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FDL Book Salon Welcomes James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War

Welcome James Risen (NYTimes) (Twitter) and Host Tim Shorrock ( (Twitter)

Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War

After reading James Risen’s tour de force PAY ANY PRICE, I went right to my computer and tweeted this:

Every chapter of @JamesRisen’s book makes me shake my head in wonder at the moral abyss this country is in. Money and power saps our souls.

From his opening story about the vast shipments of cash to Iraq in the early days of the U.S. invasion to his final chapter on the U.S. government’s attacks on Diane Rourk and the four NSA whistleblowers, Risen paints a brilliant but tragic portrait of a country gone mad with power and greed during the 12 years of the Bush-Obama “war on terror.”

His stories are culled from many years of deep reporting, including his explosive revelations in 2005 of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program. They provide startling new evidence of how the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear and government intimidation allowed an entire generation of American officials, intelligence officers, contractors, psychologists and propagandists to defy U.S. and international law and turn the United States into a global ethical pariah.

As the author of Spies for Hire, the first and still the only book about the phenomenon of intelligence outsourcing, I was struck (and pleased) by Risen’s focus on the vast amounts of money sloshing through the National Security State. This may be the first book that really captures the frenzy of profit-making that has gripped Washington since the early days of the war on terror and continues to blind and corrupt the nation’s elite and much of the media.

“Greed and power are always a dangerous combination,” Risen writes in his prologue. “In wartime, power expands and greed can easily follow. The more our counter-terrorism infrastructure has grown, the hardest it has become to control.”

America, he says, “has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society – including many poor and rural teenagers – fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks, and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable, and so there is no longer any great incentive to end it.”

He calls it “the new homeland security industrial complex” and notes that its members would “make no money if they determine the threat is overblown.”

Endless war, for profit: that’s an astounding charge. Each chapter of PAY ANY PRICE brings out a little more of the story. It adds up to an incredible indictment of a society driven completely off the tracks by a sick combination of hubris and greed.

His first chapter, “Pallets of Cash,” focuses on the Bush administration’s export of billions of dollars of cash from the blandly named East Rutherford Operations Center of the Federal Reserve Bank to Iraq in the early stages of the war.

This treasure trove of cash becomes a sad and sickening symbol of the US invasion of Iraq: much of the money ends up in the pockets of American hustlers on the scene and in caves in southern Lebanon, where favored Iraqis continue to dip into it. Risen calls it “one of the biggest acts of thievery in history,” and rightly calls the US enterprise in Iraq a “vast kleptocracy.” It’s all run by a motley crew of “Republican ideologues” and “freebooters,” who try (and utterly fail) to reshape Iraq along the lines of their image of a “free market” society.

Yet there is no accounting for this theft from US taxpayers. Nobody in power even bothers asking questions. Congress looks the other way.

The story that I found most amazing concerns the gambler and hustler from Reno, Dennis Montgomery. After 9/11 he creates a company called eTreppid Technologies that, he claims, can determine hidden objects and messages in video; Al Jazeera’s broadcasts, he tells the government, are loaded with secret directives from Al Qaeda that only the cognoscenti can read. Risen determines that, in fact, that eTreppid is “one of the most elaborate and dangerous hoaxes in US history.”

Yet somehow Montgomery is able to convince the highest ranks of the CIA, the Air Force, and the Special Operations Command to give him millions of dollars in contracts (the CIA sees it as “an opportunity to get in the game.”) With the backing of high-ranking officials like Donald Kerr, once the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, and the CIA’s George Tenet and John Brennan, President Bush is convinced of the authenticity of this amazing but totally fraudulent technology. And when the CIA is convinced that the “messages” embedded in Al Jazeera are telling jihadists to blow up US airplanes, Bush cancels several international flights and comes close to shooting down civilian airplanes.

But again, there is no accountability and no questions asked; the secrets are carefully hidden, and everybody involved is promoted and gets rich. The kleptocracy continues in numbing detail as the war profits accumulate with “the new oligarchs,” as Risen calls them: General Atomics, the drone maker; CACI, the home to privatized torture; Veritas Capital, the maker of timely investments in DynCorp and other profiteering contractors. Meanwhile, institutions that are supposed to promote ethical standards and protect the public interest, such as the American Psychological Association, bend their rules to allow members to participate in torture sessions. And Congressional leaders and oversight committees refuse to listen to whistleblowers – including their own Diane Rourk – trying to warn the country about the NSA’s massive abuse of power.

But while these stories are shocking, they bring up the question: Why? How did this happen to us? That’s where I want to begin today’s session.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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