Unintelligent designs

There are two really scary things about James Risen’s State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration: the stories you already knew about, and those you didn’t.

Risen is the national-security reporter whose New York Times exposé revealed the Bush administration’s secret, warrant-less wiretapping of American citizens, prompting even some congressional Republicans to suggest the president had badly overstepped the bounds of his constitutional authority. You already knew that. You may even have known that the Times sat on the story for more than a year and only published it recently when faced with the prospect of being scooped by its own reporter’s book. That’s scary, both in terms of what it tells us about the Bush administration and for what it says about the Times, which had known about the wiretapping since before the 2004 election.

But it’s even scarier to read Risen’s description of the program and how it began as an attempt to monitor the communications of known al Qaeda operatives and then grew, like some deranged game of “six degrees of separation,” to include everyone those operatives knew, and everyone their acquaintances knew, and so on, until thousands of Americans were somehow deemed as having enough ties to terrorism to have their phone calls and e-mail monitored by the government. As it now stands, the National Security Agency (NSA), which operates the surveillance program, has direct access to the main telecommunications nodes through which the majority of the world’s phone and e-mail messages travel, and the administration apparently has given the NSA carte blanche to listen in more or less whenever it pleases, without the bother of obtaining court approval.

Risen’s book goes through a whole series of such horror stories, the basics of which will be familiar fare for most regular newspaper readers. We read details of how the Bush administration, at the urging of neoconservative ideologues including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, had been planning to invade Iraq long before September 11 and how the CIA was essentially tasked with providing some sort of justification for an invasion rather than an accurate assessment of Iraq’s weapons programs. We hear how Osama bin Laden slipped through the fingers of American agents in the weeks following September 11, how lack of oversight in Afghanistan has created a narco-state there, how the Iraqi insurgency was underestimated, how the CIA is running a set of secret prisons where detainees are tortured in violation of international law, and much else that has made headlines in the national press already.

But State of War is still worthwhile reading for the way it elucidates the details and finer points—the personalities and office politics—behind the headlines. Risen’s accounts of former CIA Director George Tenet’s toadyism, Rumsfeld’s bullying and Bush’s casual unconcern for the fact that major policy decisions were being made without his input all work to fill in important aspects of these stories. And Risen does have some new bombshells to drop: Wait ’til you read, for example, how bumbling CIA agents advanced Iran’s nuclear program by providing the Iranians with blueprints for a top-secret nuclear triggering device.

State of War amounts to a crushing indictment of American intelligence under the Bush administration, but those seeking a Michael Moore-style Bushwhacking are advised to look elsewhere. This is hard-nosed journalism of the old school, bearing a clear point of view but taking pains to justify its assertions with numerous inside—if necessarily anonymous—sources. In lucid prose that is the model of economy, Risen details the critical failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the looming threat in Iran, offering enlightening, uneasy reading for everyone seeking to understand the mess we’re in. It’s scary stuff and highly recommended.