State of War
The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration
By James Risen
240 pages. Free Press. $26.
Shortly before Christmas, The New York Times disclosed an enormous domestic spying operation. More revelations followed almost daily, including reports of the National Security Agency's widespread eavesdropping on the phone calls and electronic messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands of American citizens. The justification given was that it was a time of war and that we were facing a ruthless enemy and that rules had to be broken. The public was outraged, and Congress vowed to begin an investigation.
That was three decades ago, in December 1974.
Then, in December 2005, Americans again woke to a New York Times headline about domestic spying. This time the article was written by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen. The operation is also covered in Mr. Risen's new book, ''State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration,'' published Tuesday. ''For the first time since the Watergate-era abuses, the N.S.A. is spying on Americans again, and on a large scale,'' Mr. Risen writes in his book. ''The Bush administration has swept aside nearly 30 years of rules and regulations and has secretly brought the N.S.A. back into the business of domestic espionage.''
While Mr. Risen's revelations about the N.S.A. take up only a chapter in ''State of War,'' they are the dramatic high point in an illuminating and disturbing book focusing on the Bush administration's use -- and perhaps misuse -- of power over the past four years. It is a record, Mr. Risen says, that has even caused protests by Mr. Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush. Mr. Risen writes of a conversation between the two in 2003 in which the current president ''angrily hung up the telephone.'' ''George Herbert Walker Bush,'' Mr. Risen writes, ''was disturbed that his son was allowing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a cadre of neoconservative ideologues to exert broad influence over foreign policy, particularly concerning Iraq.''
Among the unanswered questions concerning the domestic spying story is why, if Mr. Risen and The Times had first come upon the explosive information a year earlier, the paper waited until just a few weeks before release of the book to inform its readers. But in the end, the news articles largely scooped the book's N.S.A. chapter, leaving little that had not already been published.
Nevertheless, the book has much more to offer. In looking at the C.I.A.'s possible involvement in torture, Mr. Risen found evidence of ''a secret agreement among very senior administration officials to insulate Bush and to give him deniability'' regarding the harsh new interrogation tactics. And despite the critical need for intelligence on Iran, Mr. Risen says, a C.I.A. communications officer accidentally sent detailed information to the wrong indigenous agent in Tehran that outlined the agency's entire network. ''The Iranian who received the download was actually a double agent,'' Mr. Risen writes. The mistake enabled the Iranians ''to 'roll up' the C.I.A.'s agent network throughout Iran,'' says Mr. Risen, although the details are disputed by the C.I.A.
But while ''State of War'' has interesting and important new details, it also has almost no named sources -- not even the comments of former intelligence or government officials, who might provide perspective, context and credibility. It is an unusual move for someone writing about such an important subject.
Nevertheless, obtaining details on an eavesdropping program as secret as the one discussed in ''State of War'' is a monumental job of reporting -- especially when it is later confirmed by the president himself.
The book also provides a close look at how George J. Tenet, then the tough-talking, cigar-chomping C.I.A. director, had to decide between the counsel of many of his middle-level analysts and station chiefs who advised caution when it came to Iraq, and the Pentagon's hawks and neoconservatives who were hungry for war. ''George Tenet liked to talk about how he was a tough Greek from Queens,'' Mr. Risen quotes a former Tenet lieutenant as saying. But the former official added that in reality, ''he just wanted people to like him.''
With regard to Iraq, Mr. Risen writes, it was the hard-line Israelis that Mr. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, were listening to, not the cautious C.I.A. ''Israeli intelligence officials frequently traveled to Washington to brief top American officials,'' he writes, ''but C.I.A. analysts were often skeptical of Israeli intelligence reports, knowing that Mossad had very strong -- even transparent -- biases about the Arab world.'' After their visits, C.I.A. officials would often discount much of what the Israelis had provided. ''Wolfowitz and other conservatives at the Pentagon became enraged by this practice,'' Mr. Risen writes.
With Mr. Tenet now on their side, and no more roadblocks in the way, Mr. Risen says, the path was clear for the Bush hard-liners to press ahead with their plans for a form of kidnapping known as extraordinary renditions, alleged torture, hidden foreign prisons, widespread N.S.A. eavesdropping and numerous other practices, many of which Mr. Risen outlines in subsequent chapters.
But the N.S.A. is at the heart of ''State of War.'' Founded in 1952, the N.S.A. for many years considered itself above the law, controlled not by federal statutes but by top-secret presidential orders known as National Security Council Intelligence Directives. One directive even said the N.S.A. could disregard the law when it came to its powerful and highly secret form of eavesdropping, known as signals intelligence -- a vacuum-cleaner approach that sucks in millions of communications an hour. Later, during the Watergate period, President Richard M. Nixon ordered the N.S.A. to turn its giant ear inward and begin eavesdropping on thousands of Americans, like Vietnam War protesters.
What makes the N.S.A.'s current secret domestic eavesdropping program far more of a threat, in Mr. Risen's view, is the explosion in digital telecommunications. In the 1970's, most written communication took the form of letters dropped in mailboxes, to which the N.S.A. had no access. There were no e-mail messages or cellphones. ''Today, industry experts estimate that approximately nine trillion e-mails are sent in the United States each year,'' Mr. Risen writes. ''Americans make nearly a billion cellphone calls and well over a billion landline calls each day.''
Remembering the bad old days, a number of officials with knowledge of the new N.S.A. operation told Mr. Risen they were deeply troubled by it and believed ''that an investigation should be launched into the way the Bush administration has turned the intelligence community's most powerful tools against the American people.'' But so far, rather than investigate the possible violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into who leaked news of the operation to Mr. Risen.
Faced with similar charges against the N.S.A. 30 years ago, the Justice Department began an extraordinarily secret criminal investigation that lasted more than a year. Although the Justice lawyers uncovered 23 different categories of questionable activities, in the end, because of the extreme secrecy of the agency's activities and the lack of established law, they declined to prosecute. Instead they recommended that Congress explore the creation of new legislation outlawing this type of abuse. A year later, Congress enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Now, if it has been violated by the Bush administration, the question is what will happen this time around.