The yes man and the thug

In his disturbing new book, Times reporter James Risen reveals how George Tenet's gutless surrender to war-obsessed Donald Rumsfeld led to the total breakdown of U.S. intelligence.

Published January 10, 2006 8:20PM (EST)

Marketing copy is always suspect, so when journalist James Risen's new book "State of War" arrived accompanied by a press release containing the phrase "tip of the iceberg," I began to worry. "Tip of the iceberg" is a lemonade-from-lemons construction, an attempt by the publisher to allay concerns that the book's biggest scoops have already been widely aired. After all, several weeks ago the New York Times, where Risen covers national security issues, published much of what you'll read in the book's second chapter, which reveals that President Bush authorized a program to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants. Since then, Bush has acknowledged the existence of the wiretapping plan, and Risen and Times colleague Eric Lichtblau have uncovered a great deal more about the program that goes beyond what's in "State of War," including the fact that federal judges and senior members of Bush's own Justice Department have balked at it. After all this new news, it's natural to wonder whether "State of War," which made it to stores just last week, might already be stale on the shelf, a blockbuster-to-be that's now just bust.

Yet it turns out that far from an empty bit of P.R. puffery, "tip of the iceberg" may be the perfect phrase to describe Risen's compelling, disturbing, if ultimately somewhat unfulfilling, volume. In sketching the recent history of the American intelligence apparatus, Risen serves up scooplet after astonishing scooplet of our spy agencies' mistakes and misdeeds. There's much more here than illegal wiretapping; indeed, the wiretapping story is even a bit out of place in "State of War," a one-off chapter on the National Security Agency in a volume mostly about the CIA. (The book's subtitle is "The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.")

Most of Risen's bombshell disclosures have to do with that agency, including new details on the CIA's interrogation practices and its stable of secret prisons. In addition, we learn that in the months before the United States invaded Iraq, the CIA obtained and then ignored specific intelligence pointing to the absence of weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein, and that, as the famous Downing Street memo noted, the CIA was essentially fixing data around what it knew to be an inevitable war. In what may be the book's most sensational claim, Risen writes that as part of a bizarre, almost unbelievably ill-conceived attempt to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, the agency recently provided the Iranian government with highly sensitive technical designs for making part of a nuclear bomb -- and then lost track of what the Iranians did with the blueprints.

The trouble is, for all the news in "State of War," you can't help feeling there's an even bigger story in what's not here. Risen's astounding findings are, for the most part, just skeletons of disaster and doom; in many cases, limitations inherent to national security journalism -- spymasters like to keep mum -- kept him from learning many of the details surrounding the programs he uncovers, and his account is often incomplete. He reports that in early 2005, members of a Defense Department intelligence unit "working in Latin America killed a man outside a bar," but he can tell us nothing more about that incident. He suggests that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the central planner of the 9/11 attacks who's now in U.S. custody, was treated so harshly by his CIA interrogators that he initially gave them false information just to stop the torture; more recently, he has disavowed his earlier testimony. But Risen, a careful journalist who always comes clean about his ignorance, makes clear he doesn't know what Mohammed is now recanting, how important his reversals may be in the war on terrorism, and whether the incident actually proves that torture yields bad information from detainees. Thus, the book reads more like a collection of disparate anecdotes about national security difficulties -- almost all from anonymous sources, and sometimes reported with little context -- than a coherent story of what's wrong with the American spy business. At times, it feels like all tip and no iceberg.

To the extent that Risen does put forward a theory for why U.S. intelligence has failed so frequently and so spectacularly under George W. Bush, the story focuses on two key players. The first is George Tenet, the former CIA director, whom Risen paints as a feckless yes man, a pusillanimous glad-hander who ruined the agency's credibility and integrity because he could never stand up to others in the administration. "George Tenet liked to talk about how he was a tough Greek from Queens, but in reality, he was a pussy," one former CIA insider tells Risen. "He just wanted people to like him."

Then there's Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the yin to Tenet's yang. Rumsfeld is a renegade who steps over just about everyone in the administration, including Tenet, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and even Bush himself, to get his way. Aided by Vice President Dick Cheney and influenced by Defense Department neoconservatives, Rumsfeld manages to wrest control of every aspect of American international affairs. "To others in the administration, mystified by the process -- or lack of a process -- it eventually became clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld had a backchannel where the real decision making was taking place," Risen writes. "The result was that the Bush administration was the first presidency in modern history in which the Pentagon served as the overwhelming center of gravity for U.S. foreign policy."

These two forces -- Tenet's weakness and Rumsfeld's strength -- combined to squeeze out the CIA, to politicize and muddy its intelligence-gathering efforts, and to push the agency into operations that some there were very nervous about, including the management of prisons and the interrogation of detainees captured in the war on terrorism. Risen writes that after 9/11, "the president made clear to agency officials in many ways that it was time for the gloves to come off." Once, inquiring about Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaida lieutenant who was wounded during his capture in Pakistan, Bush asked Tenet, "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?"

It is possible, Risen notes, "that this was just one more piece of jocular banter between two plain-speaking men," and he says that White House officials went out of their way to make sure that Bush was never included in debates over how to handle prisoners so that he could maintain plausible deniability on the matter of torture. Still, Tenet got Bush's message and went about restructuring his agency to meet senior administration officials' wishes to get tough -- very tough -- with the enemy. An FBI official tells Risen that he once overheard a CIA official who was transferring an al-Qaida suspect to Egypt (where the suspect would likely be tortured) say to the prisoner, "You know where you are going. Before you get there, I am going to find your mother and fuck her."

Risen writes: "Several CIA officials who are familiar with the way the interrogations of high-value Al Qaeda detainees are actually conducted say that there are no doubts in their minds that the CIA is torturing its prisoners. Water boarding is used, not just once to simulate torture, but over and over again, according to one CIA source." Risen tells of a secret CIA report that "describes how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to the application of several types of harsh interrogation techniques approximately a hundred times over a period of two weeks." (Among a parade of ugly CIA interrogation techniques, one is to force prisoners to listen to Eminem extremely loud for long periods of time.)

Tenet's eagerness to please Bush and the Pentagon establishment was especially evident in the run-up to the war in Iraq, when he faced a stark choice: going with the advice of his agency's analysts, who had no reliable evidence showing that Iraq was a threat, or going with hard-liners like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, who believed Iraq was allied with al-Qaida and was intent on striking the United States.

The CIA's position on Iraq was clear -- it knew almost nothing. "It is hard for people outside the agency to understand how little we were thinking on Iraq," one official tells Risen. But just before the war began, some at the agency tried to fix this problem. Charlie Allen, a CIA veteran who was highly regarded in the agency, launched a provocative program to persuade the expatriate family members of Iraqi weapons scientists to travel to Iraq and investigate the country's plans regarding weapons of mass destruction. Risen tells the story of one such ad hoc spy, Sawsan Alhaddad, an Iraqi-born doctor who had defected from her native country in 1979 and is now an American citizen living in Cleveland. The CIA contacted Alhaddad in May 2002 and asked her to do something straight out of a Tom Clancy novel: The agency wanted her to go to Baghdad and secretly interrogate her brother, Saad Tawfiq, a key Iraqi nuclear scientist, about Iraq's nuclear program.

Alhaddad agreed, and her story makes for the most thrilling reading in Risen's book. She prepares zealously for her assignment, learning ways to avoid detection by Saddam's men, and writing mnemonic aids into a crossword puzzle to help her memorize the questions to ask her brother. Once she's in Iraq, a cloak-and-dagger scene unfolds as she tries to speak candidly with her brother about his work without raising any suspicions. But for all the theatrics -- to talk secretly, the siblings take long walks late at night, they unplug the phones and they turn up the television in Tawfiq's house -- Tawfiq repeatedly tells Alhaddad the same thing: There is no nuclear program in Iraq. Risen paraphrases what Tawfiq said to his sister: "We don't have the resources to make anything anymore, he told her. We don't even have enough spare parts for our conventional military. We can't even shoot down an airplane. We don't have anything left. If the sanctions are ever lifted, then Saddam is certain to restart the programs. But there is nothing now."

Tawfiq, who was understandably wary of war, thought that by taking a risk to tell his sister the truth about Iraq's weapons, he was clearing up an American misunderstanding about Saddam's regime and possibly helping to stave off the invasion. He was not alone; in all, Allen's program recruited family members to get to about 30 Iraqi weapons scientists in the months before the war, and they all said the same thing, "that Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had long since been abandoned," Risen writes.

This data would, of course, later prove highly accurate -- but Risen says that officials in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, the agency's clandestine program, became jealous of Allen's findings, and under Tenet's weak management, they successfully suppressed the new information on Iraq. "The reports from the family members of Iraqi scientists were buried in the bowels of the CIA and were never released for distribution to the State Department, Pentagon, or White House," Risen writes. "President Bush never heard about the visits or the interviews."

When it came to Iraq, Tenet, CIA insiders tell Risen, appeared to make his position clear -- he would go along with what hard-liners wanted. When any analyst, no matter how junior or inexperienced, seemed to say anything that comported with the neocon view of Iraq, Tenet perked up. One former official tells Risen of a meeting in which Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin mentioned that analysts at the Department of Energy doubted that aluminum tubes that Saddam had been buying could be used to build a nuclear bomb. At that point, the official tells Risen, one analyst "who didn't look older than twenty-five says, no, that's bullshit, there is only one use for them," referring to a nuclear program. "And Tenet says, 'Yeah? Great.'"

Another time, Tenet ignored the warnings of Tyler Drumheller, who headed the CIA's European spy operations and had learned from German intelligence that a key CIA source on Iraqi WMD, an Iraqi exile who went by the code name Curveball, was mentally unstable, unreliable and not to be trusted. In the days before former Secretary of State Colin Powell made his famous presentation on Iraqi weapons to the United Nations, Drumheller tried frantically to excise all of Curveball's information from Powell's speech. As late as the night before Powell's presentation, he spoke to Tenet on the phone and warned of problems with Curveball. But Tenet ignored Drumheller, and the Curveball data made it into Powell's speech. The commission investigating the failed WMD intelligence later discredited Curveball's source, and lambasted the CIA for relying on such shaky information.

For all the shoddiness of the CIA's work on Iraq, Risen raises the specter that its work on Iran is even flimsier, and might lead, eventually, to even scarier ends than we've met in Iraq. In a final chapter that is as darkly portentous as it is frustratingly vague, Risen writes of a recent intelligence snafu that compromised all American intelligence operations in Iran. The spy business doesn't get any more comic than this: The snafu was the result of a careless e-mail mistake. In June 2004, a CIA officer accidentally sent information that could be used to identify every American spy in Iran to an agent who, unbeknown to the CIA, was working for the Iranian government. The mistake "left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the United States -- whether Tehran was about to go nuclear."

But wait, it gets better. It turns out, Risen says, that the U.S. has pretty good reason to be worried about Iran's nuclear goals, as we may have been a key source for the development of its weapons program. In an operation code-named Merlin that was launched under the Clinton administration and continued by Bush, the CIA cooked up a high-risk plan "to stunt the development of Tehran's nuclear program by sending Iran's weapons experts down the wrong technical path." To do this, the CIA obtained extremely sensitive Russian blueprints for a component known as a TBA-480 high-voltage block, which Risen writes is needed in a nuclear bomb to "create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core." The design, Risen adds, "was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers ... from the rogue countries like Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short."

The CIA's plan was to slightly tweak the blueprints in order to introduce a technical flaw that would be imperceptible to Iranian scientists, and then to have a Russian scientist drop off the documents at an Iranian diplomatic office in Vienna, Austria. Even in theory, the plan sounds pie in the sky; in reality, the whole thing fell apart. The Russian scientist whom the CIA chose, a defector who lived in the United States, immediately spotted the engineering flaw that the Americans had introduced into the designs, and before he dropped off the plans in Vienna, he added a little note that tipped off the Iranians to the problem.

Were it not in a book by a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter, the notion that the United States may have so recklessly transferred nuclear secrets to the Iranians sounds almost insane, like the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. As it is, actually, Risen's story is hard to believe -- not because I don't want to believe him or because he's not careful, but because it raises so many questions that he doesn't, and possibly can't, answer. We need to know the scope of the plan, which CIA and White House officials were crazy enough to think it might work, and whether anyone was ever punished for its failure. We need to know whether the CIA has discontinued such techniques and, if it has not, whether it has increased its security checks on such programs.

"State of War" doesn't address these questions. But now that Risen's reporting on the topic is out (and finally: according to Newsweek, the White House asked the New York Times two years ago not to publish his work on the program), perhaps other reporters will get on the case, as happened with the wiretapping program. If Risen's work is just the tip of the iceberg, it's high time we learned what lurks beneath, before we're all sunk.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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