The second chapter of James Risen's ("I knew it was bad; I didn't know it was this bad") book is essentially the story he wrote with a colleague for The New York Times late last year exposing the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program ordered by President Bush.
That indicates much about the book's value, content and relevance. In fact, it probably says more than Risen would like. His book is, in fact, like nine news stories presented as chapters in book form. If a newspaper story is the first take on history, this is take 1.1.
That's not to say Risen's findings are anything less than a sharp stick in America's eye. These include documenting: how out of touch George W. Bush was, was forced to be, or chose to be, before and during the Iraq war; how the CIA, led by George J. Tenet, became an ineffective, slovenly and confused agency at one of the most crucially inconvenient times in American history; how preoccupation with Iraq turned the administration away from Afghanistan and chasing down al Qaida's leaders in the months after 9/1 1; how the CIA obtained but ignored evidence that Saddam Hussein did not then have weapons of mass destruction and actually manipulated the findings it provided to meet Bush's preconceived war; how the defense and intelligence communities under Bush became Petri dishes for neo-conservative experimentation by egotistical men kept from power for 20 years.
Most striking, and most scary, is how the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy duo of Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, apparatchiks from the Nixon administration, ran roughshod over anyone in their way. That includes Bush, then Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is particularly depicted as so much road kill in their dust.
"To others in the administration, mystified by the process -- or lack of a process -- it eventually became clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld had a back channel where the real decision making was taking place. The result was that the Bush administration was the first presidency in modern history in which the Pentagon served as the overwhelming center of gravity for U.S. foreign policy," Risen writes.
Risen's reputation as a stolid, responsible Times national security reporter lends credence to his findings, despite his reliance on anonymous sources for most of the significant scoops in the book. Indeed, he's open about the limits of his reporting and what he doesn't know. Nonetheless, the same book written 10 or 25 years from now would presumably rely more on named sources and primary documents, strengthening its worth. .
The value in this book today is not for anti-Bush, Al Franken zealots to use as an "I told you so," epiphany, though there is that and it's deserved. This is not an ideological book. It tortures all prisoners. The Clinton administration comes in for scathing criticism as well. The people who need to read this book are those who voted for Bush, who believed him, if not in him, and think his administration best serves their and the nation's interests.
Bush's actions and the decisions of the men around him betray all those laudable hopes, Risen writes.
If you doubt that, consider a story Risen offers about Iran. In resonating detail, Risen recounts an unbelievable Rube Goldberg idea the CIA had to interpret and thwart Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. Instead, the high-risk project -- code named MERLIN -- probably backfired, delivering to zealots in Tehran via American hands near-complete plans for a nuclear weapon trigger.
The outrage so many Americans feel about how they were deceived into war finds a lot of traction in this book. In a chilling context for all the subsequent death and destruction stemming from the failures men hell-bent for war, Risen writes: "If someone had spoken up clearly and forcefully, the entire house of cards might have collapsed. A little bit of digging might have revealed the truth."
Stephen W. Bell is the editor of the News editorial page.
>State of War
The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration
By James Risen
Free Press, 229 pages, $26