Spies and Spymasters (A review of 'State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,' by James Risen)
Review by WALTER ISAACSON
The New York Times
February 5, 2006
THIS explosive little book opens with a scene that is at once amazing and yet not surprising: President Bush angrily hanging up the phone on his father, who ''was disturbed that his son was allowing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a cadre of neoconservative ideologues to exert broad influence over foreign policy.'' The colorful anecdote is symptomatic of ''State of War.'' It is riveting, anonymously sourced and feels slightly overdramatized, but it has the odious smell of truth.
In these regards, the anecdote is like the scene in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's ''Final Days,'' when Nixon, very close to his resignation, begins to cry as he asks Henry Kissinger to kneel and pray with him. Indeed, James Risen may have become the new Woodward and Bernstein. His Page 1 articles in The New York Times exposed, for better or worse, the government's national security wiretapping program. And now he has produced an ''All the President's Men'' inside narrative based on anonymous sources.
At its heart is one of the great questions of the post-9/11 era: how far should we Americans be willing to go, in terms of permitting things like wiretapping and torture, to fight terrorism? Risen doesn't seem to think it's his role to probe too deeply into this. Instead, he appears to feel that if something is secret and interesting, it should be exposed.
That raises some more parochial but still important journalistic questions. When should the press censor itself in deference to national security concerns? And how much should it rely on leaks from anonymous sources? The best way to begin to answer these questions is actually to read the book rather than depend on the cable television crossfire about it, a task that is not really all that arduous since it is fast paced, quite mesmerizing and pretty short.
The bulk of Risen's reporting deals with the litany of intelligence failures widely attributed to ideological pressures from Bush, Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Risen's archvillain is George Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, whom Risen portrays, through a brutal procession of leaked anecdotes, as so eager to be liked by Bush that he prostitutes his agency.
When Tenet tells Bush that a captured terrorist has not been giving much information because he was sedated after being shot, Bush is said (by ''a well-placed source'') to have asked, ''Who authorized putting him on pain medication?'' It may have been a joke, or half a joke or perhaps something Bush never said at all. But according to Risen, it set Tenet on a mission, intended to please Bush but opposed by many career officers at the agency, that eventually led to the prison abuse scandals and the rendering of detainees to countries where they might be tortured.
Risen is kinder to Gen. Michael Hayden, who ran the National Security Agency, which was responsible for the electronic eavesdropping that caused the greatest headlines from this book. That program, which involves electronically scanning hundreds of calls and email messages, is the type of new technological approach that Hayden most likely could have (and should have) justified to Congress or one of the special courts that oversee intelligence agency warrants. But the administration insisted on circumventing these procedures. It did so not merely to protect the details from leaking, but also out of a fear that the program would be disapproved and out of an arrogant conviction that presidents should not be subject to such restraints.
Risen's tales are filled with color and details that lend credibility — as well as drama — to his reporting. This includes an account of what apparently was a botched plan to give Iran flawed blueprints for a nuclear-weapon triggering device. He also reports on a C.I.A. scheme during the prelude to the Iraq war in which an Iraqi scientist's sister, who lived in America, was recruited to extract information from her brother on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs. Like 30 or so others who were recruited for such missions, she came back with the news that Hussein had been forced to abandon these efforts. But the C.I.A. did not circulate this information to policy makers, and the eager Tenet instead famously declared to Bush that the case against Hussein was a ''slam dunk.''
The Bush administration asked The Times not to print some of Risen's reporting, especially about the wiretapping program, and the paper honored that request for a year. But when Risen was about to publish this book, which included the revelations that The Times had withheld, the newspaper decided to end its self-restraint. This provoked the typical Timesian tsunami of criticism, both from liberals who felt it should have published the information earlier and from conservatives who felt it should not have published it at all.
Risen does not reflect on this issue, and his willingness to expose government secrets is not matched, alas, by a similar commitment to reporting on the decisions made by his newspaper, which were also important and interesting. But his book does provide some evidence that The Times probably acted in what was actually a prudent manner. The information in ''State of War,'' like that reported in the newspaper just before the book's publication, appears to take care to avoid revealing (although I fear that we cannot be sure) any technical procedures or details that would be useful to Qaeda operatives, who presumably had already surmised that the United States was trying to eavesdrop on them. The justification for publishing the N.S.A. article is that, as Risen shows, the program went on for more than a year with indifference to the requirement that there be some court authorization or Congressional approval of domestic wiretapping. Even those of us who like the idea of the intelligence agencies using data-mining and electronic surveillance to detect terrorist communications are uncomfortable with the possibility that future presidents, with murkier agendas, might secretly use such techniques, without any authorization, for any purpose they alone deem part of their war-making powers.
In these cases, oversight is supposed to come from Congress, the special intelligence courts and the lawyers at the Justice Department, C.I.A. and White House. But in an administration that has little appreciation for Congressional authority or for meddling lawyers, and in a town where the president's party controls all branches of government, there were no such checks or balances.
Except the press. Whether on torture or wiretapping, the news media have become a de facto fourth branch that provides some small check on executive power. That is why so many concerned or disgruntled sources, especially from within the intelligence agencies, came forward to give Risen information.
So what are we to believe in a book that relies heavily on leaks from disgruntled sources? We are in an age where the consumer of information has to make an educated guess about what percentage of assertions in books like this are true. My own guess is that Risen has earnest sources for everything he reports but that they don't all know the full story, thus resulting in a book that smells like it's 80 percent true. If that sounds deeply flawed, let me add that if he had relied on no anonymous sources and reported instead only the on-the-record line from official spinners, the result would very likely have been only half as true.
In fact, the new way we consume information provides a good argument for the role of an independent press that relies on leakers. Other journalists will and should build on, or debunk, the allegations reported by Risen. This will prompt many of the players to publish their own version of the facts. L. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq after the invasion, has just come out with his book pointing fingers at the C.I.A. for giving him flawed intelligence and at Donald Rumsfeld for not giving him the troops he actually wanted. And Tenet, one hopes, will someday cash in on a hefty book contract by clamping cigar in mouth and pen in hand to give evidence that he was not the buffoonish toady Rumsfeld's aides portray him to be. Besides being fun to watch, this process is a boon for future historians.
So welcome to the new age of impressionistic history. Like an Impressionist painting, it relies on dots of varying hues and intensity. Some come from leakers like those who spoke to Risen. Other dots come from the memoirs and comments of the players. Eventually, a picture emerges, slowly getting clearer. It's up to us to connect the dots and find our own meanings in this landscape.
As long as we remember that the truth these days comes not as one pronouncement but as part of a process, we can properly value ''State of War'' for being not only colorful and fascinating, but also one of the ways that facts and historical narratives emerge in an information- age democracy. So let the process begin! After all, many other reporters followed up with their own sources on that Woodward and Bernstein story about Nixon's emotional outburst in the White House. And it all turned out to be true.
Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, is a former managing editor of Time and chief executive of CNN. He is the author of ''Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'' and is working on a biography of Einstein.