The Hand That Holds The Mirror With James Risen

New York Times investigative journalist James Risen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the CIA’s secret history with President George W. Bush in his book “State of War”, and who faces criminal prosecution for refusing to reveal sources on a story involving Iran’s nuclear program, is apparently not in danger of running out of shocking, disillusioning and depressing material any time soon.

His latest parry, “Pay Any Price”, is a series of essays that looks at the aftermath of 9/11, including President Obama’s tenure. Here Risen doesn’t chronicle the convoluted hunt for al Qaeda, but instead focuses on also convoluted and sometimes astounding examples of waste, abuses of power, and war profiteering happening inside U.S. government agencies and the private sector that serves them.

“Greed and power are always a dangerous combination,” Risen bluntly states in the book’s prologue. “In wartime, power expands and greed can easily follow.”

Risen documents abuses of every kind, in one institution after the next, ranging from not millions but BILLIONS of Treasury Department-sanctioned U.S. dollars (conveniently shrink-wrapped onto pallets) flown into, and then stolen from, Iraq; various bogus technologies sold by the same shady contractor to the CIA and then to U.S. Special Operations Command; suspicious manipulation of a class-action lawsuit for the families of 9/11 victims; and a series of soldiers electrocuted in shoddy showers in Iraq and the military contractors and officials who turned a blind eye to a soldier's protesting mother.

The individual abuses he highlights in this book — and he suggests that, as outrageous as they are, they are mere “examples” — form the central argument that there is way too much cash, and not nearly enough thought and oversight, in the U.S.’s strategy to protect itself. The shock and horror of 9/11 has, in turn, created a large and powerful economic caste, one that has the momentum and motivation to keep going at seemingly any cost, including accomplishing the opposite of its original mission.

“Crazy became the new normal in the war on terror,” says Risen, “and the original objectives of the war got lost in the process.”

It is difficult to pick the most disturbing story — each is awful in its own distinct way — and it’s likely that other reporters, or Risen himself, will follow them as they continue to unfold. But the book’s last section, “The War on Truth”, highlights perhaps the most worrisome trend outlined in the book: the rise in state-sanctioned spying and secrecy.

The initiatives that began in haste under President Bush were expected by many, including Risen, to be rolled back or completely reversed under President Obama. But that is not what happened.

“Of all the abuses America has suffered at the hands of the government in its endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth,” writes Risen. “On the one hand, the executive branch has vastly expanded what it wants to know: something of a vast gathering of previously private truths. On the other hand, it has ruined lives to stop the public from gaining any insight into its dark arts, waging a war on truth.”

Risen chronicles the lives of a series of whistleblowers, all of whom were deeply concerned about what they considered to be the blatant unconstitutional overreaching of the NSA’s spying platforms, and who have suffered the wrath of a system that does not take kindly to being questioned or challenged.

Before Edward Snowden’s vast NSA leak, there were others who tried to report its secret domestic spying mission, and Risen highlights, among others, the story of Diane Roark, who he calls “perhaps the most courageous whistleblower of the post-9/11 era”.

Diane Roark was a staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence assigned to handle oversight of the NSA, and had worked there since the mid-1980s. When she discovered that the NSA was spying on the domestic population, Risen writes, Roark knew she had to do something about it. She approached the committee to which she belonged, a member of the court that is supposed to oversee electronic surveillance in national security cases, the Justice Department, someone in the CIA, and an aide to then Vice President Dick Cheney, and anyone else she could think of.

“Increasingly depressed, she realized that she was fighting the entire Washington power structure,” writes Risen. “She had gone to all three branches of government — Congress, the White House, and the courts — and has discovered that there was a conspiracy of silence among the nation’s most powerful public officials to protect an unconstitutional operation.”

Out of options, Roark moved back to Oregon in 2003 to work on a start-up project and begin her retirement. A few years later in 2007, she realized that she had indeed initiated an investigation, but instead of being directed at the NSA, it was aimed squarely at her. The FBI spent five hours raiding her home and carried away fifteen boxes of her things, including her computer. At least by then she had already retired, whereas other whistleblowers also lost their jobs or reputations. But they all shared in the bitterness of having been betrayed by the same institutions to which they had devoted a large part of their working lives.

In the coda of this book, Risen writes that neither is he immune to the same forces he outlines, and offers an overview of when the government came after him for not giving up his sources, lawsuit still pending.

“In 2009, when the new Obama administration continued the government’s legal campaign against me,” writes Risen, “I realized, in a very personal way, that the war on terror has become a bipartisan enterprise.”

“America was now locked into an endless war,” he concludes, “and its perverse and unintended consequences were spreading.”

And along with that statement, Risen leaves us with the sinking feeling that these issues are far from resolved, and that the worst may be yet to come.