James Risen's State of War

Lawrence R. Velvel

James Risen is one of The New York Times’ major writers on intelligence matters and related subjects. His new book on such topics is State of War: The Secret History Of The CIA And The Bush Administration (Free Press, 2006). There are those who think the impending publication of the book, in which Risen extensively discusses the NSA's electronic surveillance of Americans, is what caused The Times, after sitting on the story for about a year, to finally disclose this surveillance in late 2005. The Times, some think, did not want to get scooped by a book written by one of its own reporters, and realized that, because of the impending publication, the story would no longer remain secret anyway.

Editor's Note: Dean Velvel, in his full article, offers a wide-ranging assessment of Mr. Risen's book and related issues.  Here we are posting only the fifteen points about the book Mr. Velvel says were of particular interest to him.

1. It has been said here many times that Bush is an incompetent and dumb person who repeatedly failed in business and had to be bailed out by Daddy's friends and wannabe friends. It has also been said here that Condoleezza Rice is a highly articulate person of little intelligence. Risen doesn't put it that way in discussions of Bush and Rice. Rather, about Bush, he says such things as "The absence of effective management has been the defining characteristic of the Bush Administration's foreign policy," major policies "may have been made without President Bush's advance knowledge," and "In many cases, policies weren’t debated at all." And he says about Rice that she "didn't really manage anything, and will go down as probably the worst national security adviser in history’" (said "A former top CIA official"), "lacked sufficient power and authority to get crucial things done," "was forced to play catch-up and to accept professional indignities,"and "Some of her chagrined aides believe others in her place would have resigned." (Pp. 3, 64.)

2. It is this writer's oft stated position that Bush, Cheney and other high officials knew of, approved of, and desired the torture of prisoners. Risen thinks that, whatever words Bush did or did not use, whether there is a paper trail leading to him or not, and even though people made certain, and even seem to have reached a secret agreement, that Bush would not receive briefings or memos so that plausible deniability or ignorance of torture on his part could be maintained, still Bush made his wishes plain and known, that what interrogators did was done because they felt that he wanted it done, and Bush clearly did want harsh methods to be used if necessary: "several current and former CIA officials say that after the September 11 attacks the President made it clear to agency officials in many ways that it was time for the gloves to come off. The reported comment [by Bush] about [denying] pain medication [to a top al Qaeda figure] fits into that broader, get-tough message that the President and the White House were sending to the CIA in the months after 9/11." (Pp. 22-28.)

3. Just as it commissioned preposterous legal memos that sanctioned torture, memos so crazy (as discussed here) that their authors were castigated by expert lawyers and the Administration was forced to withdraw at least one of them after the memos became public, so too the Administration commissioned legal memos to support the NSA’s spying on civilians. Apparently, the latter memos, which are still secret, use some of the same wacked-out arguments as the torture memo(s), and were written by one or more of the same lawyers. (Pp. 45, 57.)

4. Rumsfeld created new, secret "covert units" in the military that acted outside the "existing [governmental] rules governing covert action, rules that required explicit presidential authorization and congressional notification." (P. 70.) In one case, "members of an operational support element team working in Latin America killed a man outside a bar." (P. 71.)

5. Beyond question George Bush and company intended from early-on to invade Iraq. This was the aim from before 9/11 and long before all the phony talk of WMDs. And, in November 2002, CIA station chiefs from all over the Middle East were called to a secret meeting at the U.S. embassy in London where they were told war was coming and to get with the program despite any reservations they had, since war was just a few months away. (This, of course, was at a time when Bush was lying to the American public by telling it he had not made up his mind on war.) (Pp. 73-80.)

6. The CIA persuaded at least 30 persons -- some unknown number of whom were American citizens (naturalized or otherwise) -- with relatives in Iraq who worked on scientific matters to visit their Iraqi relatives, at great risk, to ask a long list of prepared questions about WMDs. At least some of the relatives had been highly placed figures in Iraq's nuclear programs. Every one of the 30-some persons was told by their relatives that there were no longer any WMD programs. All 30-some told this to the CIA. The CIA simply decided that all the Iraqis were lying, and never told the State Department, the Pentagon or the White House what they had said. In major part at least, the CIA acted this way because it had become all too well aware that Bush and his henchmen wanted to hear nothing inconsistent with, or in any way contrary to possible reasons for, their plans to invade Iraq. (Pp. 87-110.)

7. In March 2003, before we invaded Iraq, the Iraqi regime used a back channel to offer to let Americans into Iraq to look for themselves to verify Iraq's claim that it had no WMDs. The Americans refused. (P. 123.)

8. Any CIA station chiefs or other officers in Iraq who wrote well taken warnings of looming disaster there after our initial victory were committing professional suicide. As well, they were ordered to revise their supposedly too pessimistic reports. (Pp. 127-132, 145-147.) As always, this Administration did not want to hear the bad news, however true it might be. (Remember Eric Shinseki and Larry Lindsey?)

9. As discussed here many times, but hardly ever mentioned in the media, Saddam's regime "had planned for guerrilla war before the U.S. invasion by setting up secret weapons caches and stay-behind networks." Indeed, the planning for guerrilla war went so far that "just before the war, Iraqi intelligence agencies had purchased large numbers of garage door openers in Dubai, as crude but effective remote triggering devices for roadside bombs." (Pp. 136-137.) Plainly, as has been said here previously, guerrilla war was the surprise that Saddam said the Americans would get if they invaded.

10. The CIA stations chief in Iraq in August 2003 wrote a grimly pessimistic report that month, one day after the UN offices in Baghdad were blown up. In it, he predicted that the capture of Saddam was unlikely to end the insurgency. (Pp. 141-142.) He was right. Saddam was captured, but the insurgency continued and got bigger. When Howard Dean later said after Saddam’s capture that it would not end the insurgency, the same point made previously by the station chief, Dean was crucified for saying it. Remember? But Dean too was right. (Of course, the American media and pols, with their near exclusive focus on only the latest headlines, and lack of attention to prior events and first principles, never mention that Dean was right.)

11. Heroin is made from opium. The Taliban had largely eliminated opium production in Afghanistan (although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration later claimed the Taliban did this only to raise the price of the large stockpiles of opium the Taliban had in warehouses). In 2001, the year when we began military operations against Afghanistan late in the year, opium production in Afghanistan was down to 74 metric tons. (P. 155.) Largely because the warlords who did most of our fighting for us wanted opium grown so that they could make gazillions from it, opium production soared after we threw out the Taliban. It rose to 1278 metric tons in 2002, then more than doubled in 2003 and nearly doubled again in 2004. (P. 155.) By 2004, "Afghanistan was producing 87 percent of the world’s opium supply," which "generate[d] $7 billion worth of heroin." (P. 156.) (Nice record George/Dick/Don.). We turned a blind eye, since our buddies, the warlords, were doing it.

Afghanistan became, and apparently is today, what Risen calls a "narco-state." (Pp. 151,155-166.)

12. Lacking enough of our own forces to capture bin Laden, we basically relied on a local Afghan warlord, Hazrat Ali (plus some of our Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries), to kill or capture him in Tora Bora. But Hazrat Ali’s forces, the CIA believes, deliberately allowed bin Laden to escape. "CIA officials are now convinced that Hazrat Ali's forces allowed Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants to flee Tora Bora into Pakistan. Said a CIA source, "We realized those guys just opened the door. It wasn’t a big secret.’" (P. 168.)

13. A Pakistani province, South Waziristan, became al Qaeda central, so to speak, by 2002. But the Pakistanis were intent on not letting Americans cross the border from Afghanistan to pursue al Qaeda personnel. They were intent on this to the point of "a series of tense confrontations -- and even firefights" between Pakistanis and Americans." Both sides," however, "have largely covered up the incidents." (P. 169.)

We have learned previously, although it is basically hushed up, of firefights with Syrian forces along the Iraq/Syria border, but this is the first I've heard of firefights with Pakistani forces.

14. The CIA hatched a wild plan to give the Iranians the blueprints for an atomic weapon -- to give Iran such blue prints mind you, the country that we are now scared to death is developing nuclear bombs. The idea was that the blueprints would have some hidden mistakes or flaws in them, so that, hopefully, the Iranians would be led down blind alleys and cul de sacs.

There is, however, one slight problem with this notion. Sophisticated experts -- which the Iranians apparently have -- are likely to spot the mistakes and flaws in the blueprints. So they won’t go down the blind alleys. But since much, apparently most, of the information in the blueprints is accurate, they will learn much of assistance to them in building a bomb.

We cannot be positive that the plan to get the blueprints into Iranian governmental hands succeeded. But the evidence makes it likely that it did. There is no telling how much assistance the prints may have given the Iranians in their efforts to develop nuclear weapons and, correlatively, how much harm they may have done us (and Israel). (Pp. 193-212.)

15. "In December 2002, President Bush met with his senior advisers to review the status of the war on terror. One participant in the cabinet-level meeting recalled that several senior officials, including Tenet, Rice, and Wolfowitz, voiced concerns about the ability of al Qaeda-style terrorists to recruit and gain support on a widespread basis in the Islamic world. Did the United States have a strategy to counter the growth potential of Islamic extremism?  The President dismissed them, saying that victory in Iraq would take care of that. After he said that, people just sat down’ the participant recalled." (Pp. 170-171.)

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