Tag Archives for " national security "

National security or insecurity?

national securityBravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden by Mark Hertsgaard

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Since 2013, when Edward Snowden released a flood of classified data from the National Security Agency to the public eye, whistle-blowers have come under increased scrutiny. Snowden’s courageous act has highlighted the earlier efforts of other men and women whose names are familiar to many Americans: Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), Frank Serpico (NYPD), Jeffrey Wigand (tobacco), Karen Silkwood (nuclear industry), Coleen Rowley (FBI – 9/11),  Sherron Watkins (Enron), and Chelsea Manning (Wikileaks). As Mark Hertsgaard makes clear in his study of contemporary whistle-blowing in the U.S. government, Bravehearts, we owe a great deal to these brave people, who have helped keep democracy alive in America. However, he makes clear that these high-profile cases are among those involving hundreds of other men and women who have brought to light wrongdoing both in government and in private industry over the past several decades.

National security or insecurity?

Though whistle-blowers come to light in corporations as well as government agencies, Hertsgaard’s focus in Bravehearts is on those who have worked in the federal government. Much of his information comes from a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization, the Government Accountability Project, known as GAP. The author himself witnessed GAP’s creation in 1978 as a project of the Institute of Policy Studies, and he has reported on its findings on several occasions in the years since then.

One constant them in Hertsgaard’s book, and in GAP’s work in general, is a pattern of retaliation that almost invariably greets any well-meaning whistle-blower. Those who go through channels to report lawbreaking are typically fired and sometimes subjected to far worse. Those who go public in hopes of avoiding the harsh treatment that has greeted so many of their predecessors typically receive the harshest treatment. For example, as Hertsgaard points out, it’s not just Edward Snowden who has borne the brunt of the government’s antipathy. “The Obama administration has brought charges against seven whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act, far more than any previous administration has charged.” Given the importance of what came to light as a result of Snowden’s disclosures, it’s important to ask whether his act made the American people less secure, or more so. I believe, as Hertsgaard clearly does as well, that national security in a democracy must rest on the rule of law. It was lawbreaking that led Snowden to do what he has done. The same is true of so many others cited by the author in this superb little book. Without question, we are more secure as a result rather than less.

Why do they do it?

In explaining the motivation that leads whistle-blowers to act, Hertsgaard quotes Thomas Devine, GAP’s long-time legal director: “Whistle-blowers don’t start out as dissidents. Usually, they are the ones who believe most strongly in the institution where they work. That’s why they speak out — to help the institution live up to its mission. It’s the indifference and retaliation from management many whistle-blowers face that can turn them into dissidents.”

Hertsgaard’s book comes to grip with a question that no doubt has puzzled many Americans: why did he do what he did how he did it? Why did he go public instead of going through channels, as President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton belatedly (and, I believe, disingenuously) suggested he should have done?

In answering this question, the author cites the experiences of two other whistle-blowers in the national security community: Thomas Drake and John Crane. Like Snowden, the former was employed at the National Security Agency though in a much more senior position. He tried to blow the whistle on the same illegal practices that Snowden successfully brought to light only many years later. His mistake was to go through channels; the result was that he was fired, stripped of his federal pension, indicted and threatened with prison, the FBI raided his home at gunpoint, his security clearance was removed, and he became unemployable to the extent that “he was reduced to clerking at an Apple store” in suburban Maryland.

Crane, whose “testimony [is] published here for the first time,” was the assistant inspector general of the Department of Defense in charge of supervising the Department’s whistle-blower office. When he acted as expected and took his complaints about Drake’s shabby treatment to his superiors, he was ordered to shut down his investigation and identify Drake to the FBI. “To his horror, Crane watched as Drake and . . . four other NSA whistle-blowers were secretly ratted out to the Justice Department and then had their homes raided at gunpoint by federal agents.” As GAP’s Tom Devine explained, “Crane was our fly on the wall, letting us understand after the fact what really happened to Drake.” Hertsgaard notes: “Crane’s account illuminates how a system that in theory is supposed to protect whistle-blowing can in practice do just the opposite, a lesson Snowden took to heart when planning his own disclosures.”

About the author

Mark Hertsgaard is best known as the author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and as the environmental correspondent for The Nation. Bravehearts is his seventh book. Six years ago, he published Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, a discussion of the consequences of climate change that I reviewed in this spot.

The secret history of cyber war

cyber warDark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War by Fred Kaplan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Occasionally, I come across a book on an important topic that’s crammed with information I was able to find nowhere else — but is a chore to read. Even though it is not an academic study but clearly intended for a general audience, Fred Kaplan’s recent history of cyber war, Dark Territory, is one such book.

A story stretching over five decades

Unlike previous treatments that I’ve read about the topic, which zero in on the vulnerability of the American economy to attacks through cyberspace, Dark Territory traces the history of our government’s slowly growing awareness of the threat, beginning nearly half a century ago. Then, a prescient Pentagon scientist wrote a paper warning about the dangers inherent in computer networks. Apparently, though, no one in a position to do anything about it paid much attention to him.

Kaplan identifies an incident fully fifteen years later in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan — a movie fan, of course — saw the film War Games. He queried the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a top-level White House meeting whether it was possible for a teenager like the one portrayed in the film by Matthew Broderick to hack into sensitive Pentagon computers. When the chairman, General John Vessey, reported some time later that the feat was in fact possible, Reagan called for and later signed the government’s first policy directive on the topic of cyber war. But that, too, led to no significant change at the Pentagon or anywhere else in the federal government.

Dark Territory is filled with revealing anecdotes like this, based on what surely was top-secret information not long ago. Kaplan reveals many little-known details about the Russian cyber war on Estonia and Ukraine, the Chinese Army’s prodigious hacking of American corporations and the Pentagon, the massive North Korean assault on Sony, Iran’s disabling of 20,000 computers in Sheldon Adelson’s casino empire, and the successful US-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Kaplan also reveals the reason why US complaints about China’s cyber attacks have fallen on deaf ears: it turns out that the National Security Agency is attacking the Chinese government in much the same way. As The Guardian revealed in 2013, “the NSA had launched more than 61,000 cyber operation, including attacks on hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and mainland China.”

The book casts a particularly harsh light on the Administration of George W. Bush. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other senior officials in the early 2000s cavalierly dismissed urgent reports from national security and intelligence officials that the threat of cyber war, and the vulnerability of the US economy, were growing at an alarming rate. Only under Bush’s successor did reality strongly take hold. As Kaplan writes, “During Barack Obama’s presidency, cyber warfare took off, emerging as one of the few sectors in the defense budget that soared while others stayed stagnant or declined.”

It’s difficult to understand how anyone who was awake could have failed to grasp the problem. For example, a war game conducted in 1997 was intended to test the vulnerability of the Pentagon’s computer systems within two weeks. “But the game was over — the entire defense establishment’s network was penetrated — in four days. The National Military Command Center — the facility that would transmit orders from the president of the United States in wartime — was hacked on the first day. And most of the officers manning those servers didn’t even know they’d been hacked.” Not long afterwards, the Pentagon was hacked in a similar way by two 16-year-old boys in San Francisco. And when national security officials widened the scope of their attention to encompass the country’s critical civilian infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, they were shocked to discover that the situation was far worse. The Pentagon eventually bowed to the warnings and implemented needed security measures. But private corporations blatantly refused to do so because they didn’t want to spend the money — and Congress declined to allow the federal government to make security measures obligatory.

Unfortunately, Kaplan’s book is poorly organized. It’s roughly structured along chronological lines but jumps back and forth through time with such regularity as to be dizzying. And it’s crammed so full of the names of sometimes obscure government officials and military officers that it becomes even more difficult to follow the thread of the story.

However, these challenges aside, a picture clearly emerges from Dark Territory: For decades the American public has been at the mercy of incompetent and  pigheaded people in sensitive positions in the government, the military, and private industry — and we still are. Bureaucratic games proliferate. Politics intrude. Inter-service rivalries abound. Personal grudges get in the way. Repeatedly, some of those who are entrusted with the security of the American people make what even at the time could easily be seen as stupid decisions.

Other takes on cyber war

Last year I read and reviewed a book titled Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, by Marc Goodman. I described it as “the scariest book I’ve read in years.”

Five years earlier, I read Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake. From the early 1970s until George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Clarke filled high-level national security positions under seven Presidents, so he knows whereof he writes. (He resigned in protest over the invasion of Iraq, which he thought distracted the government from the real threats facing the country.) Not long afterward, I read and reviewed Worm: The First Digital World War, by Mark Bowden, a much more focused treatment of the topic — a case study, really — but equally unsettling.

Though less current, all three of these books are better organized and more readable than Dark Territory. Admittedly, though, Kaplan’s book reveals the history that is only hinted at in the others.

About the author

Fred Kaplan wrote five previous books about the nuclear arms race and other topics bearing on US national security. He was on a team at the Boston Globe in 1983 that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the nuclear arms race.

You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17.

December 22, 2014

Who makes national security decisions? Not the President!

national security decisions: National Security and Double Government by Michael J. GlennonNational Security and Double Government by Michael J. Glennon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Why does Barack Obama’s performance on national security issues in the White House contrast so strongly with his announced intentions as a candidate in 2008? After all, not only has Obama continued most of the Bush policies he decried when he ran for the presidency, he has doubled down on government surveillance, drone strikes, and other critical programs.

Michael J. Glennon set out to answer this question in his unsettling new book, National Security and Double Government. And he clearly dislikes what he found.

The answer, Glennon discovered, is that the US government is divided between the three official branches of the government, on the one hand — the “Madisonian” institutions incorporated into the Constitution — and the several hundred unelected officials who do the real work of a constellation of military and intelligence agencies, on the other hand. These officials, called “Trumanites” in Glennon’s parlance for having grown out of the national security infrastructure established under Harry Truman, make the real decisions in the area of national security. (To wage the Cold War, Truman created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the NSA, and the National Security Council.) “The United States has, in short,” Glennon writes, “moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system — a structure of double government — in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy. . . . The perception of threat, crisis, and emergency has been the seminal phenomenon that has created and nurtures America’s double government.” If Al Qaeda hadn’t existed, the Trumanite network would have had to create it — and, Glennon seems to imply, might well have done so.

The Trumanites wield their power with practiced efficiency, using secrecy, exaggerated threats, peer pressure to conform, and the ability to mask the identity of the key decision-maker as their principal tools.

Michael J. Glennon comes to this task with unexcelled credentials. A professor of international law at Tufts and former legal counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee, he came face to face on a daily basis with the “Trumanites” he writes about. National Security and Double Government is exhaustively researched and documented: notes constitute two-thirds of this deeply disturbing little book.

The more I learn about how politics and government actually work — and I’ve learned a fair amount in my 73 years — the more pessimistic I become about the prospects for democracy in America. In some ways, this book is the most worrisome I’ve read over the years, because it implies that there is no reason whatsoever to think that things can ever get better. In other words, to borrow a phrase from the Borg on Star Trek, “resistance is futile.” That’s a helluva takeaway, isn’t it?

On reflection, what comes most vividly to mind is a comment from the late Chalmers Johnson on a conference call in which I participated several years ago. Johnson, formerly a consultant to the CIA and a professor at two campuses of the University of California (Berkeley and later San Diego), was the author of many books, including three that awakened me to many of the issues Michael Glennon examines: Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis. Johnson, who was then nearly 80 and in declining health, was asked by a student what he would recommend for young Americans who want to combat the menace of the military-industrial complex. “Move to Vancouver,” he said.

The mounting evidence notwithstanding, I just hope it hasn’t come to that.

Consider checking out my earlier post, 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics, of which this book is one.


Edward Snowden in context: the inside story

Edward Snowden: The Snowden Files by Luke Harding

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When the news broke late in May 2013 about a junior contract employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) who had fled to Hong Kong with a collection of top secret documents about US intelligence practices in his possession, I didn’t pay a great deal of attention. Nor did I think much of it when the first stories surfaced in the Guardian and the Washington Post that were based on the purloined documents. The headlines merely seemed to confirm what we in the public had learned from previous disclosures about widespread surveillance of US citizens by the NSA.

Then subsequent articles began making clear the previously unknown scope, depth, and character of the NSA’s prodigious abilities to scoop up unprecedented volumes of communications data all across the globe. I was shocked to learn that the US government had bugged the personal cellphones of Angela Merkel, Enrique Pena Nieto, Dilma Roussef, and dozens of other world leaders. My eyes bugged out when I discovered that the NSA was stealing all the data that coursed through the cables used by Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and other Internet companies. And I did a double-take when I learned that the NSA wasn’t alone in this global data-mining endeavor — that Britain’s GCHQ and their counterpart agencies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were all in business together under an agreement known as “Five Eyes.”

Enter Edward Snowden

Now, having read Luke Harding’s terrific new book, The Snowden Files, I know how much worse the problem is.

As Harding writes, “[p]aradoxically, in its quest to make Americans more secure, the NSA has made American communications less secure; it has undermined the safety of the entire internet” by inserting a “back door” into the encryption software used to protect personal and corporate data such as health records and financial transactions.

Clearly, these developments aren’t simply isolated events in a tale of a bureaucracy exceeding its brief (as bureaucracies are wont to do). In a larger sense, what Edward Snowden brought to light is that the governments of two of the world’s leading democracies acted more like dictatorships. Rather than clamp down on the rogue agencies that lied to conceal their most outrageous missteps even from senior elected officials, their leaders instead rushed to defend them to the hilt. Simultaneously, the US government used all available resources to track down Snowden and put him on trial for treason. Senior officials in the British government accused the Guardian of treason, too, and even at one point forced its staff to smash to bits the computers that were holding the files transferred from Snowden.

Treason? Really?

One of the most revealing episodes in this sad drama was the claim by General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency, that the wholesale data-scooping had enabled the NSA to stop 54 terrorist plots. As Harding notes, “Alexander’s deputy Chris Inglis subsequently conceded that only about a dozen of these plots had any connection to the US homeland. Then he said that just one of them might have been disrupted as a result of mass surveillance of Americans. (He was also ambiguous as to whether the plots were real ‘plots;’ some of the citations he gave had more to do with financial transactions.)”

So, a four-star US general accountable for the actions of his 40,000-person agency publicly distorted the truth — almost certainly knowing what he was doing — and got off scot-free, while the person who brought to light his agency’s illegal and unconstitutional activities was charged with treason! How can this possibly make sense in a democracy?

Yet there are even broader implications to this story.

The surveillance state and the future of democracy

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Barack Obama spoke sincerely in his 2008 campaign for the presidency when he promised to “strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and … harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.”

Contrast that with the president’s remarks in January 2014 on the subject of government surveillance, when he responded in a major address to the publication of the Snowden documents detailing massive privacy abuses by the NSA. He heralded a series of largely cosmetic changes in procedure but insisted “the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.”

In other words, candidate Obama pledged to turn back some of the egregious abuses of Americans’ civil liberties introduced by the Bush Administration — while president Obama unapologetically defended them, just as he had in 2010 by signing the renewal of the notorious Patriot Act.

To my mind, this blatant turnaround reflects two major aspects of the new reality that now characterizes American government: first, that the president is not an all-powerful chief executive but must routinely accept as fait accompli much that has become established practice in the federal government, no matter how he might feel about it; and, second, that the intelligence establishment, lavished with unlimited funds and highly permissive laws by decades of protective presidents and compliant congresses, has grown out of control.

What does that say about the future of democracy in America?

Think about it. Read The Snowden Files — if only because Luke Harding is an excellent writer. This book reads more like a thriller than a work of nonfiction, and it’s clearly based on extraordinary access to many of the principals in the story.

And if you want to delve more deeply into the present-day reality of the US intelligence establishment, read Top-Secret America by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, and The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti. Taken together, these three books paint a chilling picture of the intelligence establishment that has increasingly dominated America’s role in the world and, more recently, limited the scope of our freedom at home.

Consider checking out my earlier post, 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics, of which this book is one.



Five illuminating books every American should read

illuminating booksStop. I’m not going to make you feel guilty by suggesting you read the Federalist Papers, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travels in America, and other works on every historian’s list of seminal books in our past. (After all, how many of us have actually read those books — I mean, actually opened them up and read them from cover to cover?)

No, instead you’ll find below a short list of much more recently written books that cast a penetrating light on the reality of American life in the 21st Century. You won’t find any archaic language in any of these five books. I’ve chosen them from among the nearly 300 I’ve read and reviewed here during the past four years.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Read more . . .

1The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Are you aware that the highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as White? That the percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is 7.9%? That the greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of Bill Clinton?

Read more . . .


1The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

If you were among those who sighed with relief when Barack Obama was reelected because you’d been concerned that a Republican administration would invade Iran, David Crist has news for you. In fact, The Twilight War is full of surprises, even for one who stays relatively well informed about world affairs. The underlying message — the meta-message, if you’ll permit that conceit — is that what we normally consume on a daily basis as “news” is an awkward mixture of critical opinion, wishful thinking, rumor, partisan posturing, self-serving news leaks, and a smattering of hard information.

Read more . . . 

10The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

[Editor’s note: This review was written in 2010, but it could easily apply to 2014 as well.] Last week the Republican majority in the House of Representatives passed a budget that slashes taxes for corporations and high-income taxpayers while drastically cutting federal assistance for food and other safety-net programs. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic expression of contemporary “conservative” ideology. It’s straight out of Atlas Shrugged,based on the tragically misguided notion that brilliant, driven individuals produce the country’s wealth and are solely responsible for creating jobs for the rest of us.

Read more . . .

1All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Once upon a time, not so long ago, really — it was 1999 — there was a group of three exceedingly smart men whom Time Magazine called The Committee to Save the World. In fact, these three men — Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin — seemed to think they were the smartest people in the whole wide world. Together, they had put in place the economic policies of the Clinton Administration, and, boy, did things look rosy then, back in 1999, with a big budget surplus and the Dow Jones averages heading for Neptune!

Read more . . . 

Now, if you’re tempted to complain that all these five books take a negative view of the issues within their scope, all I can say is, if we can’t identify the problems we face, we’ll never fix them. And I doubt you’ll feel that there are no problems that cry out for fixing.


June 11, 2013

Concerned about NSA surveillance? Read this book!


NSA surveillanceTop Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Note: This review first appeared here on September 11, 2011 (yes, 9/11/11). In view of more recent news about the NSA’s Prism program and other widespread and long-standing efforts to amass personal information about the American public, I’m posting it again. This superb book deserves a far wider audience than it received in 2011.

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Even then — even if we somehow reined in the known alphabet agencies — we would only be scratching the surface. Here’s Priest writing about the work of her co-author: “After two years of investigating, Arkin had come up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States — all of them working at the top secret classification level.” There is an additional three thousand “state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions.”

Perhaps there’s one saving grace in this brouhaha of activity. Priest again: “Post 9/11, government agencies annually published some 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports under 1,500 titles, the classified equivalent of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Some were distributed daily; others came out once a week, monthly, or annually.” There is so much “information” generated by the counterterrorism establishment that senior managers frequently ignore it all and instead ask their aides to talk to people to find out what’s really meaningful.

Don’t be mollified by the belief that all this activity is carried out by designated intelligence agencies. The nation’s warriors have their own alphabet-soup of agencies, departments, and units devoted to the same ends. The Pentagon created a major new entity called the Northern Command headed by a four-star general (the military’s highest rank) to protect the “homeland.” However, the Northern Command has no troops of its own and, to take any action, must ask permission from the leaders of each state’s National Guard and other agencies on whom it depends for personnel.

Priest and Arkin clearly take a dim view of all this:

  • Many, if not all, of the Federal Government’s most closely guarded secrets are vulnerable to theft through simple file-sharing software installed on 20 million computers.
  • The Director of National Intelligence, a new position created in 2004 to coordinate the work of the 16 major U.S. intellgence agencies, possesses no power to do so and is frequently ignored by them. But his staff numbers in the thousands, and they hold forth from a new, 500,000-square foot office building.
  • The degree of duplication in the national security world is chilling. “Each large organization [engaged in counterterrorism] started its own training centers, supply depots, and transportation infrastructure. Each agency and subagency manned its own unit for hiding the identities of undercover employees and for creating cover names and addresses for them and for their most sensitive projects. Each ecosystem developed a set of regional and local offices.”
  • Duplication of effort runs so deep that there are three separate lists of “High Value Targets,” one each for the CIA, the Pentagon, and the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (the people who killed Bin Laden). And “at least thirty-four major federal agencies and military commands, operating in sixteen U.S. cities, tracked the money flow to and from terrorist networks.”

The depth and quality of Priest and Arkin’s research is unexcelled, and their writing is brisk and easy to read. The book benefits from the straightforward, first-person approach Priest adopted. It’s written largely from her point of view, with Arkin’s contributions as a researcher noted in the third person.

Dana Priest has reported for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. She won the George Polk Award in 2005 for reporting on secret CIA detention facilities and the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for uncovering black sites prisons. Her exposure of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital helped the Washington Post win another Pulitzer in 2007. She deserves another Pulitzer for this illuminating book.

Bill Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence in 1974 to 1978 and had worked as a consultant, political commentator, blogger, activist, and researcher for a number of progressive organizations before teaming up with Priest to write the widely-acclaimed series of Washington Post articles on which this book was based.

For my review of a book on a related topic, see When it comes to national security, do you really get what you pay for?

Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new CIA strategy

CIA strategyThe Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When Chou En-Lai, then #2 to Mao Tse-Tung, was asked for his perspective on the historical meaning of the French Revolution, he is said to have replied, “It’s too early to tell.”

As we’re beginning to understand now, George W. Bush engineered a revolution of a different sort in the misguided steps he took to “end terrorism” in the years following 9/11. The country’s military establishment gained trillions of dollars in new spending within a decade, and our intelligence agencies (16 of them at last count) mushroomed in size. Even more important, the White House profoundly changed the rules under which both the Pentagon and the CIA operated, layering onto an already bloated military-industrial complex additional hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to private companies, enabling the Pentagon to operate virtually at will, even in countries where the U.S. was not at war, and shifting the CIA’s strategy from gathering intelligence to “enhanced interrogation” to killing suspected terrorists — all without making changes in the Pentagon’s procurement policies to reflect the passing of the Cold War more than two decades ago.

In The Way of the Knife, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti sums up the situation as follows: “Prior to the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon did very little human spying, and the CIA was not officially permitted to kill. In the years since, each has done a great deal of both, and a military-intelligence complex has emerged to carry out the new American way of war.”

As Chou En-Lai would clearly agree, the long-term impact of these dramatic policy changes is impossible to see. Unmistakably, though, the values embodied in our Federal government changed under George W. Bush — and Barack Obama has continued on the same course into his second term, even stepping up the use of drones for targeted murder. This doesn’t bode well for a U.S. foreign and military policy supposedly grounded in humanistic assumptions.

Mark Mazzetti makes an important contribution to exploring the near-term consequences of one of these phenomena in The Way of the Knife, which dissects the massive shift in CIA priorities from the Clinton era to the Obama Administration. The “secret army” of the book’s subtitle is the CIA’s paramilitary capability that sends Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or, increasingly, mercenaries on secret missions around the world and uses drones to murder terrorist suspects. Mazzetti focuses much of his attention on the dysfunctional American relationship with Pakistan and to a lesser degree on the secret wars in Yemen and Somalia. However, he makes it clear that the U.S. is now conducting undeclared wars in a great many more countries — and hiding that information from the American public. “The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it,” Mazzetti writes. “But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations . . . “

In touching on the highlights of the CIA’s history from its founding after World War II to the present, Mazzetti reveals the agency’s schizophrenic attitude toward the use of calculated murder in its operations.

For many years, especially under the directorship of Allen Dulles in the 1950s, the CIA was little more than a reincarnation of its predecessor (where Dulles got his start), the OSS of “Wild Bill” Donovan. As we now know, the CIA was involved in overthrowing governments (Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, probably among others) and in frequent attempts to assassinate heads of state, including Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Nho Dinh Diem (South Vietnam), and Salvador Allende (Chile). When all this nefarious activity came to light in the 1970s in the landmark Senate hearings headed by Senator Frank Church, then-President Gerald Ford outlawed assassination and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which included most of the agency’s bad boys, was shackled by unsympathetic new directors named to clean up the mess.

By 2001, the OSS-inspired use of paramilitary operations and targeted killing that had dominated the CIA in its early years was ancient history to the new generation who had already advanced into positions of leadership. The radical course-shift demanded by the Bush White House turned the agency upside down again. And the dramatic expansion of the drone war by CIA director Leon Panetta (“the most influential CIA director since William Casey during the Reagan administration”) completed the transition of the agency into a paramilitary force.

The Way of the Knife is thoroughly researched and skillfully written by a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times. The book’s highlights include the protracted tales of several colorful figures caught up in the unfolding of the secret wars, including former top CIA official Dewey Clarridge, a Virginia horsewoman named Michele Ballarin, and several senior Pakistani intelligence operatives. If you’re interested in the ups and downs of the U.S. intelligence establishment, you’ll find this book just not essential reading but entertaining as well.

I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of other books on closely related topics in recent years. Among these are Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, and The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen. Top Secret America is the most dramatic and most important of this lot.

You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17.

A wrenching view of how the U.S. military fought the Vietnam War

Vietnam WarKill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

This is the first of two reviews of recent books that deal with the U.S. military at war. In a subsequent post, I’ll review The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by Jake Tapper, which presents a dramatically different perspective on the subject by focusing on one small American unit in the field in Afghanistan four decades later. 

If you were following the news in 1971, chances are you were aware at least dimly of the Winter Soldier investigation, when American soldiers, sailors, and marines testified to the atrocities they had witnessed, or even participated in, during their service in Vietnam. You may also have come across reports in newspapers and magazines from time to time about other war crimes committed by the U.S. military there. However, like most of us who followed news of the war only sporadically, you probably thought only about the 1968 My Lai Massacre whenever the subject of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam saw the light of day.

The frenzy of reporting and commentary on that single event was so voluminous that you may remember some of the names of those involved: Seymour Hersh, whose fame as an investigative reporter began with his disclosure of the massacre; Ron Ridenhour, the soldier whose persistent efforts finally succeeded in gaining a hearing; and Lt. William Calley, the only person convicted of criminal acts in connection with the massacre of more than 500 Vietnamese villagers.

My Lai was characterized by the Pentagon and the Nixon Administration as an aberration, the result of “a few bad apples” such as Calley. But it was nothing of the sort, as Nick Turse reminds us in his shattering new book, Kill Anything That Moves.

The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In 1969, the peak of U.S. engagement in Vietnam, more than 540,000 troops were serving there. As Turse notes, “Over the entire course of the conflict, the United States would deploy more than 3 million soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and sailors to Southeast Asia.”

As Turse illustrates, the reality of the war they experienced was far worse than even the most lurid mainstream reporting disclosed. Far from being an outlier, the My Lai Massacre was typical of the daily experience in much of the country for years on end, although no instance came to light in Turse’s research with nearly as many dead as the 500 who perished at My Lai. As Turse notes, “I’d thought I was looking for a needle in a haystack; what I found was a veritable haystack of needles . . . [A]trocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division — that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”

Turse displays his findings in heart-wrenching and ultimately numbing detail. However, his major contribution in Kill Anything That Moves is to explain why so very many U.S. troops participated in the virtually indiscriminate murder of Vietnamese civilians. It was all a matter of policy set at the highest levels. 

The war, and war planning, were grounded in the racist assumptions underlying the emphasis on the “body count.” Turse: “[E]verything came down to the ‘body count’ — the preeminent statistic that served in those years as both the military’s scorecard and its raison d’etre.” When senior officers rated junior officers on the numbers of “enemy” dead they reported, junior officers demanded that enlisted men “kill anything that moves” in the belief that it made no difference whether the dead Vietnamese were “Viet Cong”, supporters of the allied U.S. government in the South, or simply peasants who couldn’t care less —  didn’t “they all look the same”, anyway? “While officers sought to please superiors and chased promotions, the ‘grunts’ in the field also had a plethora of incentives to produce dead bodies. These ranged from ‘R&R’ (rest and recreation) passes . . . to medals, badges, extra food, extra beer, permission to wear nonregulation gear, and light duty at base camp.”

Kill Anything That Moves is an indispensable contribution to the enormous body of writing about one of the most significant — and most tragic — episodes in the history of the United States.

Pentagon waste and fraud, and who’s really responsible for them

Pentagon waste: The Pornography of Power by Robert ScheerThe Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, by Robert Scheer

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Books about current affairs, especially those by journalists, rarely keep their edge once the headlines they address have vanished from the news. A 2008 book by former Berkeley activist Robert Scheer’s is a notable exception. Scheer wrote five years ago about the spectacular buildup of the U.S. military machine following 9/11, and his report transcends the facts and circumstances of the story. The Pornography of Power delivers insight into what should be one of the issues that most preoccupies concerned Americans: the seemingly unassailable position of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about more than half a century ago.

Over the eight years George W. Bush inhabited the White House, the U.S. military budget more than doubled, from about $300 billion to just under $700 billion. (In reporting these figures, the Office of Management and Budget notes that they exclude expenditures for the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans’ Affairs. Clearly, they also exclude funds for the CIA, which runs its own military operations, as well as interest on the debt incurred to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

You might be tempted to think that these gargantuan increases are understandable, given the expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — but you would be wrong. In fact, a huge proportion of the money spent on the military in the first decade of the 21st Century was not to support troops in the field or provide them with the weapons and protection they required. It was to finance the development and acquisition of new, high-tech weapons systems that could never be deployed in an asymmetric war against terrorists or insurgents.

The central insight of The Pornography of Power is that the waste and fraud in the military budget isn’t hidden in the cracks of obscure documents — it’s right out front in multi-billion-dollar expenditures for unnecessary new weapons. How do we know these weapons are unnecessary? Because the military brass told us so — and Congress simply forced the Pentagon to develop (or continue developing and producing) them, anyway. As Scheer reports, Congress voted hundreds of billions of dollars to develop and produce big-ticket weapons systems such as nuclear attack submarines and the trouble-plagued F-35 “joint strike fighter,” often on the basis of absurd arguments that they were needed to defend us against Al Qaeda.

The occasional glaring example of fraud complicates this picture of Pentagon waste, but simple, straightforward corruption (cushy corporate jobs for a cooperative Pentagon bureaucrat, for example) is a minor factor. The real problem are the politicians — liberal Democrats like Barbara Boxer as well as the usual suspects on the Republican right — who fearfully back spending money on these boondoggles because they expect blowback from constituents if they don’t. And if we can’t count on Senators and Representatives who champion cuts in the military budget out of the other side of their mouths, then what hope is there to eliminate the waste?

Despite the occasional jarring reminder that Scheer is writing about events several years in the past, and some circumstances that have changed during the last five years, The Pornography of Power remains relevant reading today. You can count on one thing above all from Bob Scheer: straight talk.

You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics, of which this book is one.

Ten big issues Washington is ducking, and not just under Republicans

This is the time of year when most of us record the New Year’s resolutions that will load us with guilt throughout the year because we never follow through with them. So, for a change this year, I decided to take stock not of my own life but of the state of our nation. What follows is my best effort to list (in no particular order) the ten most significant issues that the White House and the Congress should be addressing – but aren’t, and maybe never will. I write in the wake of a long-delayed compromise between the two parties, a deal that nobody likes and that, in its superficiality, illustrates just how far off the mark our elected leadership has strayed.

1.     Public corruption

The dominance of money in politics is the root cause of much that ails us. Massive campaign spending, combined with lavish lobbying efforts, is largely responsible for corporate welfare, our shockingly inequitable tax code, the dangerous bloating of the financial sector, and the corporate dominance of the news media. It’s also a major factor in the country’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Every one of these issues cries out for systemic change, but in a society where the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous Citizens United decision holds sway, it’s difficult to see how any meaningful change can be enacted. The source of the problem lies deeper than policy, in the values that corporate money has sold to the public – at heart, the delusion that freedom means independence from government oversight, that society offers a level playing field to all comers, and that success can only be fairly rewarded if the winners take all. In The Self-Made Myth (reviewed here), Bryan Miller and Mike Lapham expose this value set for the illogical and self-serving approach that it is.

2.     Military overreach

The United States spends more than $700 billion annually on what is characterized with Orwellian skill as “defense.” This amount is reportedly greater than the combined military expenditures of all the rest of the nations on Earth and is certainly larger than the total spent by all our potential adversaries combined. It’s also mostly money that could be so much more productively invested in advancing our true national security – upgrading our educational system, restoring our once-undisputed lead in science and technology, combating global poverty, and tending to our long-neglected public infrastructure. The late Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback series – Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis – illuminate the extent of U.S. military overreach, and the steep price we pay for the dubious privilege of maintaining nearly 1,000 military bases around the world. We put Imperial Rome to shame.

3.     Secrecy in government

Most of what we read about secrecy in our federal government concerns the “classified” documents such as those unearthed by Wikileaks not long ago or the information turned up by investigative reporters, often after years of pursuing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Sadly, hiding mountains of written records behind a cloak of secrecy, reprehensible though it is, should be the least of our concerns. Far more threatening to our liberties and our future as a democratic nation are the top-secret operations of the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Special Forces, as well as numerous other activities carried out both at home and abroad in our name under the veil of black budgets for agencies that have never seen the light of day or through seemingly innocuous contracts with private companies. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William M. Arkin did a spectacular job of reporting about this tragically overlooked phenomenon in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

4.     Overspending on healthcare

The U.S. currently spends an unsustainable 17% of GDP on healthcare – about one-half more than the second-highest spender in the world (Switzerland, at 11%). Americans frequently brag that we have the finest healthcare system in the world, but that’s true only for those who can afford to pay millions for the most advanced care when a health emergency strikes. Ours is the world’s most expensive healthcare system, not the best. Most of the rest of us would be far better off in France or some other industrialized country where government covers all costs and negotiates fair prices with pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare providers. And all the current talk about “reining in the deficit” is so much pointless chatter without two straightforward policy changes that could make a truly big difference: a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget, of course, and adopting Medicare for All, otherwise hideously labeled “single-payer healthcare.”

5.     Mass incarceration

One of my greatest disappointments with the Obama Administration is its continued prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs, the congeries of policies, police practices, and court decisions that has resulted in locking away more than two million Americans and subjecting our inner cities to a profoundly racist police regime. Michele Alexander’s landmark study, The New Jim Crow, lays bare the startling dimensions of these problems and their deeply rooted origins in the politics of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. That such policies could persist two generations after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is abhorrent.

6.     Global warming

Rarely do political issues rise to the level of existential crisis. Here’s one that does. As Mark Hertsgaard illustrates in Hot through interviews with leading climate scientists, the scientific consensus about the impact of climate change has become more extreme with every new report – but has never caught up with the private projections of the most knowledgeable experts. Absent dramatic policy shifts on a global scale, which are unthinkable without strong U.S. leadership, it’s possible that Planet Earth will eventually become unlivable for the human race. We’re already destroying a million species a year, and climate change is compounding the problems caused by human encroachment on animal habitat. With or without human civilization, our global environment will be very different in the 22nd Century from what it is today – at a minimum, far less hospitable to homo sapiens.

7.     The culture of violence

In the wake of yet another horrific mass murder that took the lives of so many innocents, public debate is focusing on such “solutions” as banning assault rifles and reducing the number of bullets permitted in an ammunition clip. Even if such measures could be written into law, which is unlikely, they would be laughably ineffectual. More than 9,000 people die every year of gunshots in the U.S. – rarely from assault rifles. Americans possess more than 200 million guns, most of them handguns, and can easily buy more at 51,000 licensed retail firearms dealers (compared to 36,000 grocery stores). None of this should be a surprise in a society that glorifies violence in film, television, video games, and comic books and obsesses about football, one of the most violent of contact sports. It’s time for America to grow up!

8.     Chemical pollution

Most of the 9,000 or more synthetic chemicals now used in everyday products in the U.S. were introduced after World War II. Hundreds of them leave residues in our bodies with largely unknown consequences. (Only seven percent of “high-production” chemicals have been fully tested for toxicity.) In other words, we have been carrying on a dangerous biology experiment with our lives and our children’s lives for more than two generations. What we do know is that health problems that were once unknown or rare are becoming common, including asthma, reproductive abnormalities in infants, many forms of cancer, and autism. A simple idea – the precautionary principle – could address many of these unwanted consequences by stipulating that the burden of proof about the safety of any product falls on its producer. Nearly half a century after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, isn’t it astonishing that we should still have to make this argument?

9.     A dysfunctional education system

For decades, it’s been widely recognized that many high schools are simply warehousing young people to keep them off the job market. Now it’s beginning to seem as though that’s the case with so-called higher education as well at many colleges and universities. When employers (myself included) complain that some recent college graduates can’t write or spell and either can’t read or simply choose not to do so, you’ve got to figure there’s some truth to these observations – and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way our country educates its youth. Whether the root cause is that schools teach the wrong things, that they teach in the wrong ways, or that the wrong people are doing the teaching is impossible to tell, but clearly the truth lies in some combination of these notions – dramatically compounded by our society’s failure to invest enough money to do the job right. Taking into account the number of hours that American teachers work, they’re paid far less than teachers in almost any other industrialized country. Shame on us!

10.  A costly and dangerous food production system

An occasional outbreak of e coli infections or a newsmagazine exposé on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in farm animals reminds us that all is not well with the way we Americans produce and procure our food. However, truth to tell, the scale and extent of the problem is far bigger than most of us understand. Ninety-nine percent of the meat we eat is produced in ways that are inhumane, ecologically unsound, and dangerous to our health. Our unrelenting hunger for meat is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation combined and is thus one of the single most significant factors in global warming. Pollution from factory farms is poisoning the water table in agricultural areas throughout the United States, and the dramatic overuse of antibiotics in farm animals that aren’t sick is exposing us all to ever more deadly antibiotic-resistant diseases. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, Eating Animals, exposes these and other truths about our food production system.

If any of the above leads you to believe that I think the United States is in worse shape than other countries, you might consider the neglected issues I’d identify, say, in Bangladesh or Tanzania. If you don’t know from direct observation, take my word for it: they’re in far worse shape than we are.

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