Even as he faces possible jail time for refusing to testify over information he published in his last book, State of War, James Risen has stepped up and taken another whack at the national security complex.
His new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, takes aim at the Frankenstein monster created by post-9/11 anti-terrorism priorities, and the unprecedented gobs of cash thrown at them.
While pedestrian in tone, Risen’s book is a no-holds-barred tarring and feathering of the past 13 years of the U.S. national security system. At times frightening, Risen’s book is a strong reminder of the importance of a free press keeping a powerful government in check.
Here are some of the juiciest bits.
There are billions of unaccounted dollars stashed in Lebanon.
One of the more exciting undisclosed stories Risen uncovered concerns missing billions that includes both money appropriated by the U.S. and Iraqi funds seized by the U.S. and repurposed for “rebuilding” Iraq. According to Risen, at least $11.7 billion of the roughly $20 billion the Coalition Provisional Authority (the organization headed by Paul Bremer in charge of rebuilding Iraq) sent to Iraq under Bush remains unaccounted for.
One case in particular became the focus of Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Nicknamed “Brick Tracker,” the case involved a tip Bowen received in 2010 about missing billions in cash that had turned up in Lebanon. According to Bowen and his investigators, roughly $1.2 to $1.6 billion in missing cash and $200 million in gold is sitting there, and according to Risen's sources; some of it is slowly being used to buy weapons for supporters of various Iraqi political parties. However, when Bowen met with officials in the CIA that year, the CIA mysteriously refused to offer assistance for tracking down the money. He was then blocked from going to Lebanon by the U.S. ambassador, and the FBI also refused to investigate. The reason, according to Risen, is that the Obama administration wanted to move on from Iraq.
Ironically, the one figure who did seem interested in the funds was former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who asked Bowen about the funds in 2013.
The U.S. government is easily tricked.
In the heady rush to take the fight to the terrorists, agencies scrambled to make sure they had a piece of the gravy train. As a result of all that eagerness, Risen argues, the U.S. was hustled by more than a few con artists.
The most ridiculous character in Pay Any Price may be Dennis Montgomery, who is described as an inveterate gambler and swindler. Montgomery gets his star turn when his facial recognition and code-breaking “technology” caught the eye of the CIA. According to Risen, the agency in its eagerness to make up for 9/11 and the WMD intelligence failures fell hard for Montgomery’s non-existent tech. According to the book, Montgomery and the CIA became obsessed with the idea that al Qaeda was putting coded messages into Al Jazeera broadcasts about potential attacks. Armed with purported intelligence from Montgomery’s software, then CIA Director George Tenet went to President Bush, who subsequently ordered commercial flights grounded around Christmas in 2003, and the administration even considered shooting down commercial planes over the Atlantic.
It was actually the French (after Air France flights were grounded) who figured out that Montgomery’s intelligence was fraudulent. Nevertheless, even after he was exposed, Montgomery continued to get contracts through various government agencies well into the Obama era. The man in charge of distributing Montgomery’s intelligence, according to Risen, was none other than current CIA Director John Brennan.
Whistleblowers are treated horribly.
While Risen certainly is not impartial when it comes to leaks and whistleblowers, he offers up the story of Diane Roark as an example of what happens when somebody tries to go the appropriate routes (as opposed to Edward Snowden) when they see government abuse.
Roark was a staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and focused on NSA oversight. At the turn of the century, she became a thorn in the agency’s side thanks to her belief that the NSA was too slow, antiquated, and insular to adapt to the new post-Internet world. However, after 9/11, Roark was approached by former members of the NSA about a new program designed to spy on American citizens (something the NSA was explicitly forbidden to do). Roark wrote memos to the Republican and Democratic staff directors on the committee, Tim Sample and Mike Sheehy, respectively, detailing what she thought was a potentially unconstitutional program. Sample reportedly told her “to drop the matter” and not discuss it with anybody else. She then met with contacts of hers in the various branches of government, only to find out they already knew and were keeping it hushed. She even approached U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, unaware that she was the one who had signed off on the program, and who also then reported her to the Justice Department. Stifled at every turn, Roark retired.
Years later, as the government was attempting to hunt down leakers about the NSA program after Risen published the story in 2005, government agents raided Roark’s house and threatened her with perjury charges as she was battling cancer, even though it turned out she was not the one who talked to the press.
Shady characters won government contracts.
In a section titled “The New Oligarchs,” Risen sheds light on some of the individuals who have gotten fabulously rich off the war on terror. One of those is Neal Blue, the co-owner and CEO of General Atomics, the company that makes the Predator and Reaper drones.
However, according to Risen, a uranium mining firm owned by Blue and his brother has for decades been the target of a series of investigations about radioactive pollution on Indian land, leaks from a uranium mine in Colorado, and contract rigging.
The NSA once had qualms about what it now does.
Thin Thread, an in-house NSA program designed for data collection and analysis, was rejected by the NSA in the late ’90s. Apparently, the agency’s lawyers said it would violate the law because it would be “collecting too much data on U.S. citizens.”
NSA Director Michael Hayden allegedly defended warrantless wiretapping saying, the government “had the power.”
When Diane Roark met with then-NSA Director Michael Hayden in July of 2002, according to Risen, Hayden defended domestic warrantless data collection against American citizens. When she asked why the protections for citizens were removed, according to her notes, Hayden responded by saying that “they didn’t need them because they had the power.”
The Bush White House planned to use domestic surveillance for more than counterterrorism.
According to Roark, when she met with Hayden, he seemed to imply that the only reason the spying program was not being used for anything beyond counterterrorism was because the then-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Nancy Pelosi, had repeatedly objected. “In other words,” writes Risen, “the Bush administration and NSA eventually wanted to use the domestic spying program for purposes that had nothing to do with the global war on terror.”