Beyond the N.S.A. Scoop: A Tale of Intelligence Fiascos

James Risen’s book hits the shelves in the wake of his bombshell New York Times story about the Bush administration’s

James Risen’s book hits the shelves in the wake of his bombshell New York Times story about the Bush administration’s secret and probably illegal surveillance operations. But State of War is much more than an elaboration of that scoop: It’s a cornucopia of scoops about all sorts of intelligence deceptions, mishaps and scandals-in-waiting, each more hair-raising than the one before, almost none of which have appeared in The Times or anyplace else.

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Maybe the biggest jaw-dropper comes in Chapter 4, “The Hunt for WMD.” It’s about Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad, a woman in her 50’s, now living in Cleveland, Ohio, who escaped Saddam’s Iraq 27 years ago. In May 2002, a C.I.A. agent tracked her down and asked her to go back to Baghdad and do a little espionage. Her brother, who still lived there, had worked in Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program in the 1980’s and early 90’s. The C.I.A. wanted her to ask him a series of questions about the program’s current status and to offer him refuge in the United States. Bravely, she made the trip, asked the questions (usually on long walks, at night) and learned that the program had been dead for a decade. She went back to the States and told her case officers the news. But the C.I.A. waved it off; her brother, they said, was obviously lying.

Then Mr. Risen adds the kicker. The C.I.A. had persuaded the exiled relatives of 30 Iraqi weapons scientists to make the risky trip back to their homeland. All of them came back with the same story: Iraq had no nuclear program. This was an amazing treasure trove of intelligence at a time when the C.I.A., which had no spies on the ground, was straining to learn all it could about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And yet the information was dismissed, ignored. Nothing about the 30 relatives was ever passed on to the State Department, the Pentagon or the White House. Nor were their findings incorporated into the C.I.A.’s own National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s W.M.D., written a mere month later, which concluded, on nothing particularly solid, that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program.”

Mr. Risen lays out a dozen similar instances of reality slamming into Team Bush’s assumptions—and the assumptions emerging unruffled. Time and again, officials who raised doubts were flung to the sidelines, while those who got with the program and clamped on their blinders won promotions.

Another amazing story along these lines dates from June 2003, after U.S. forces in Iraq captured Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Saddam Hussein’s personal secretary. This was such a huge find—Mr. Hamid had been designated the “Ace of Diamonds” in U.S. Central Command’s deck of 52 most-wanted Saddamites—that the C.I.A. assigned its best Arabic speaker to conduct the interrogation. Mr. Hamid revealed two key things: First, Saddam had not been at Dora Farms the night that President Bush, acting on Mr. Tenet’s urgings, launched a cruise-missile strike on the farm, starting the war a bit earlier than planned, in hopes of decapitating the regime from the get-go. Second, there was no W.M.D. program. The C.I.A. bosses concluded that Mr. Hamid was lying, blamed their top-notch interrogator for going too easy on him and replaced her.

Another episode: In November 2003, the Baghdad station chief sent a special cable to Langley, warning that an insurgency was stirring and that the U.S. was in danger of losing the war that the President had declared we’d already won. Headquarters started distributing inflammatory memos, accusing the station chief of personal misconduct. He quit the agency in disgust.

Mr. Risen blames George Tenet for the climate of incompetence, groupthink and political kowtowing that enshrouded Langley in those crucial months leading up to war. In Plan of Attack (2004), Bob Woodward revealed that the C.I.A. director had assured President George W. Bush that the intelligence on Iraq’s W.M.D. was a “slam dunk.” Mr. Risen provides the back-story: He notes that, after the 2000 election, Mr. Bush nearly replaced Mr. Tenet, who was after all a holdover from the Clinton administration; Mr. Tenet won him over through persistent ingratiation and some lobbying with the President’s father (who still had some influence over his boy). When, after 9/11, the President resisted widespread calls for a clean sweep at Langley, Mr. Tenet felt he owed him big time. Mr. Risen reveals that at two conferences of regional station chiefs—one in Rome in April 2002, another in London the following November—senior C.I.A. officials made it clear that the President was going to war, that the agency had to jump onboard, that the second-guessing and criticizing must come to an end.

All of this raises the question: How much did George W. Bush know, and when did he know it? In the extremely unlikely event that the President sat down and read this book, would any of it surprise or outrage him? Like countless other chronicles, this book tells of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld running rings around the entire bureaucracy. Were they also running rings around the Oval Office? Mr. Risen recounts one episode in which Mr. Rumsfeld simply ignored the President’s orders. (Mr. Bush, upset that the new Afghan government that he’d helped install might be turning into a “narco-state,” wanted to destroy the new Afghan government’s poppy fields; Mr. Rumsfeld brushed the directive aside.) It’s indisputable at this point that the intelligence community was responding to pressure from the White House throughout the year leading up to the war. But how much of that pressure came from Mr. Bush and how much from his sneering No. 2 down the hall? More to the point, if Mr. Bush had known everything that James Risen has subsequently discovered, would he have gone to war?

Probably he would have. Wars rarely have single causes, and everyone in Team Bush, the captain included, seems to have had his own reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein (and his own set of assurances that the war would be a cakewalk). Still, it’s stunning to realize that, nearly three years after the fact—and despite dozens of books and hundreds of incisive newspaper and magazine articles—we don’t yet know why this war took place. I suspect we may never fully know, unless Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld or one of their secretaries was taking notes or running a dicta-belt during their many phone conversations from the summer of 2002 through the spring of 2003.

Mr. Risen doesn’t help us out on this score, either. Then again, he doesn’t pretend to. His sources (several of whom he names, by the way) tend not to rank high enough to be privy to such matters—and, on balance, that’s for the best, since those who are in the know wouldn’t tell him or any other reporter, anyway. (Mr. Woodward, for all his access, did no better on the big questions in his tome, and he got wind of almost nothing that State of War uncovers.)

That said, I do wish there were more to this book. It reads like a string of magazine articles rather than a cohesive work. The author’s just-the-facts-ma’am approach is refreshing, to a point (we’ve probably had enough color-for-its-own-sake accounts of what Dick Cheney was eating at a crucial lunch), but one yearns for a bit more flesh, a few scene-setters, some style. Still, one has little cause for complaint. The book, though dry, is at least short, lucid and ceaselessly revelatory. Mr. Risen constructs more—and more hair-raising—skeletons with his bare-bones stories than any number of meatier, you-are-there wind-wheezers.

Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate.

Beyond the N.S.A. Scoop: A Tale of Intelligence Fiascos