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Pulitzer Prize James Risen: "United States throws billion dollars at the War on Terror"

Di Stefania Maurizi

Pubblicato su espressonline, 11 novembre 2014


James Risen is the investigative journalist who, ten years before Edward Snowden, discovered and tried to reveal NSA abuses, but was stopped by his own newspaper: the New York Times, which buried the story in 2004 for more than a year under pressure from the White House. James Risen knows the war on terror as very few journalists do.

His revelations about the NSA -which earned him a Pulitzer Prize - were finally published in 2005, in both the New York Times and in his "State of War," the book at the origin of his troubles. In fact Risen has spent the last seven years fighting the US government’s attempt to force him to reveal his sources for the book and testify against them. As US lawyer Jesselyn Radack, who represents Snowden and has done prominent legal work on high-profile whistleblowers tells “L’Espresso”, «this has a chilling effect on both sources and reporters».

Not only has James Risen not bowed to the pressure from the government and made clear he is ready to go to jail to defend his sources, he has also written a new book, just published in the US under the title "Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War", a remarkable investigation into how billions of dollars go to waste in dubious operations, with no control and often with complete impunity, in what has become the endless war on terror. From the 20 billion dollars, mostly in 100 bills, sent to Iraq without any supervision - 11 billion of which still unaccounted for – to the million dollars given to Dennis Montgomery, a man who was able to convince the CIA that al Qaeda was using the al Jazeera broadcast to digitally transmit its plans for future attacks, and that he was the only one with the technology to decrypt those messages, on up to the business of those whom Risen calls "the new oligarchs of 9/11”: the chairmen of companies who are able to receive contracts worth billions for very controversial counter terror operations. Like the Blue Brothers, Neal and Linden Blue, who chair General Atomics, «the men who ultimately profit the most from America's drone war, from the use of Predators and Reapers».

In 2012, General Atomics received contracts for $ 1.8 billion, while in 2001 it had received only 110 million. Risen explains that with this endless war, «America's richest discovered that the hottest way to make money was to get inside Washington's national security apparatus. Wall Street is no longer quite as attractive as it was before the banking crisis». And «only a small slice of society – including many poor and rural teenagers- fight and die, while a permanent national security élite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace». “L'Espresso” asked James Risen to discuss his new book.

You have been covering the war on terror since 9/11 and in your book you write that one 2010 estimate concluded that the decade of war had cost America nearly 4 trillion dollars, that is 4,000 billion dollars. Do you think the US can afford such massive spending in the next decade?

«That is a great question: I don't know. At some point somebody will ask more questions, someone in Congress, some new president, but right now no one seems willing to attack the war on terror».

Do you believe that this war on terror is actually going to last forever?

«Basically, the war on terrorism is an abstraction, like the war on drugs or the war on poverty. You are fighting an abstraction. It is up to us to define the goals, success or failures of the war on terror. It is not like a typical war, as a result you get this constant redefining of the war: it is really open-ended, and until the American people become more skeptical, it is going to continue».

What, if anything, can stop it?

«There will be always some kind of terror, there has been terrorism throughout history. The most interesting quote in the book [“Pay Any Price”] was from Brian Jenkins, who is a terrorism expert at RAND Corporation. He said: no one realises this, but the time since 9/11 has been the most peaceful decade in terms of terrorist attacks inside the United States since the '60s. We had left wing groups in the '60s and '70s setting up bombs, and there were right wing groups in the '90s, there were all kinds of terrorists attacks in America, but we just didn't let them define our society the way we do now».

Do you think it is likely that certain US allies who are definitely less rich than the US will try to put an end to this permanent state of war, because they can't afford so much for military spending?

«Look at Britain: they just pulled out of Afghanistan. There is much less support in the world for continuing these wars, but the question is when the US will really decide that we are going to change the way we approach this, because right now we try to have combat operations or drones strike against leadership, but we have failed in a lot of these countries to deal with the underlying problems that lead to terrorism. We take a tactical approach to terrorism and no larger, strategic, approach».

After Osama bin Laden and Isis, now we are back to square one with Isis. How do you see Isis? Do you think that it is a major existential threat to the US and its allies or that this threat is greatly exaggerated?

«I think it is not an existential threat to the United States or to European countries, it is primarily a symptom of the dysfunction of Iraq. Basically, instead of overthrowing one dictator, we overturned the entire social structure of the country: we turned it into a Shia dominated country after a century of Sunni domination, and that led to a civil war that is still ongoing between Sunnis and Shias. Now we have a situation where the Sunni are still deeply alienated by the Shia dominated government in Baghdad, and Sunni extremists are taking advantage of that, and until there is some political resolution in Iraq, I don't think we are going to find a solution to the Isis problem».

In your book you mention that a study on the war on terror found that government spending on homeland security has been so excessive that the only way it could be considered cost-effective would be if it funded programs that prevented 1,667 terrorist attacks each year- like the 2010 Times Square attempted car bombing. That would mean stopping four terrorist attacks every day. However, if we look at what has happened in the last 13 years, we realise that with all their money and power, the CIA and the NSA were unable to predict the Times Square attack, the underwear bomber, the Boston marathon bombing, the devastating attack against the US consulate in Libya. No one has dared to question this long list of massive failures and waste of money. Why?

«I think partly because - and this is my opinion- the US just throws money at these programs without thinking them through, they think mass surveillance is the answer to these problems or invasion of a country is the answer to these problems. These problems are actually very small: most of the cases we have seen since 9/11 are done by lone wolves - individuals who had been radicalised by what they perceive as excessive US and Western involvement in the Middle East, and they decide to take action- primarily things that could be done at the law enforcement level and not by the national security apparatus. And that is where we need a debate: is there a way to deal with terrorism as a law enforcement issue, the way we did prior to 9/11, and treat it less like an existential threat, as we treat it now?»

The problem with the war on terror is not only its monetary cost, but also the massive attack on fundamental liberties and human rights. Guantanamo, the widespread use of torture, the possibility of keeping citizens in indefinite detention and even the possibility of killing them without any trial and without any access to a lawyer: these are extraordinary measures never seen before in a democracy. How is it possible that a country like the United States is unable to get out of this?

«I think that is a great question. It is a cycle of saying that when one thing happens, we have to respond, and as we respond, people radicalise and attack us and so we have to respond again. We haven't learned how to get out of this cycle, and that is the real question: when will the American people decide that we have to finally get out of this cycle, not freak out and not panic and not give in to fear mongering. And it is only when the American people get out of this fear mongering mindset that we will finally get some answers out of this, because one of the problems today in the United States is that any politician who questions the war on terror is immediately labelled as soft on terrorism, and that is the worst thing you can say about a politician in America today. So most politicians aren't free to question anything».

But do you think the US democracy will ever recover from this?

«I hope so. Really, that's why I wrote the book, because I want Americans to think about these things, realise what is going on. I want to present this information, so that people can have a debate about these issues».

You write that America's moral standing has been severely damaged by the Obama Administration's addiction to drone warfare. What has made president Obama so addicted to drones?

«I think he has continued to see drones as a cheap alternative to the military invasion of a country, he has been comparing drone strikes to Bush's invasion of Iraq, and saying: this is a much more low-profile way to conduct operations, you don't have to send troops there, you just have a few drones killing people. But it is a very slippery slope morally: once you start to use drones to strike people, you have to accept a certain level of civilian casualties and you have to realise that this is an imperial weapon, where no American runs risks and you have a strong resentment in a foreign country due to this attacking them in such a remote way».

Did you expect this from president Obama?

«No, that is one of the points that I make in my book. One of the legacies of his presidency is going to be that he normalised and made permanent the war on terror, for the most part extended Bush's approach to the national security apparatus that grew after 9/11, and I think that the most surprising aspect of his presidency is the degree to which he has continued Bush's policies on the war on terror».

One of the main reasons why this war on terror goes ahead unchallenged is the absolute secrecy surrounding this war...

«Yes, it is really the first war in American history that has been totally classified, virtually the only things we know are various things that have been reported in the press, television or in books. The government has released very little information voluntarily, so it makes it very difficult for a reporter to find out more things about it, because it is all secret and they punish whistleblowers. It is a very difficult environment».

How do you look at the war on secrecy unleashed by WikiLeaks?

«WikiLeaks, Manning, Snowden and all these people have performed the function of whistleblowers and I think it has been a public service to have more information coming out, as I said, the only way information is coming out is through unofficial channels like that».

And all of them - WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden- pay a huge price for this...

«Yes, it is because they [the US] are trying to suppress the truth that they are cracking down on whistleblowers».

In your book you tell how your stellar scoop on the NSA warrantless wiretapping programme was killed two times by the New York Times, at that time headed by Bill Keller. Can you tell more about this story?

«I have told this story many times, about how they killed that story before the elections, and then killed it again after the elections. I decided to put that story in my book “State of War”, and before the book came out I told the editors that it was going to be in my book and they finally ran the story, a couple of weeks before my book came out».

So, basically, you forced the New York Times to publish that scoop, because you were publishing it in your book.

«Yes. It worked out in the end, but it is was the most traumatic period of my life, it was very intense».

Were any other major stories killed by your newspaper at that time?

«Yes, they killed other stories. A story I have in that book [“State of War”] about Iran and the CIA, and a number of other stories killed, buried and cut during the period after 9/11, especially leading up to the war in Iraq, another story I did about how certain people expressed scepticism of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq».

While one can understand that the 9/11 attacks unleashed a massive reaction, it is hard to understand why the press kept supporting the US government on things like torture or the Iraq war. What happened to the press?

«It was a very intense atmosphere a couple of years after 9/11. You have to remember there were only 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, so that time period was very, very intense. As reporters, we went from writing about al Qaeda to the Bush administration that was going to invade Iraq, so it was very hard to keep track of everything, and I think the press was far too deferential to the government during that time. It was not our finest hour».

Do you think things have changed in the meantime?

«Yes, I think I know specifically about the New York Times, and I know that things are much better at the New York Times today. They are much more skeptical of the government».

You have spent the last seven years fighting the US government, which wants to force you to reveal your sources for your book “State of War”. Do you still believe in the possibility of doing aggressive journalism in an age of massive surveillance?

«Yes, that's why I wrote this new book: it is my answer to the government that I want to keep reporting, keep investigating. It is the only answer that the government will respect, and it is one thing that I keep saying to other reporters: keep trying, keep investigating and stay aggressive. That is the only answer that we can give to the government at this point».