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From my daily reading of the news coming from Washington D.C. and around the world I had thought it would be difficult to get more depressed about the governing classes of the United States: the just released Senate summary of U.S. torture, the torrent of revelations about governmental spying on citizens accused of nothing, the growing political power of a fabulously wealthy oligarchy, etc, etc.  Well, I was wrong and I am.   I’ve just finished James Risen’s Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.”

Books Pay Any PriceRisen is a longtime investigative reporter whose focus since his arrival at the New York Times in 1998 has been terrorism and governmental response to it; the rise of the national security state with particular emphasis on the CIA.  After two books about the CIA, The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB (Random House) (Milt Bearden, co-author) (2003); State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (The Free Press) (2006) he extended his research into other sectors of national security.  Pay Any Price follows his reporting into NSA, FBI, DOD and the shadowy reaches of civilian contractors where enormous sums are spent in the name of the ‘war on terror’ with frighteningly little oversight.

The book is divided into three sections: Greed, Power, and Endless War.  Like the old saw goes — three creatures, each more frightening than the other. The fourth monster, though un-named, is almost as bad: sheer, blinding incompetence, the inability, or lack of capacity, to know what tools are at hand, to use them properly or organize them into coherent large-scale systems, the inability, or incapacity to create feedback systems to analyze failure and success in order to rectify and improve national security while lowering costs.  The free-market ideology which has gripped the governing classes since the Reagan presidency has set entrepreneurs aflame with financial possibilities, often unsupervised or even understood by those paying their invoices.  The good news is, and Risen is happy to present it, that there are some honest and brave folks who have stood up and tried to stop terrible policies or to raise the alarm  The bad news, on top of the really bad news, is that they have by and large failed.

Greed begins with a chapter about matters we dimly remember from the first year of the Iraq invasion: Pallets of Cash.  We remember news stories of enormous cargo planes stuffed full of bundles of $100 bills, of junior officers in the field having mountains of money to reward key figures and get rebuilding going. It drifted from memory as the insurgency heated up and body counts took precedence over case counts.  Risen brings it back, with the back story of how it began — was with many things, from good intentions.

Not only was $14 billion in $100 bills transferred from NY Fed Reserve Bank to Iraq  more was sent by electronic transfer, totalling about $20 billion.  Of that at least $2 billion was stolen.  Some 1.2 – 1.6 billion is believed to be, even now,  in a bunker in Lebanon.  That wasn’t all.  Millions of dollars were found in boxes hidden by Sadaam Hussein and his cronies.  The US Treasury argued that it was Iraqi money and should be returned to Iraqi banks.  The CPA  [Coalition Provisional Authority] disbursed it, instead, to U.S. troop commanders to use as they saw fit: no record keeping, no records.  Thirty five Americans involved in the post invasion occupation have been convicted of fraud and paid substantial restitution and fines.  As Reston says, however, the vast bulk of the money has never been found.

That is the old news.  The two chapters following tell of enormous wealth made, some upon claims so implausible they never should have passed a perfunctory smell test.  Instead, millions were spent to decode what were claimed to be secret Al Qaeda messages embedded in the crawl below Al Jazeera television broadcasts.  When panic struck and talk of shooting down French aircraft led to the grounding of several flights from Paris, French intelligence, entirely dubious, got involved and reverse engineered the supposed technology.  It was bogus, even breaking the laws of physics.  The CIA, all the way to George Tenant at the top and John Brennan at the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, had been completely taken in.  No internal accounting for what had happened ever took place.  All parties were promoted.

Millions of dollars have been made supplying various branches of the government with drones.  Agency heads demanding drones leave the government to go work for the drone manufacturers.  Millions have been made operating prisons and running interrogation teams, all this creating what Risen calls The New Oligarchs.

And this just begins the story.  The middle section, titled Power, will be the most disturbing to some.  The earlier tale of false claims taken seriously about decoding nonexistent data is multiplied.   A strange character appears in Iraq claiming to be on secret ops for the Pentagon.  At the same time he is a hired gun for a large law-firm doing its own intelligence gathering for a law suit against Saudi financial firms on the behalf of 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon victim families.  When the operator runs into trouble with DOD he finds work at the FBI.  When that begins to smell bad the DEA picks him up.  At the Pentagon, wanting to run its own intelligence operations and not depend on the CIA, new initiatives and departments are put into place without the infrastructure or talent to make use of whatever might be found in the field.

The biggest contractor for the armed forces is one we heard of during the early years of the war: KBR.  It grew to size under the Vice-President Cheney related Brown and Root firm and took off on its own, supplying along with others, more contract personnel to the war zones than there were civilians.  When law suits began to appear on its legal team’s desks for  improperly burning waste in Iraq and likely causing asthma and bronchitis among military personnel, and for improperly wiring living quarters leading to death by electrocution,  it was all brushed aside.  They were, as Risen puts it, like the mighty banks at the heart of the economic collapse,  KBR was “too big to fail.”

There are some heroes along the way.  Steven Coughlin, an epidemiologist hired away from the Center for Disease Controls (CDC) in Atlanta, by the Department of Veterans Affairs, discovered the probable relationship between burn-pits and respiratory disease and pushed against VA refusal to take up his findings, eventually testifying before Congress, though quitting the VA in the process.   Cheryl Harris, an enormously tenacious mother of an electrocuted soldier, has pursued KBR almost to the ends of the earth, bringing some high-level response but finding her suit for wrongful death dismissed.

The final section, Endless War has three chapters: The War on Decency, The War on Normalcy and the final one, which Risen knows better than almost anyone, The War on the Truth.  Again, he finds a lone individual, Diane Roark, who early on, as a staffer on the House Committee on Intelligence, suspected enormous dysfunction at NSA.  He ties her story to  a small group of tech wizards inside the Agency which had developed as early as the late 1990s, a data-mining suite of programs with built in Fourth Amendment protections against spying on American Citizens.  The higher echelons at the Agency ignored that work and elected to contract out internet data collection to a large contractor, which as the attacks on September 11, 2001 showed, were not up to the task.  One response was to pull the formerly rejected work out of the ash heap and rework it without the 4th Amendment protections.  Several of those who had initially created the program went to Roark in alarm; they saw the fast and secret unconstitutional use for which it was being used.  Everyone to whom she went in the government refused to talk to her or listened in silence.  She began to realize that the plan to spy on all citizens was widely known, that the FISA court, created to protect against such transgressions, was complicit with the illegality.  For her efforts, she and others at NSA concerned about the program, were raided by the FBI — in search for information about leaks to the NY Times and James Risen.

As he puts it, the industrial-military complex that worried President Eisenhower at the end of WW II has been superseded by a far more pervasive, and dangerous cyber-industrial complex which has grown in just over a decade with powerful mutual interests between government and private sector.  One citation in the National Security Journal says,  “The complex may serve not only to supply cyber security solutions to the federal government, but to drum up demand for those solutions as well.”

It’s a grim story, grimly told.  Though Risen does show that some have stood up against the secrecy and illegality, even the incompetency, their numbers have been small and their lives have suffered greatly, losing livelihood and friends.   As he ends the book, warning of the dangers of NSA reaching to take over cyber-security operations from Homeland Security, Risen sounds like we feel in reading: exhausted, appreciating the width and breadth of what has been happening but not yet feeling the weight.  President Obama has by and large continued down the same road that Bush began after the 9/11 attacks.  Precious few voices are being raised in opposition.  Cyber Security firms have used their millions to hire another tier of lobbyists in Washington, crying out the warning: Let The Bad Times Roll!

Given the enormous numbers of hours spent in interviewing, researching and writing Pay Any Price, it’s almost a shame to quibble about anything, especially the writing style.  He is a journalist, and it shows: clear, orderly and explanatory, if sometimes aimed at too low a reading group, as in “As Bowen began to investigate cases of fraud and corruption, his old allies at the White House grew angry with him. ”  Sometimes it’s not clear if the “former CIA officials” cited 4 times on a page are the same or different people.  The answers quoted from those accused after a case has been built against them can seem a bit pro-forma, required by reportorial balance but not fully integrated into the story.  Perhaps with reason.

It is clear Risen has a point of view, stepping away from strict employer-required balance, if only in his use of irony — “Western reporters baying for answers,”  “the CIA;s charmed circle of secret knowledge.  It is refreshing to hear outrage in the penned voice based on what he has seen:

…endless American wars have been good business for Aman and many of the Middle East’s other newly gleaming cities.  Money from taxpayers in Wichita and Denver and Phoenix gets routed through the Pentagon and CIA and then ends up here … in the hands of contractors, subcontractors, their local business partners, local sheikhs, local Mukhabarat officers, local oil smugglers, local drug dealers — money that funds construction speculation in a few choice luxury districts that go up thanks to the sweat of imported Filipino and Bangladeshi workers kept on the job their Saudi and Emirati bosses who confiscate their passports.  In Wichita, Denver and Phoenix, meanwhile, McDonald’s is hiring.”

It is worth noting that despite the high praise for his work, from all corners, and I believe the importance of what he shows us in this book, his reporting on Wen Ho Lee for the Times in 1999, led to multiple allegations of shoddy reporting, and fines being paid by the Times.  Only full criminal investigations, or perhaps more data dumps from courageous whistle blowers would prove to the  final crossed t everything he has found.  Meanwhile, there is much to engage our attention, sometimes too much.  My suggestion is, when feeling overwhelmed, go back to one chapter and get to know it deeply.  [My choice is Chapter 9, The War on Truth.] Talk to others about it, talk about America. Perhaps if this and related books become common knowledge, popular feeling would rise  high and strong to wash away the great fear which fuels the flames of Greed,  Power and Endless War.

Pay Any Price, Risen says  “is my answer– both to the government’s long campaign against me and to this endless war.” If we lose interest in abuses of power  “we will lose our democracy.”   He has been facing legal trouble and possible prison time for refusing to reveal sources for another important story he broke.  Though Attorney General Eric Holder said this week  (12/12/14) that he would not compel Risen to reveal his sources, it seems he will be put on the witness stand to answer questions about related matters.  Count me as one of his support group, and one who while share this book with others.