Pranking the CIA: The New Get-Rich-Quick Story

When New York Times reporter James Risen published his previous book, State of War, the Times ended its delay of over a year and published his article on warrantless spying rather than be scooped by the book. The Times claimed it hadn’t wanted to influence the 2004 presidential election by informing the public of what the President was doing. But this week a Times editor said on 60 Minutes that the White House had warned him that a terrorist attack on the United States would be blamed on the Times if one followed publication — so it may be that the Times’ claim of contempt for democracy was a cover story for fear and patriotism. The Times never did report various other important stories in Risen’s book.

One of those stories, found in the last chapter, was that of Operation Merlin — possibly named because only reliance on magic could have made it work — in which the CIA gave nuclear weapon plans to Iran with a few obvious changes in them. This was supposedly supposed to somehow slow down Iran’s nonexistent efforts to build nuclear weapons. Risen explained Operation Merlin on Democracy Now this week and was interviewed about it by 60 Minutes which managed to leave out any explanation of what it was.  The U.S. government is prosecuting Jeffrey Sterling for allegedly being the whistleblower who served as a source for Risen, and subpoenaing Risen to demand that he reveal his source(s).

The Risen media blitz this week accompanies the publication of his new book, Pay Any Price. Risen clearly will not back down. This time he’s made his dumbest-thing-the-CIA-did-lately story the second chapter rather than the last, and even the New York Times has already mentioned it. We’re talking about a “torture works,” “Iraq has WMDs,” “let’s all stare at goats” level of dumbness here. We’re talking about the sort of thing that would lead the Obama administration to try to put somebody in prison. But it’s not clear there’s a secret source to blame this time, and the Department of So-Called Justice is already after Sterling and Risen.

Sterling, by the way, is unheard of by comparison with Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden or the other whistleblowers Risen reports on in his new book. The public, it seems, doesn’t make a hero of a whistleblower until after the corporate media has made the person famous as an alleged traitor. Sterling, interestingly, is a whistleblower who could only be called a “traitor” if it were treason to expose treason, since people who think in those terms almost universally will view handing nuclear plans to Iran as treason. In other words, he’s immune from the usual attack, but stuck at the first-they-ignore-you stage because there’s no corporate interest in telling the Merlin story.

So what’s the new dumbness from Langley? Only this: a gambling-addicted computer hack named Dennis Montgomery who couldn’t sell Hollywood or Las Vegas on his software scams, such as his ability to see content in videotape not visible to the naked eye, sold the CIA on the completely fraudulent claim that he could spot secret al Qaeda messages in broadcasts of the Al Jazeera television network. To be fair, Montgomery says the CIA pushed the idea on him and he ran with it. And not only did the CIA swallow his hooey, but so did the principals committee, the membership of which was, at least for a time: Vice President Dick Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, So-Called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Tenet plays his usual role as dumber-than-a-post bureaucrat in Risen’s account, but John Brennan is noted as having been involved in the Dennis Montgomery lunacy as well. The Bush White House grounded international flights as a result of Montgomery’s secret warnings of doom, and seriously considered shooting planes out of the sky.

When France demanded to see the basis for grounding planes, it quickly spotted a steaming pile of crottin de cheval and let the U.S. know. So, the CIA moved on from Montgomery. And Montgomery moved on to other contracts working on other horse droppings for the Pentagon. And nothing shocking there. “A 2011 study by the Pentagon,” Risen points out, “found that during the ten years after 9/11, the Defense Department had given more than $400 billion to contractors who had previously been sanctioned in cases involving $1 million or more in fraud.” And Montgomery was not sanctioned. And we the people who enriched him with millions weren’t told he existed. Nothing unusual there either. Secrecy and fraud are the new normal in the story Risen tells, detailing the fraudulent nature of drone murder profiteers, torture profiteers, mercenary profiteers, and even fear profiteers — companies hired to generate hysteria. So forcefully has the dumping of money into militarism been divorced in public discourse from the financial burden it entails that Risen is able to quote Linden Blue, vice chairman of General Atomics, criticizing people who take money from the government. He means poor people who take tiny amounts of money for their basic needs, not drone makers who get filthy rich off the pretense that drones make the world safer.

The root of the problem, as Risen sees it, is that the military and the homeland security complex have been given more money than they can reasonably figure out what to do with. So, they unreasonably figure out what to do with it. This is compounded, Risen writes, by fear so extreme that people don’t want to say no to anything that might possibly work even in their wildest dreams — or what Dick Cheney called the obligation to invest in anything with a 1% chance. Risen told Democracy Now that military spending reminded him of the Wall Street banks. In his book he argues that the big war profiteers have been deemed too big to fail.

Risen tells several stories in Pay Any Price, including the story of the pallets of cash. Of $20 billion shipped to Iraq in $100 bills, he writes, $11.7 billion is unaccounted for — lost, stolen, misused, or dumped into a failed attempt to buy an election for Ayad Allawi. Risen reports that some $2 billion of the missing money is actually known to be sitting in a pile in Lebanon, but the U.S. government has no interest in recovering it. After all, it’s just $2 billion, and the military industrial complex is sucking down $1 trillion a year from the U.S. treasury.

When Risen, like everyone else, cites the cost of recent U.S. wars ($4 trillion over a decade, he says), I’m always surprised that nobody notices that it is the wars that justify the “regular” “base” military spending of another $10 trillion each decade at the current pace.  I also can’t believe Risen actually writes that “to most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable.” What? Of course it’s extremely profitable for certain people who exert inordinate influence on the government. But “most of America”? Many (not most) people in the U.S. have jobs in the war industry, so it’s common to imagine that spending on war and preparations for war benefits an economy. In reality, spending those same dollars on peaceful industries, on education, on infrastructure, or even on tax cuts for working people would produce more jobs and in most cases better paying jobs — with enough savings to help everyone make the transition from war work to peace work. Military spending radically increases inequality and diverts funding from services that people in many less-militarized nations have. I also wish that Risen had managed to include a story or two from that group making up 95% of U.S. war victims: the people of the places where the wars are waged.

But Risen does a great job on veterans of U.S. torture suffering moral injury, on the extensiveness of waterboarding’s use, and on a sometimes comical tale of the U.S. government’s infiltration of a lawsuit by 9/11 families against possible Saudi funders of 9/11 — a story, part of which is given more context in terms of its impact in Afghanistan in Anand Gopal’s recent book.  There’s even a story with some similarity to Merlin regarding the possible sale of U.S.-made drones to U.S. enemies abroad.

These SNAFU collection books have to be read with an eye on the complete forest, of course, to avoid the conclusion that what we need is war done right or — for that matter — Wall Street done right. We don’t need a better CIA but a government free of the CIA. That the problems described are not essentially new is brought to mind, for me, in reading Risen’s book, by the repeated references to Dulles Airport.  Still, it is beginning to look as if the Dulles brothers aren’t just a secretive corner of the government anymore, but the patron saints of all Good Americans. And that’s frightening. Secrecy is allowing insanity, and greater secrecy is being employed to keep the insanity secret. How can it be a “State Secret” that the CIA fell for a scam artist who pretended to see magical messages on Al Jazeera? If Obama’s prosecution of whistleblowers doesn’t alert people to the danger, at least it is helping sell Jim Risen’s books, which in turn ought to wake people up better than a middle-of-the-night visit in the hospital from Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card.

There’s still a thin facade of decency to be found in U.S. political culture. Corrupt Iraqi politicians, in Risen’s book, excuse themselves by saying that the early days of the occupation in 2003 were difficult. A New York Times editor told 60 Minutes that the first few years after 9/11 were just not a good time for U.S. journalism. These should not be treated as acceptable excuses for misconduct. As the earth’s climate begins more and more to resemble a CIA operation, we’re going to have nothing but difficult moments. Already the U.S. military is preparing to address climate change with the same thing it uses to address Ebola or terrorism or outbreaks of democracy. If we don’t find people able to think on their feet, as Risen does while staring down the barrel of a U.S. prison sentence, we’re going to be in for some real ugliness.

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