State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration
Free Press / 242 pages / $26
James Risen's State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration is a damning and dismaying book.
Its underlying thesis is that the Bush administration has mucked up virtually everything when it comes to terrorism, the international Sunni Muslim insurgency created by jihadism, and nuclear proliferation.
As a national security reporter for The New York Times, Risen has produced some of this era's best journalism on the Central Intelligence Agency and the dysfunctional relationship between the White House and the U.S. spy community.
"No other institution failed in its mission as completely during the Bush years as did the CIA," Risen writes. "It was already deeply troubled by the time he took office in 2001. ... By the end of Bush's first term, the CIA looked like the government's equivalent of Enron, an organization whose bankruptcy triggered cries for reform."
Some of the counts supporting that indictment are familiar, including how the CIA enabled the administration to make the case for the invasion of Iraq by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Risen provides valuable and troubling detail on that situation and the issue of warrantless electronic spying inside the United States by the National Security Agency - particularly with regard to the treatment of intelligence and diplomatic professionals whose analysis contradicted what the White House wanted to hear. For example, the CIA's post-invasion station chief in Baghdad was dismissed when he insisted on telling the truth that the overthrow of Hussein had plunged the country into chaos and had turned it into a center for an al-Qaida-backed insurgency with regional and global implications.
Similarly, a State Department official who sounded the alarm about post-Taliban Afghanistan's degeneration into a narco-state was ignored and punished. Today, Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of heroin.
Risen has other urgent and disturbing things to say about the botched hunt for Osama bin Laden as well as the administration's and CIA's diffidence toward Saudi Arabia, despite evidence that sympathy and financial support for the jihadi insurgents run through the uppermost levels of the Wahhabi kingdom. As Risen points out, that diffidence has led the United States to rely on the Saudis for information on what's going on inside that strategically vital country. In other words, we don't have any spies there.
Equally disconcerting, a mistake by a CIA communications officer in 2004 handed the Tehran government the identities of every U.S. agent inside Iran. A few years earlier, another incompetent operation by the agency put in the mullahs' hands the plans for a Russian-designed nuclear trigger.
An investigative reporter, particularly one who is trolling in the bureaucratic pools of national security, inevitably finds himself in deep waters.
Books like State of War are not works of scholarship with notes that can be checked. They're sourced like extended newspaper or magazine stories. This is particularly true of Risen's volume, which makes no pretense to narrative structure. It is episodic and told in unornamented prose.
Before publication, State of War was denounced in some conservative quarters as anti-Bush propaganda bordering on treason and criticized on the left as evidence that The Times had been sitting on information regarding domestic spying that might have prevented Bush's re-election. Others can plumb these particular fever swamps. The question of sourcing, though, is substantive.
In an introductory note, Risen confronts the issue: "Many people have criticized the use of anonymous sources of late. Yet all reporters know that the very best stories - the most important, the most sensitive - rely on them."
As one of the Washington press corps' best reporters on national security issues, Risen has a record of being right. It's not an unblemished record, however. In 1999, he and colleague Jeff Gerth went wrong when they relied on a disgruntled investigator's allegations that a Taiwanese-American scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Wen Ho Lee, was passing nuclear secrets to the Chinese. Lee was innocent, a victim if not of xenophobic bigotry then of official paranoia and hysteria abetted by Times reporting and commentary.
So, when it comes to assessing journalism - which is what State of War is - it's a good idea to follow Ronald Reagan's maxim: "Trust, but verify."
When you apply that criterion, Risen's book looks very good. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and original reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others essentially supports Risen's reconstruction of how the administration willed itself into believing otherwise. The allegations of widespread domestic spying by the NSA first reported in The Times by Risen and Eric Lichtblau have turned out to be true.
This month, a stunningly detailed Wall Street Journal report completely supported State of War's contentions concerning Afghanistan's emergence as a narco-state. The odds are that when other news organizations follow his reporting on the Iran debacle and the sinister implications of the Saudi situation, the broad outlines of Risen's reporting also will prove to be true.
Considered in that light, State of War is a reminder that American journalism has a higher purpose than pandering to the lowest pop-cultural denominator. Somewhere there are issues and ideas that matter. Risen's book is an urgent contribution to the country's common good by a skillful and courageous reporter.
Tim Rutten writes for the Los Angeles Times.