Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Book review--State of War

While anonymous sources are usually not part of a historian's bibliography, sometimes when writing on subjects that involve current events, and especially when writing "insider" works designed to expose illegal or just plain ignorant acts, these are the only sources available. And when the history being written is that of the Bush Administration's culpability in ignoring and cherry-picking the intelligence reports that they used to influence public opinion on the matter of what our nation should do after 9/11, it becomes quite clear that only anonymous sources--or those willing to commit career suicide--would be willing to disclose their knowledge and opinions.
That being said, I was quite surprised how many people actually go on the record in James Risen's account of the CIA's role in providing intelligence to Smirky and the gang. State of War reveals just how much intelligence was ignored (or simply conveniently and cynically disregarded) not just by the higher-ups in the intelligence community or the Administration, but also by the rank-and-file operatives in the CIA. Risen details how Smirky, Rummy, George Tenet, and anyone else in a position of power fostered an entire culture of self-censorship among the organization's analysts and intel gatherers. Inconvenient truths, such as the fact that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons programs, as well as his biological and chemical weapons efforts, had been destroyed (almost completely inadvertently) at the time of the first Gulf War, as proven by UN inspections during the 1990s--they found nothing not because Saddam was proficient at hiding them, but because there was nothing to find!--were simply allowed to be swept under the rug in favor of unreliable/hysterical/unsubstantiated rumors and planted stories by interested parties (think Chalabi).
One of the most remarkable chapters in Risen's book contains the story of Sawsan Alhaddad, an Iraqi-born American citizen pressed into undercover service by the CIA. Sawsan was sent back to Iraq in 2002 to interview her brother Saad Tawfiq, who had been one of the scientists working on Saddam's nuclear program. Saad impressed upon Sawsan the utter incoherence of the CIA's line of questioning, which had to do with the location and inner workings of Saddam's current WMD programs, insisting that no such programs existed:

Sawsan tried to continue with her list of questions, but they all seemed to Saad to be the product of some fantasy. 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. (pg. 103)

That Sawsan's report was completely ignored by her handlers reveals the sickness that had taken hold of the CIA by 2002.
Risen's account jibes with Bamford's A Pretext for War (which I reviewed here), another "insider" account of the failure of our intelligence agencies. Both books tell the same story of utter incompetence, but Risen provides an actual rationale for those agents who refused to do their jobs properly--whistleblowers were not only ignored, but censured and exiled within the organization. Smirky and his goons simply didn't want to hear any reports or evidence that didn't fit their agenda (as the "Downing Street Memos" allude to). As the saying goes, "a fish stinks from the head"--no one with an interest in retaining their position (or even their paycheck) was able to do their job properly for fear of reprisal from above. This air of fear and willful ignorance does not excuse these agents for their complicity in our war crimes, I would argue, but it does help us place the blame where it belongs: squarely at the feet of Smirky and his cabinet.


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