring in long stretches (yet unlike Kitty Kelly’s book, The Family, which was supposed to stop George Bush in his tracks in the 2004 election, it is devastating).
The second, and more grave point is that James Risen is a complete sucker for Bush’s tonic for the terrorist threat against America and the prevailing White House rationale for the invasion of Iraq: that we must spread the wings of democracy across the Middle East.
How a reporter can get so close to the White House Big Dogs and reveal such devastating evidence about their cynical geopolitical schemes while at the same time swallow the big narrative that underwrites them all is frankly quite stunning.
Here’s Risen in the prologue: “President Bush certainly deserves credit for making the spread of democracy a centerpiece of his agenda. Eventually, the president’s ambitious dream may turn out to be right — perhaps the war in Iraq will turn out to have been the event that broke the decades-long political stagnation in the Arab world. Perhaps that, in turn, will lead to progress in Arab-Israeli relations and a broader sense of hopefulness that will compete with extremism and terror.”
Perhaps Risen was laughing out loud when he typed this, but my guess is that, like a lot of national affairs reporters, he’s desperately looking for some reason to believe in what he spends his life writing about.
Or it could be that the explanation is closer to how author John Dolan explained the mind of another establishment journalist, the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum: that her consciousness “contains at least one huge, highly adaptive amnesiac blob.” Maybe Risen has delusions that permit him to both believe in Nixon-rate lies that justify horrific realities, and unload Watergate-scale facts that eventually destroy the actors who tell those lies.
But enough of that. If you want to read a nuanced exploration of Risen’s writing, go read Jack Shafer’s critical inquiry at Slate into book standards vs. newspaper standards and what that means for the veracity of Risen’s reporting. From here on out, however, it’s just the facts, ma’am — at least the ones that struck me.
Chapter 1: “Who Authorized Putting Him on Pain Medication?”
Risen starts out with an account of George Bush hanging up on his father, the former president, in a phone conversation in 2003. Bush I spoke to the “same concerns that were being voiced at the time by his son’s public critics.” What were his concerns? “George Herbert Walker Bush was disturbed that his son was allowing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a cadre of neoconservative ideologues to exert broad influence over foreign policy,” ignoring other voices on his team like Colin Powell. “Later, the president called his father back and apologized for hanging up on him, and no permanent rift developed, according to sources familiar with the incident.”
“There never was a formal meeting of all the president’s senior advisors to debate and decide whether to invade Iraq, according to a senior administration source. And the most fateful decision of the post invasion period — the move by proconsul L. Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army — may have been made without President Bush’s advance knowledge, according to a senior White House source.” Risen writes that the decision was “almost certainly coordinated with Rumsfeld,” and contradicted recommendations by an interagency group chaired by the National Security Council.
Risen makes much of an anecdote he heard from one of his trusty White House sources about a conversation in 2002 between then-CIA director George Tenet and George Bush after the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan, a known and high-ranking al Qaeda operative. Tenet was briefing Bush on the matter, explaining that not much intelligence had been pulled from Zubaydah in the early stages because he had been put on pain medication to deal with the injuries he sustained during capture. Bush asked Tenet: “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?” Risen speculates whether Bush was “implicitly encouraging” Tenet to order the harsh treatment of a prisoner “without the paper trail that would have come from a written presidential authorization.” Risen writes, “If so, this episode offers the most direct link yet between Bush and the harsh treatment of prisoners by both the CIA and the U.S. military.”
Risen does say that sources close to Tenet have challenged this account, but spends pages after writing about the significance of Zubaydah’s interrogation as “the critical precedent for the future handling of prisoners both in the global war on terror and in the war in Iraq.” Risen writes, “The harsh interrogation methods the CIA used on Zubaydah prompted the first wide-ranging and legal policy review establishing the procedures to be followed in the detention of future detainees. ‘Abu Zubaydah’s capture triggered everything,’ explained a CIA source.” Risen describes a turf war process that eventually had the CIA in charge of all the high-profile al Qaeda prisoners.
Risen identifies the names of two major CIA prisons established to hold terrorist suspects with the code names Salt Pit and Bright Light. CIA sources tell Risen that Salt Pit is in Afghanistan and is for low-level prisoners. However, Bright Light, the location of which Risen doesn’t disclose, is where “top al Qaeda leaders — including Abu Zubaydah and Kalik Sheikh Mohammed, “the central planner of the September 11 attacks, have been held.” Risen speculates on the nature of the interrogations of CIA-held prisoners, declaring that the “assertions that the CIA’s tactics stopped short of torture were undercut by the fact that the FBI decided that the tactics were so severe that the bureau wanted no part of them, and FBI agents were ordered to stay away from the CIA-run interrogations. Risen reports that at least one agent saw Abu Zubaydah in custody, coming away “convinced that Zubaydah was being tortured.”
Risen gives evidence that the information collected from top terrorist subject under torture-like conditions has been recanted. “According to a well-placed source, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed… has now recanted some of what he previously told the CIA during his interrogations. This is an enormous setback for the CIA, since debriefings of [Mohammed] had been considered among the agency’s most important sources of intelligence on al Qaeda… [A]ny recantation by the most important prisoner in the global war on terror must call into question much of what the United States has obtained from other prisoners around the world, including those from Iraq.”
Chapter 2: The Program
This chapter concentrated on the National Security Agency (NSA). Risen’s first massive revelation is that “in 1990 the CIA and NSA jointly stole virtually every code machine (and their manuals) in use by the Soviet Union, giving NSA’s code breakers a remarkable advantage on Moscow.”
“The NSA is now eavesdropping on as many as five hundred people at any given time and it potentially has access to the phone calls and e-mails of millions more. It does this without court-approved search warrants and with little independent oversight.”
Note — Four New York Times stories co-authored by Risen share many of the same details in this section of the book (stories here, here, here, and here).
Chapter 3: Casus Belli
Risen cites multiple anecdotes of the dominance of Donald Rumsfeld and his defense department over other principles and their bureaucratic fiefdoms in the Bush administration, cheerleader by Dick Cheney and his office, including the National Security Council’s (NSC) Condi Rice and the CIA’s George Tenet. “Rumsfeld’s ascendancy led to endless headaches and personnel turnover, particularly at the NSC. Rumsfeld, for example, concluded that he didn’t have to pay any attention to the counterterrorism coordinator at the White House, since he believed fighting the global war on terrorism was his job.” Risen describes the uneven playing field that Tenet and Rumsfeld played on: “In fact, when it came to intelligence matters, it seemed as if Rumsfeld had sized up Tenet and decided he could run right over him. ‘George Tenet liked to talk about how he was a tough Greek from Queens, but in reality, he was a pussy,’ complained one former Tenet lieutenant, roughly.”
Risen describes how Rumsfeld tried to seize control of all U.S. intelligence capabilities, including from the CIA, as the Bush Administration worked to centralize its intelligence branches. Risen also describes how Rumsfeld worked to expand some of the limited intelligence gathering programs in the Pentagon: “Rumsfeld’s plans represented a radical expansion of the Defense Department’s existing espionage capabilities. The Defense HUMINT (Human Source Intelligence) Service, a wing of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had for years done some limited clandestine intelligence work, but it had never been involved in the kind of high-risk operations that Rumsfeld had in mind for secret units that he created… Rumsfeld was creating his own private spy service, buried deep within the Pentagon’s vast black budget, with little or no accountability. Before long, the State Department and CIA began to hear reports from ambassadors and station chiefs that special covert military teams were operating in Africa and elsewhere in the third world… In 2005, trouble came: members of an operational support element team working in Latin America killed a man outside a bar. The incident has never been made public…”
Describing the events leading up to the U.S. invasion, Risen reports that at a 2002 conference in the U.S. embassy in London of station chiefs from all over the Middle East and members of the Iraq Operations Group (IOG), a CIA-affiliated team that the Bush administration had stacked with “pro-war zealots,” as one Risen source described them, the idea of sabotaging targets of direct interest to Saddam Hussein was raised. “The object of the effort was part of a multifaceted effort to cause dissension, distrust, and exacerbate the paranoia within [Hussein’s] inner circle. Risen quotes a former IOG official: “One of the key avenues of shipment for illicit goods was the gulf ferry that funneled goods from Sharma, Dubai and other gulf ports to Um Quasar [in Iraq].” Risen writes that “according to the IOG official, when the role of the ferry was described, a young station chief spoke up, recommending that the agency “should sink the ferry.”
Risen says the former IOG official stressed that this wasn’t “serious discussion,” but he also refers to the accounts of two CIA station chiefs who attended the meeting left with the “impression that the IOG had been considering sinking a ferry in order to make it a casus belli against Baghdad,” but could not understand how sinking one of these ferries “could have provided a justification for the invasion.” Risen later says he could find no evidence an attack on a ferry was carried out or that top CIA or Bush officials had heard of the idea.
Reporting on the same London conference, Risen discloses that other plans “included equipping low-level Iraqi agents with special spring-loaded darts that they could use to destroy the windshields of cars owned by members of the Iraqi regime. Large supplies of the darts were later delivered to forward CIA stations, but nothing was ever done with them.” Risen’s former IOG official says that the “CIA did have its agents conduct some acts of sabotage, including the derailment of a train just days before the invasion.” And Risen reports that station chiefs afterward described these suggestions as “cockamamie,” and “crazy.” Risen surmises that this kind of amateur planning “may have been due in part to the fact that the CIA had so few assets in Iraq and so few options.”
Chapter 4: The Hunt for WMD
I’m going to crib off of an AP report that gets to the heart of what Risen reports in this chapter, which “describes how the CIA recruited an Iraqi-American anesthesiologist in 2002 to obtain information from her brother, who was a figure in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad of Cleveland made the dangerous trip to Iraq on the CIA’s behalf. The book said her brother was stunned by her questions about the nuclear program because — he said — it had been dead for a decade…
“The book said Dr. Alhaddad flew home in mid-September 2002 and had a series of meetings with CIA analysts. She relayed her brother’s information that there was no nuclear program. A CIA operative later told Dr. Alhaddad’s husband that the agency believed her brother was lying. In all, the book says, some 30 family members of Iraqis made trips to their native country to contact Iraqi weapons scientists, and all of them reported that the programs had been abandoned.”
Chapter 5: Skeptics and Zealots
This chapter looks at the evidence CIA and other intelligence analysts had about Iraq’s weapons programs, and how that evidence was manipulated. Risen adds some rather major details to already well-known stories. Such as the ill fated aluminium tubes. After paraphrasing a source that George Tenet fostered a “chaotic” management style, allowing junior-level and mid-level officers to share their thoughts at his daily meetings, Risen says that when the shipment of aluminum tubes to Iraq was discussed and then disputed by Deputy CIA director John McLaughlin who cited the Energy Department’s skepticism about their potential for use in a nuclear program, one former official told Risen that a “young analyst” who “didn’t look older than twenty-five, says, no, that’s bullshit, there is only one use for them… “And Tenet says, ‘yeah? Great.”
Chapter 6: Spinning War and Peace
This chapter explains how CIA officers in Iraq prepared for the invasion, and how one station chief predicted the insurgency in 2003, and later faced rebuke and attacks from officials in Washington. Risen writes that the memo second CIA station chief in postwar Baghdad sent to Washington in August 2003 “one day after a deadly bombing of the United Nations offices in Baghdad that killed the UN’s top official in the country… was so grim that it immediately caused a stir within the CIA and the Bush administration, and even prompted a tart rebuttal from [Coalition Provision Authority head Paul] Bremer… [The memo] accurately identified two strands of violence — coming from foreign mujahdeen and Iraqi insurgents — and stated ominously that there was ‘no shortage’ of combatants. It also predicted that the capture of Saddam Hussein was unlikely to end the insurgency, since he did not seem to be leading it.” Hussein would later be captured in December 2003.
Chapter 7: Losing Afghanistan
Risen digs into the “narcostate” that he sees Afghanistan has become, and writes an overview of how U.S. policies there have allowed heroin production in Afghanistan to flourish. At one point Risen channels Gary Webb, suggesting that the CIA may be complicit in the drug trade as it was with the Contras in the 1980s: “Now in Afghanistan, the heroin trade is so pervasive that there are certain to be serious questions raised in the future about whether the CIA, the U.S. military and the rest of the Bush administration got too close to Afghans enmeshed in the global heroin business… The policies quietly put in place by the Defense Department… certainly didn’t help allay such suspicions. The Pentagon’s rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said that if U.S. troops discovered drug shipments or drug supplies, they ‘could’ destroy them that was very different from issuing firm rules stating that U.S. forces must destroy any drugs discovered.”
Later, Risen paraphrases a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan told him that “he was specifically ordered to ignore heroin and opium when he and his unit discovered them on patrol.”
Chapter 8: In Denial: Oil, Terrorism, and Saudi Arabia
Risen writes that after Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002, he was discovered to have had two bank cards on his person one from a Kuwaiti bank, and another from a Saudi bank, which Risen writes “had the potential to be keys that could unlock some of al Qaeda’s darkest secrets. The cards ‘could give us entrée right into who was funding al Qaeda, no link analysis needed,’ said one American source. ‘You could track money right from the financiers to a top al Qaeda figure.’ But something very odd happened when the FBI and CIA team [that collected Zubaydah’s personal and business effects]. There is little evidence that an aggressive investigation of the cards was ever conducted.
“Two American sources familiar with the matter say that they don’t believe the government’s experts on terrorism financing have ever thoroughly probed the transactions in Abu Zubaydah’s accounts…” Risen later reports that his two sources believe that this is because of a lack of oversight, “rather than a political cover-up to protect the Saudis.” Risen writes that a “Muslim financier with a questionable past, and with connections to the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, and Saudi intelligence agreed to work with [American investigators]” on this story. Risen says that the financier reported that in 2004, “18 months earlier, he said he had been told, Saudi intelligence officials seized all of the records related to [Zubaydah’s Saudi bank card]; the records then disappeared… The timing of the reported seizure of the records by Saudi intelligence closely coincided with the timing of Abu Zubaydah’s capture in Pakistan in March 2002.”
“President Bush does deserve credit for making the spread of democracy in the Middle East a centerpiece of his agenda for his second term.” Risen says a very similar thing in his prologue, so despite all of this reporting, he does believe that Bush’s call for democracy is authentic.
Chapter 9: A Rogue Operation
The British newspaper The Guardian has a good summary of the bombshell in this chapter: “The CIA may have helped Iran to design a nuclear bomb through a botched attempt to channel flawed blueprints to Tehran’s weapon designers… [T]he abortive operation misfired when a Russian defector on the CIA payroll, chosen to deliver the deliberately flawed nuclear warhead blueprints to Iranian officials in February 2000, tipped them off about the defects. The operation, codenamed Merlin and approved by the Clinton administration, was intended to send Iranian scientists down a technological dead end, according to this account. They would spend years building a warhead, which would fail to detonate. Instead, Risen writes, the operation may have helped Iran to ‘accelerate its weapons development’ by extracting important information from the blueprints and ignoring the flaw.”
The Guardian has also published an excerpt from this chapter.
If you have a copy of the book Risen’s State of War and want to share what you thought was compelling, or have seen other quotes or excerpts of online that struck you as interesting, please post them in the comments section.
Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.