IN A RECENT KEYNOTE address at Colby College, James Risen distilled what I think can be called the governing idea behind all his recent investigative work: that, since September 12, 2001, American society has been changed in sundry and insidious ways, with Americans acquiring a Panopticon-like national security state “in a fit of absence of mind,” much in the way the British people awoke one morning to find that the sun would never set on the Union Jack. Now, rubbing the suspended disbelief out of our eyes, we have begun to reckon with the profound alterations to our social and political fabric.
Incrementally over the last 13 years, Americans have easily accepted a transformation of their way of life because they have been told that it is necessary to keep them safe. Americans now slip off their shoes on command at airports, have accepted the secret targeted killings of other Americans without due process, have accepted the use of torture and the creation of secret offshore prisons, have accepted mass surveillance of their personal communications, and accepted the longest continual period of war in American history. Meanwhile, the government has eagerly prosecuted whistleblowers who try to bring any of the government’s actions to light.
His is a harsh assessment, but it is also the correct one. By and large, the American people have been unable or unwilling to prevent their own government’s descent into paranoiac frenzy, or to dispute its flimsy — and thus to any thinking person, insulting — legal justifications for proliferating violence abroad, let alone to challenge the basic premises the American state claims define and guide the era. As the dominant thinking goes, a world of diffuse and omnipresent threats requires a diffuse and omnipresent response. (From there, it’s no stretch justifying “working the dark side,” as former Vice President Cheney called the post-9/11 American torture regime.) Predefining the contours of any given problem — in this case, the threat of small groups of non-state military actors attacking civilian and military targets for political ends — determines the available answers to that problem. If you police the questions one can ask about, say, the war on terror, you can preemptively incarcerate unsavory responses to these questions.
Risen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for The New York Times, understands the institutional, social, and moral decay in post-9/11 America to an extent few others can. He is, first and foremost, one of the finest national security reporters working in American journalism today — a reputation that should only be fortified by the publication of Pay Any Price, a meticulously researched and unsettling look into lone-wolf hucksters, debased consultants, corporate scoundrels, corrupt government apparatchiks, free-market evangelicals, and arrogant and self-aggrandizing federal security agencies who have profited mightily from the war on terror (the US has already spent roughly $4 trillion on its post-9/11 wars, according to one 2012 study cited by Risen), or have engorged themselves on the power they have been permitted to amass because of it.
However, there is another, more personal dimension to Risen’s war on the war on terror: he is a victim of one of its many Kafkaesque overreaches. Because he is very good at doing his job, Risen has found himself hounded by the US government for nearly a decade. Risen’s troubles stem from the publication of his previous book, State of War (2006), which uncovered the existence of the NSA’s secret (and illegal) post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping program, and detailed a bungled CIA plot to purposefully provide Iran with flawed nuclear weapons blueprints. The Bush administration, apoplectic at this breach in official secrecy, opened up a criminal leak investigation into the matter, which eventually led to the indictment of former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling under the Espionage Act. Risen has refused to comply with a series of federal subpoenas designed to force him to name anonymous sources from the book.
Lest you think this is unique to Bush-era excesses, let me disabuse you. Many commentators lament the death of bipartisanship in American politics, but I can think of at least one area in which most professional Republicans and Democrats are in perfect agreement. In fact, on the matter of press freedom, the Obama administration may well be even more hostile to the fourth (and fifth) estate than its predecessor: Obama has initiated more indictments of whistleblowers than all previous presidential administrations combined. A 2013 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists argues that the chilling effect of such prosecutions on government sources has been significant. (Risen in his Colby College speech said that he believes “Obama hates the press,” and he meant it.) Attorney General Eric Holder subpoenaed Risen again in 2011. For years, he faced potential imprisonment on charges of contempt. Risen’s legal odyssey appeared to come to an end on Saturday, December 13, when an anonymous official in the Justice Department asserted that Holder, given an ultimatum by a federal judge, would not force Risen to reveal his sources. But other reports suggest he may still be subpoenaed.
All this is to say that Risen has lived and breathed the war on terror in a way that few others in his field have, and has risked his career, well-being, and freedom in pursuit of some dark truths. (Of course, some even braver whistleblowers have risked far more in aiding him in his journalistic pursuits.) And there are some very shocking revelations indeed in Pay Any Price. Nothing in the book quite achieves the seismic magnitude of, say, Risen’s prior discovery of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, but, taken together, the picture that emerges from Pay Any Price is of a country on a decade-long moral debauch, fueled by far too many allocated dollars chasing too few honest-to-goodness security needs. In such a louche environment, the opportunities for corruption are legion.
Take the case of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-ruled Iraqi protectorate run by Paul Bremer in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of that country. Post-invasion Iraq was unspooling rapidly and dangerously, and the state needed a quick infusion of hard currency in order to shore up its central bank and to jumpstart its moribund economy. Moreover, postwar reconstruction needs — let’s be frank, much of it for payoffs and kickbacks — were manifold. (The heralded “Sunni Awakening” a few years later was little more than a mass greasing of palms.) So why not have the Iraqi people help pay for their own invasion and occupation? The United States held about $1.7 billion in Iraqi funds, frozen after the Gulf War. Additionally, in a May 2003 resolution, the United Nations transferred to the Federal Reserve of New York many more billions in Iraqi oil money. Thus began a series of cargo flights, originating in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the CPA directly imported between $12 and $14 billion into postwar Iraq. Once the money arrived, there was almost no accounting for where it eventually ended up. The CPA was given a huge blank check (worse, it was all cash: an untraceable windfall). As Risen reveals, of the roughly $20 billion the CPA brought into Iraq, the fate of at least $11.7 billion is completely unknown.
Well, we do know where at least a little of the money went — into the pockets of American contractors and some servicemen, who saw a scam for what it was and tried to get in on the action. As Risen documents, between 2004 and 2008, “there were at least thirty-five convictions in the United States and more than $17 million in fines, forfeitures, and restitution payments made in fraud cases” related to the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. Disturbing, yes, but mere child’s play compared to the kind of fraud perpetrated by Iraqis themselves: as Risen reveals for the first time, up to $1.6 billion of this stolen money (very likely pilfered by powerful Iraqi politicians) sits, to this day, in a bunker in rural Lebanon. The Iraqi government knows the money is there; the American government knows, too, but keeps its awareness secret. Still, mysteriously, neither government attempts to reclaim the stolen funds. In fact, when a special US investigator tasked with locating missing CPA funds tried to visit the bunker, the American ambassador to Lebanon denied him official country clearance.
Proliferating dollars, proliferating agencies, proliferating directives: the war on terror has provided many new growth opportunities for the American national security bureaucracy to broaden its mandates and get deeper into the antiterrorism business. (A growth industry, for sure: one study cited by Risen estimates that by 2022 the worldwide market for homeland security will surpass $545 billion.) In Pay Any Price, Risen details (for the first time) the story of a botched Jordanian front organization, Alarbus/Jerash Air Cargo, set up and bankrolled by the Department of Defense’s US Special Operations Command, a story of inexperience, incompetence, and arrogance intersecting in unpredictable, and ultimately self-damaging, ways. After 9/11, Alarbus became the department’s own in-house unit for espionage, targeted killings, and intelligence gathering (much to the irritation of the CIA, which felt its prerogatives were being infringed upon).
The problems with Alarbus were severe. First, the Defense Department enlisted a known criminal figure to help run its front company, the Palestinian-Jordanian Nazem Houchaimi. Houchaimi, who put his father and sister on the Alarbus payroll, also used the company for one of his side businesses: laundering hundreds of millions of dollars, including drug money that may have eventually been used to help fund jihadists in the region. People affiliated with Alarbus also inquired into buying American-made drones, ostensibly for purchase by the Jordanians, but with Syria (and possibly therefore Hezbollah or Iran) as the real buyers.
Even if the Department of Defense was willing to overlook some of the highly questionable behavior of its own paid operatives, others with knowledge of the operation weren’t. In yet another superb scoop, Risen reveals that, with the encouragement of inside informants, the FBI initiated a secret criminal investigation into Alarbus and the US Special Operations Command. After years of looking into the front company, however, the FBI appears to have dropped the case, likely due to political pressure. The FBI denies that it ever investigated Alarbus — that is, that it pursued a multi-year criminal investigation threatening the Pentagon itself. The Defense Department has feigned complete ignorance. After all — wink, wink — one can’t investigate something that never existed in the first place.
In the post-9/11 security field, government agencies may still possess pride of place, but powerful private actors (many with quasi-official status) have refashioned themselves as indispensible partners in the global war on terror. They have, of course, also enriched themselves wildly in the process, gobbling up bountiful earmarked federal dollars. As Risen shows in his investigation into the behavior of the military-services contractor KBR in Iraq, these organizations — just like their peer institutions in the public sector — have often behaved with impunity, despite evidence of widespread malfeasance.
And KBR truly is a peer institution. During the apex of its involvement in Iraq, the company had over 50,000 employees and subcontractors stationed there. As Risen points out, this was larger than the entire troop deployment in Iraq by the British Army. KBR received more than $39 billion in contracts over the course of the Iraq War, single-handedly providing all basic services for the occupying American army (as well as for American forces in Kuwait and Afghanistan). The scale of KBR’s contract was so large, Risen observes, that “it was as if a single company had been awarded a contract to provide every service needed by every citizen of a small state.”
But KBR, which was a subsidiary of Halliburton when it was awarded its initial field support contract in December 2001, managed to arrange a deal for itself that would have been the envy of governments everywhere. First, its contract stipulated that the federal government would reimburse it for all costs it incurred in its role supporting the US military. Second, it would be eligible for large “award fees,” or bonuses. Third, given the unstable environment in post-invasion Iraq, the company was not required to provide detailed documentation detailing just what it was billing the government for — which allowed KBR to inflate its invoices wildly. Risen writes that in late 2003 auditors at the Pentagon concluded that $1 billion of KBR’s claims “were not credible and should be thrown out.”
They weren’t, of course. KBR is too politically connected, and too many high-ranking military officials want to work there, or in an associated organization, upon retirement. After all, why alienate a potential future employer to save a billion or two of the public’s money? As Risen reveals, KBR has also been accused of negligent homicide in electrocutions of service members due to faulty construction of showers on bases throughout Iraq (where at least 18 fatal electrocutions took place), and of operating massive illegal burn pits causing widespread respiratory illness in returning soldiers. While a case related to the negligent electrocutions awaits a hearing by the Supreme Court, KBR has not yet faced any public accountability or sanction for its many, potentially criminal, misdeeds.
Indeed, this is one of the crowning lessons of Pay Any Price: that the United States is suffering from a widespread crisis of accountability, one that transcends distinctions between the public and private sectors and that encompasses both. The sources of power, real power, seem more remote and mysterious to Americans than ever before. It is no coincidence that this November’s midterm elections saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years (a pathetic 36.3 percent). Most Americans now spend their lives hostage to forces they can neither understand nor control nor hope to shape in any meaningful way. People see themselves as objects to be acted upon, not as thinking subjects. If the architects of our post-9/11 politics believed they were subverting democracy in order to save it, that we should pay any price to keep our people safe, they should be applauded for succeeding in at least one, crucial, part of their proposition. We have paid, again, and again, and again.