Matters Discussed in James Risen's New Book

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by Dean Lawrence R. Velvel by Dean 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.

The book discusses, and sometimes confirms, ideas and points of view that have been discussed in this blog over the past one and one-half years. (Those and other ideas and views discussed here are collected in a forthcoming book called Blogs From The Liberal Standpoint: 2004-2005. The book will be available from Amazon, among other outlets.) Risen also discusses many other ideas and facts of intense interest to this blogger (and other people too).

This posting shall briefly identify (1) various ideas and facts set forth by Risen that confirm or shed further light on matters discussed here, and (2) other points of particular interest to this writer. The comments on these points will be short, as indicated; to read the full extent of the very interesting things Risen has to say, read his book.

Before turning to things that Risen does say, however, let me first discuss two things he does not say, or that at least I was unable to find in his book. One relates to the question of precisely when in the fall of 2004 did The Times learn about the NSA spying on American civilians. This is a subject of no little importance because, as indicated, it is known that The Times sat on the story for about one year, but is not known whether this means it knew of the matter before the 2004 election yet did not print it until December 2005, or did not know of the story until after the November 2004 election. If The Times knew of the story before the 2004 election but did not print it, then it was complicit in the reelection of Bush and Cheney, since there is no telling what would have happened in the election had the story been disclosed beforehand: even an unattractive candidate like Kerry might have beaten Bush. If The Times knew of the story before the 2004 election yet did not print it, then, as has been said here before, Bush was elected the first time by the Supreme Court and, very possibly, the second time by The New York Times.

In a lengthy review of Risen's book in The New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers, one of our leading writers on intelligence issues and personnel, has recently said that the NSA spying story was known and submitted in October, 2004: “An early version of the story was apparently submitted to The Times' editors in October 2004, when it might have affected the outcome of the presidential election. But The Times, for reasons it has not clearly explained, withheld the story until mid-December” 2005. Powers does not say how he knows all this, how he found it out, or why he said it. One has to presume that someone like Powers knows it because of confidential sources, but at present it is impossible to say whether Powers is right or wrong (although in the absence of proof that he is wrong, I would be more than a bit reluctant to say a guy like Powers is in fact wrong). Strangely, although Powers is (perhaps universally?) regarded as an exceptionally competent and knowledgeable guy, the media does not seem to have picked up on his comment. I have seen no reference to it anywhere else. One inevitably thinks that this is because the media and the politicians have the memories and attention spans of ants – or is this unkind to ants? Uncaring of first principles and antecedent events, concerned only with the latest headline, the media and the pols are ignoring the fact that The Times may have helped reelect Bush by complicity in killing the spying story for a year, and may have been strongarmed by Bush and Cheney to do so. (Bush and Cheney strongarm someone? Why they would never do that, would they?)

In his book, Risen, pretty strangely in the circumstances if you ask me, makes no mention of when he learned about the NSA's spying on American civilians, although he extensively discusses the spying itself, which he had been one of two reporters to disclose in The Times. So we are still left not knowing when The Times learned of the matter, when an article was ready to go (other than that this was sometime in the fall of 2004), and whether Tom Powers is right in saying it was ready to go in October 2004, before the election. Frankly, the refusal of The Times to disclose and discuss this – it has refused, you know – and Risen's failure to mention it in his book, leads one to think that Powers almost surely must be right, and that Bush very likely strongarmed The Times into a year of silence ultimately broken only because Risen was about to publish. Otherwise, why is The Times unwilling to talk about the matter? Unless The Times is trying to cover up its complicity in reelecting Bush after being complicit in his false WMD claims as a reason for going to war, why won't it say when it learned about the NSA spying and when the article was ready to go?

There is a second matter not covered in Risen's book, or at least that I did not see there, that relates to the foregoing but also is of independent interest. The Washington Post recently reported that in 2004 a Moroccan named Abdallah Tabarak was released from Guantanamo, with no explanation, after spending a few years there as a “high-value” prisoner. Supposedly, Tabarak was a bin Laden bodyguard who helped engineer bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora in December 2001, sacrificing himself in the process. The story is that he “took bin Laden's satellite phone, which the al Qaeda leader apparently assumed was being tracked by U.S. spy technology, and walked toward the Pakistani border,” making phone calls from the satellite phone as he went, “as the al Qaeda leadership [bin Laden and others] fled in the opposite direction. The ruse worked, although Tabarak and others were captured” at the border by Pakistani authorities and handed over to the U.S. This is all, apparently, according to Moroccan court documents – Tabarak was transferred (rendered?) to Morocco in August 2004 and was questioned (tortured?) there – “details of which other foreign intelligence officials confirm.” It should be said that Tabarak's (Moroccan?) lawyer, one Abdelfallah Zahrach, while admitting Tabarak knew bin Laden and was caught near the Pakistani border, says Tabarak's importance has been exaggerated, that he did not help bin Laden escape and Morocco has no evidence to the contrary, and that the U.S. would never have let Tabarak go back to Morocco if he had in fact been bin Laden's bodyguard.

So one does not know for sure whether the Post's story about Tabarak's actions is true, although my personal hunch, for various reasons, is that it is true. Also, the context of and comments in the story (p. 6, National Weekly Edition, February 6–12) make it obvious that the Post itself thinks the story is true in spades. The importance here of its truth or falsity relates to The Times' claim that it was concerned that disclosing the NSA spying story would tip off al Qaeda that its electronic communications were being monitored, a concern it managed to overcome when Risen's book was about to be published. If the story is true, then bin Laden knew at least as early as December 2001 that al Qaeda's electronic communications were being intercepted, the claim of al Qaeda being tipped off by disclosure of the NSA spying story to the American public is plainly false, and The Times' putative concern about this is all the more likely to equally be garbage – to be a Cheneyesque cover-up as it were. (Dead eye Dick, sure shot Dick, always gets his man if the guy forgets to quail or duck, but Dick thinks he can keep things secret, doesn't he?).

Now, Risen does not talk about Tabarak in his book as far as I can determine, so no light is shed there in that particular way on the question of when and whether al Qaeda learned that its electronic communications were being intercepted. But Risen does shed extensive light on this in a different way. Risen plainly believes, he discusses at great length the reasons why he thinks, that the very highest Saudi officials and business figures were major supporters of al Qaeda, financially and in other ways (and, correlatively, why American officials have not wanted to investigate, and have religiously avoided investigating, these ties). (See Chapter 8, pp. 173–191, entitled “In Denial: Oil, Terrorism, and Saudi Arabia.”) Risen also says this (p. 181):

CIA sources also say that the agency has had strong evidence that some of the intelligence it has shared with Saudi security officials has ended up in the hands of al Qaeda operatives. For example, the CIA has in the past given the Saudis copies of NSA communications intercepts, which included conversations among suspected al Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia. But after the CIA gave the intercepts to the Saudis, the suspects quickly stopped using the communications that the Americans had been monitoring, making it far more difficult to track the terrorists.

Documents and computer files seized from al Qaeda operatives after 9/11 also revealed to the CIA u2018al Qaeda had the run of Saudi Arabia,' as a CIA source familiar with the intelligence put it.

Now, Risen doesn't say when the CIA gave the Saudis NSA intercepts that “ended up in the hands of al Qaeda operatives,” thus alerting them to the electronic eavesdropping on their communications, nor does he say when the Saudis gave the intercepts to al Qaeda. But one thing we can pretty much rest assured of. These things happened long before the fall of 2004. They may even have happened before 9/11. So al Qaeda surely knew it was being electronically intercepted long before – years before – Bush/Cheney said that disclosure of NSA's spying program to the American public would disclose it to al Qaeda. This bushwa (bushchenwa?) was just a rerun of the secret war in Laos and Cambodia at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. That is to say, it was no secret to our enemies, only to our citizens.

And just as the Bush/Cheney claims were bushwa, so too (and regardless of the truth of the Tabarak story) it is nearly inconceivable that The Times did not know, long before December 2005, that al Qaeda was aware its electronic communications were being intercepted. Risen, after all, is The Times' own reporter, and he knew about it no later than when he was writing his book, presumably some time in 2005 and maybe even a year or two before then. It is also nearly inconceivable (although I guess it could have happened), that if he knew of it in the fall of 2004, he didn't tell The Times about it when The Times decided to sit on the story in 2004 – at least in part, one gathers, because of ill-founded concerns that it would be the initial tip-off to al Qaeda about the interceptions.

So, almost no matter how one looks at it, it is completely, or at minimum nearly, ineluctable that al Qaeda was aware of the electronic interceptions long before December 2005, almost certainly was aware of them long before November 2004, and maybe even before 9/11. The Bush/Cheney bushchenwa that al Qaeda was first tipped off by The Times' disclosure of NSA spying in December 2005 is just that: bushchenwa. The Times' claims of fears of providing such a tip-off in 2004 stands little or no better. And that The Times simply got strongarmed by the government seems even more likely – and only the more so because Arthur Sulzberger and Bill Keller refuse to talk about the matter (are frightened to talk about it?).

Let me turn now to points Risen made that are of particular interest to this blogger because they confirm points previously made here or for other reasons:

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 “u2018didn'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.)

Q.E.D.

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, u2018We 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? u2018The 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.)

Risen's source says, as you have just read, that “u2018The President dismissed them, saying that victory in Iraq would take care of'” the potential growth of Islamic extremists. Good God, has there ever before been such a fool in office? Does one wonder that every private business he ever operated was a failure that had to be bailed out by rich political friends? And this fool is president of the United States? Oh boy.

As you can tell from this posting, when one reds Risen's book, one reads many different stories, one reads of many separate events. Yet, at least to me, there is also an overriding, albeit likely unintentional, theme. It is a theme that bespeaks an idea this writer has held for many years now. It is an idea that many conservative Republicans have held for dozens or scores of years, and that Democrats have increasingly been coming to in more recent decades. It is an idea of which Bush and his henchmen are only the latest incarnation, even if they conceivably are the worst incarnation to date. It is the idea that government is incompetent at every level and in every way, including even the military in any war but a purely conventional one in which our power simply is too much for the opponent. Governmental incompetence is born in major part of dishonesty, because one cannot be competent in any walk of life when the information in one's possession is false or wrong, which is one of the reasons I think rampant dishonesty is the fundamental problem of America. But the incompetence seems to exist even where dishonesty does not prevail.

For awhile now, some people have occasionally said something like the following to this blogger. “Well, you criticize and complain so much, what would you do to make things better?” Well, the time has come when it is no longer possible to continue forestalling any poor answer(s) that this writer may have (though other matters seem to have gotten in the way of setting them forth in the past few weeks). So, in the very near future, hopefully in the next posting, I shall do my best to give my own prescriptions, however inadequate or hopeless they may be, however nave or idealistic the sophisticated “smart money” may find them.u201D

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel [send him mail] is an honors graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, has practiced law in the public and private sectors, and been a law professor. He is the author of the quartet Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam. The books in the quartet are entitled: Misfits In America, Trail of Tears, The Hopes and Fears of Future Years: Loss and Creation, and The Hopes and Fears of Future Years: Defeat and Victory. Visit his blog.

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