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James Risen: The Post-9/11 Homeland Security Industrial Complex Profiteers and Endless War

Journalist James Risen provides evidence of how the United States has become enmeshed in an endless war.

(Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing)

Unintimidated by the efforts of two administrations to force him to reveal a confidential source who disclosed the betrayal of the public by the government, Pulitzer Prize- winning New York Times reporter James Risen exposes more about the reality of greed, power and endless war in his new book, Pay Any Price. You can get the book now with a contribution to Truthout by clicking here.

In a revealing interview with Truthout about his new book Pay Any Price, journalist James Risen provides evidence of how the United States has become enmeshed in an endless war. He also discusses how the post-9/11, military-surveillance state has enriched – with little oversight or accountability – many opportunists. Risen tells Truthout: “Four trillion dollars is the best estimate for the total price tag of the war on terror, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much of it has gone to shadowy contractors. It is one of the largest transfers of wealth in American history, and yet it has gone largely unnoticed.”

Mark Karlin: In your third chapter, you state that the “corporate leaders at its vanguard can rightly be considered the true winners of the war on terror.” You refer to these people as post-9/11, corporate entrepreneurs and opportunists. Can you provide a couple of brief examples?

James Risen: In chapter three, I focus on corporate leaders who have largely tried to avoid the limelight, but have nonetheless been among those who have profited the most from the war on terror. People like the Blue brothers, whose company, General Atomics, has produced the Predator and Reaper drones, the signature weapons of the global war on terror.

I also write about J. Philip London, executive chairman of CACI, the huge defense and intelligence contractor that was caught up in the Abu Ghraib scandal but then managed to continue to thrive in the war on terror, and Robert McKeon, a clever Wall Street maven who acquired Dyncorp as it profited from rival Blackwater’s problems. McKeon eventually committed suicide, and the sale of assets by his estate after his death provided a glimpse at the massive wealth accumulated by the corporate leaders who benefit from being on the top rung of the war on terror.

Your prologue refers to the “homeland security-industrial” complex (including the related wars since 9/11) costing an estimated $4 trillion. Where did all that money go?

The Homeland Security Industrial Complex operates differently than the traditional Military Industrial Complex. Instead of spending on ships, airplanes and other big weapons systems, much of the money goes to secretive intelligence contractors who perform secret counterterrorism work for the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon and other agencies. Because it is all classified, there is no public debate about the massive amounts of money being poured into these contractors. And with little oversight, there is no way to determine whether these contractors have performed well or poorly. Four trillion dollars is the best estimate for the total price tag of the war on terror, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much of it has gone to shadowy contractors. It is one of the largest transfers of wealth in American history, and yet it has gone largely unnoticed.

Part III of Pay Any Price is entitled “Endless War.” You divide this section into chapters focusing on “The War on Decency,” “The War on Normalcy” and the “The War on Truth.” That is an inversion of the government-vaunted war to protect Homeland Security into an immoral attack on the nation’s moral integrity. How did we arrive at such an abandonment of our ethical standards?

If you recall, just after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney famously said that “the gloves come off.” What that really meant was that the US was deregulating national security, getting rid of the rules and regulations that had governed national security since the post-Watergate reform era of the 1970s. As a result, we have conducted the war on terror in a climate in which there are few rules or limits on American actions. The message was clearly sent throughout the government that nothing should get in the way of stopping any future terrorist attack – and that message created a dangerous climate that we still live in today.

You discuss the relentless and tenacious persecution of whistleblowers under the Bush and Obama administrations (with the pace steadily picking up under the latter). In your many examples, you describe the harassment and shunning of Diane Roark, a staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Can you briefly explain what she tried to expose and how she was hounded into retirement and beyond?

I consider Diane Roark to be one of the unsung heroes of the post-9/11 era. A former Reagan White House staffer, at the time of 9/11 Roark was the House intelligence committee staffer in charge of oversight of the National Security Agency. Soon after 9/11, NSA staffers told her about the NSA’s new domestic spying operation. She immediately realized that it was illegal, but at first thought it must be a rogue operation. She went to the staff director and minority staff director at the House intelligence committee to warn the chairman and ranking member about the operation, but the word came back that she should keep her mouth shut and stop talking about it. She realized that the chairman and ranking member already knew about it.

She then started to try to warn other senior officials that she knew throughout the government about the program, but found at every turn that they already knew about it and were involved in a massive cover-up. Finally, she had a dramatic showdown with NSA director Michael Hayden about the program, in which she told him that it was illegal. He responded that if it ever became public, the NSA and the Bush Administration could count on the “majority of nine” – meaning the approval of the Supreme Court. She then tried to get a message to the Supreme Court chief justice, but never heard back. She never leaked to the press and retired from the government depressed that she hadn’t been able to stop the program.

Years later, after The New York Times disclosed the existence of the NSA domestic spying program, the FBI raided her house, because they wrongly thought that she was the source for the story. She had kept her concerns within the system and was still persecuted. Her case shows that it would have been impossible for Edward Snowden to stay within the system and do what he did.

KBR [formerly Kellogg, Brown and Root], at the time it was first contracted as a multibillion-dollar contractor to support the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere), is described in detail by you as a company “too big to fail” in the war on terror. Can you provide some highlights?

KBR was by far the largest military contractor in the Iraq war. It provided food, housing and other basic services to US military personnel in Iraq and throughout the war received about $39 billion in contracts. At the peak of the war, KBR had more personnel in Iraq than did the British Army. The United States simply could not have fought the war in Iraq without KBR. By providing almost all basic services in combat zones for US military personnel, KBR allows the United States to fight wars without a draft.

If the Army doesn’t need soldiers to peel potatoes and instead has contractors do it, then it can fight wars of choice with a relatively small volunteer Army, and thus doesn’t need to seek the political approval of American voters before it goes to war. So KBR is critical to the war effort; thus the chairman of the largely toothless commission on wartime contracting threw up his hands and wondered aloud whether KBR was too big to fail.

KBR was investigated for a series of problems – including the electrocution of US soldiers in barracks in Iraq with faulty wiring and the use of massive burn pits at US bases in Iraq that allegedly led to lung problems among US military personnel. But despite the investigations, KBR kept its massive contracts.

You describe how billions and billions of dollars were shrink-wrapped and flown to Baghdad with little accountability – and that in one documented case, several billions of dollars ended up in a bunker in Lebanon (with the US making no attempt to retrieve the money). Who bears responsibility for the slipshod shipment of massive cash to Iraq, much of which went into the pockets of Iraqi leaders and other private pockets?

The cash in the bunker was from the Development Fund for Iraq, a fund set up to hold Iraqi government oil revenues. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration and the Coalition Provisional Authority decided to airlift $12-$14 billion in cash, taken from the DFI accounts in the United States, to Baghdad on Air Force C-17s. But after it arrived, much of it disappeared. Years later, Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq, investigated and discovered that nearly $2 billion had been stolen by powerful Iraqis and had been moved to a bunker in Lebanon, where it was being hidden. It was one of the largest robberies in modern history.

What was the role of the Bush administration free marketers in trying to reshape the economy in Iraq into a Milton Friedman model?

Bush Administration officials did not want to engage in much post-war planning for Iraq, leading to chaos in the months after the invasion. Still, many of the US officials who joined the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-led occupation government in Iraq in the first year following the invasion, were Republican ideologues who dreamed of creating a new Iraq based on the economic proposals, like the flat tax, that they had failed to get enacted in the United States. Eventually, the insurgency in Iraq ended those dreams.

You state in your book: “The level of resources devoted to fighting terrorism still remains out of proportion to the actual threat level posed by terrorism.” What is keeping it going as a major initiative of a government within a government?

There is now an entire mercenary class in the United States that has been created in the post-9/11 era, both inside the government and outside, that has an incentive to keep the war going. They wouldn’t have jobs without endless war. At the same time, politicians know that if they raise too many questions about the war on terror and the massive funding levels, they will be labeled soft on terror. So they all go along with it.

What is SERE and how did it become manipulated to support torture?

SERE is the acronym for the military’s survival training program, in which pilots and other personnel are put through a simulated prisoner camp and subjected to simulated torture. The CIA used the torture techniques simulated at SERE as the basis for its “enhanced interrogation” techniques against detainees. In Pay Any Price, I disclose that the agency used these techniques even though the best and most widely accepted research conducted on SERE showed that the techniques could not be used to elicit accurate information.

In regards to your own travails as a journalist, the government is trying to force you to reveal a confidential source relating to the shadow intelligence gathering community. You have stood steadfastly against giving up a source for information contained within your book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. The Obama administration is pursuing its legal case against you to the Supreme Court. You appear as resolute as ever to uphold the journalistic right to shield sources. Would anything change that courageous stance?


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