Tuesday, February 14, 2006

State of War, by James Risen

Here's something that you probably haven't heard before: in 2000, President Clinton approved a disastrous espionage operation that involved delivering a faulty nuclear roadmap to Iran. When the operation got underway, it became clear that the plan's flaws were easily recognized and corrected. The CIA proceeded with the operation anyway, and as a result, the U.S. helped speed along Iran's nuclear ambitions.

State of War is a highly readable, fascinating book, with scoops and insights beyond the FISA evasions that made news in the Times. It has plenty of insider gossip -- including a tense phone call between George W. Bush and his father over the direction of U.S. foreign policy -- and accounts about the bureaucratic infighting that accompanied the Iraq War. According to the book, Rumsfeld is a master of bureaucratic infighting, and has brazenly ignored the orders of the President; Condoleezza Rice is an incompetent manager whose career has advanced only because of her closeness to the president; and the intelligence that fed the Iraq War was not only faulty, but virtually non-existant.

A few highlights:
  • George W. Bush questioned whether pain medication should be given to detainees.
  • A former top CIA official describes Rice "as probably the worst national security advisor in history," who abdicated her responsibilities to Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
  • Young CIA officials promoted a plan to sink a ferry carrying luxury goods for Saddam and his inner circle, and use the ferry's existence as a pretext for war. When this plan was presented to CIA station chiefs at a London meeting, the station chiefs realized that "they were just grasping at crazy ideas."
  • In the months leading up to the war, CIA officials sent U.S. Iraqis on secret missions to Iraq to see whether family members had knowledge of a nuclear program, in a last ditch effort to find pro-war intelligence. The operation made clear that there was no Iraqi nuclear program, but the CIA proceeded to assert that a weapons program was ongoing. This information was deliberately concealed from the president.
  • Washington has actively permitted Afghanistan to develop its heroin supply trade in order to curry favor with local warlords.
  • The U.S. did not act on its most promising leads concerning bin Ladin's funding, either out of incompetence or in an effort to protect the Saudi royals.
  • Saudi intellgience tipped off Al Qaeda operatives to U.S. phone monitoring operations.
Risen, who reports on intelligence for the Times, has put together a book that not only reads like a thriller, but depicts a war on terror undermined by incompetence and knowing deceptions. State of War is the cynical cousin of James Mann's more evenhanded The Rise of the Vulcans, and a more readable, gossipy counterpart to Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command. I highly recommend it.

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