During my early years at the Central Intelligence Agency (2003-05), I would occasionally stop by to chat with friends and colleagues who manned the ramparts in the Office of Iraq Analysis (OIA). Here, Langley’s best and brightest pontificated over ways to weed out “former regime elements” and divined the optimum solution to foster a united and democratic government in Baghdad.
One office meme, in particular, captures the can-do spirit of those days: the “Freedometer.” The Freedometer was a circular cardboard cutout with a pivoting arrow, posted conspicuously for all to see in that particular cubicle platoon. And with all the fun and seriousness of a game of spin-the-bottle, it measured “freedom” on no particularly observable basis.
In reality, the Freedometer was referencing President George W. Bush’s declaration in September 2001 that the War on Terror was “a war against people who hate freedom.” It was at the same time a mockery of those who believed this rhetoric and an indictment of those who knew—or should have known—that the policies laid out to wage successive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would lead to unconstitutional encroachment upon the freedoms and civil liberties of Americans.
In recent years, the government’s freedom rhetoric has proven to be as shallow as that of the OIA’s Freedometer. The government has wire-tapped Americans’ phones without warrants, carried out extrajudicial killings of American citizens suspected of joining al-Qaeda, and spent billions of American tax dollars on an ever-expanding national security establishment.
In Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with the New York Times, examines the development of the “homeland security industrial complex.” This work is essential to understanding the profit motive, and overall does a solid job at getting to the bottom of one important question: Cui bono?
In fact, Risen claims that while the majority of Americans were giving up freedoms and privacies in the name of the War on Terror, an entire “mercenary class” was being rewarded with immense wealth by these same conflicts. He includes people like Dennis Montgomery, a self-made defense contractor who convinced the CIA and high-ranking officials in the Bush administration that he had developed a technology to detect hidden al-Qaeda messages in Al Jazeera broadcasts. In early 2013 that “technology” led the Bush administration to ground dozens of passenger flights from France before proving to be a scam. (Montgomery, however, continued to be awarded contracts worth up to $1.9 billion under both the Bush and Obama administrations.)
Of course, Montgomery is a small fish in an ocean of contractors looking to profit from America’s fears. Consider instead KBR, a massive defense contractor described as having a “virtual monopoly over basic services for American troops.” Despite facing accusations of negligence that lead to the deaths of U.S. military personnel by electrocution and “war lung injury” (a respiratory condition believed to be caused by living in close proximity to burn pits set up by KBR), the contractor was still able to obtain $39.5 billion in contracts over the course of the Iraq War.
Pay Any Price is not the first book to make the connection between defense contractor profits and the war on terror. However, the author stands out for his ability to put a face on the behemoth of the national security establishment. Risen relies on a decade of beat reporting at the CIA and NSA, and hundreds of interviews with soldiers, contractors, and politicians in order to weave together a truly fascinating—and terrifying—story.
Readers of this magazine will appreciate that the author has reserved blame for both parties, and in fact Risen reserves some of the harshest words for the current administration:
Obama performed a neat political trick: he took the national security state that had grown to such enormous size under Bush and made it his own. In the process, Obama normalized the post-9/11 measures that Bush had implemented on a haphazard, emergency basis. Obama’s great achievement — or great sin — was to make the national security state permanent.
Pay Any Price is not free from shortcomings. Although Risen succeeds in highlighting the gross abuses of power and manipulation of the American psyche to justify a bellicose foreign policy, he spends little time offering practical solutions.
For instance, Risen has stated that there is really no need for a global war on terror. In reality, there is no denying that the United States has a constitutional responsibility to defend its citizens, at home and abroad, from individuals and organizations that wish to do them harm. The recent rise of ISIS, and the group’s horrific murders of Americans and others further undermines his assertion. The great dilemma is in accomplishing the task of protecting American citizens while not bankrupting the American public and infringing upon their civil liberties. In this regard, Risen fails to offer any workable suggestions.
Nevertheless, for those who regard “permanent war” as an indicator of constitutional debasement, Risen is spot-on: the real fight to preserve Americans’ freedoms may be much closer to home.
Daniel Patrick Gabriel served as a CIA counter-terrorism officer in the Global War on Terrorism.