“Pay Any Price” is an enlightening read the repercussions that the global war on terror and its associated power, greed, and secrecy has had on our daily lives.
James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
Following the events in Paris at Hebdo Charlie and the accompanying media frenzy concerning freedom of expression and freedom of the press, James Risen’s recent book Pay Any Price becomes, ironically, even more important than its original intention of uncovering the abuses of governmental power that tend to be hidden from view of the mainstream media.
Much of what Risen writes about are the efforts of the government and its various agencies and cohorts trying to maintain secrecy around its efforts to keep the endless war going in order to keep the profits rolling in.
Following on a previous expose on the CIA that highlighted the secrecy and manipulations of the CIA within the Bush “war on terror” (State of War, Free Press, 2006), Pay Any Price highlights how the Obama administration is a continuation of the Bush administration. “Obama’s great achievement—or great sin—was to make the national security state permanent”, he writes.
Further, “America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war….the creation of a homeland security complex at a time of endless war has bequeathed us with the central narrative of the war on terror—modern tales of greed joined hand in hand with stories of abuse of power.”
Each chapter focuses on one or two particular story lines to highlight the activities of these deeper government activities and their efforts to keep them quiet. Quirky characters who managed to ingratiate themselves with the powerful in Washington are presented alongside those who have stood against the tide of corruption, secrecy, greed and power.
Business, money and power
The first chapter, “Pallets of Cash” explores the billions of dollars in cash that were distributed in Iraq during the 2003 war, much of which went missing, unaccounted for, while a couple billion more are reportedly stored in a Lebanon ‘safe site’. One of Risen’s current problems stems from the nature of his sources, many of whom he does not identify—for obvious reasons—but who are of interest to the powers that be in order to squelch them. As for the billions of dollars of missing cash, one has to wonder how much of that has gone to fund the strange rise of ISIS, its well-armed devotees, and its well-trained units.
In “The Emperor of the War on Terror”, the story of Dennis Montgomery’s scam of the CIA creating “one of the most elaborate and dangerous hoaxes in American history” is outlined. The CIA “buried the episode and acted like it never happened…trying to block any information about Montgomery and his schemes from becoming public.” More wonder, as this puts into question all the ‘saves’ claimed by the government against supposed terrorist actions.
As with all wars, money is to be made. “The New Oligarchs” looks at the companies and personnel involved with the drone wars (General Atomics), Abu Ghraib (CACI), and the training of Afghan police (Dyncorp). Power is the accompaniment to money. In “Rosetta”, Risen outlines the convoluted history of the 9/11 lawsuit against the Saudi financial elites. It is an awkward story to follow as shady characters acting within the shadows of government (including some within government) work towards their own ends, not necessarily those of the plaintiffs.
Risen writes, “The web of relationships that developed among Motley Rice, Mike Asimos, Rosetta, the Pentagon, the FBI, and the DEA operated completely outside the government’s normal intelligence-gathering processes … so dependent on personal contacts that few people in the government ever had the nerve to go back and try to unravel exactly what happened.”
The story of Rosetta shows how Bush “reached for a national security answer to terrorism rather than a law enforcement solution … using the courts was never an option.” It also shows how “greed and ambition have been married to unlimited rivers of cash” to create “rogue intelligence operations with little or no adult supervision.”
These currents of cash, power and ambition continue in the next chapter, “Alarbus”, a tale of “a runaway covert action program” underscoring “how greed and the hunt for cash have all too often become the main objects of the war on terror.”
Not to be outdone for cash and power, “Too Big To Fail” looks at KBR, the spin off from Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, the former “connected to the ‘vast majority’ of war-zone fraud cases referred to investigators.” KBR became the “biggest money machine of the Iraq war”, with a “contracting bonanza on an unprecedented scale,” and a “virtual monopoly over basic services,” giving KBR “enormous influence and inevitably helped shape the course of the war.”
Part III, “Endless War,” has three chapters titled “The War on… Decency/Normalcy/Truth.” The overriding theme concerns the lack of respect in general for humanity and what should be humanitarian principles of interaction domestically and with foreign affairs. It is the story of torture, domestic security in the physical sense, and finally the efforts of the NSA to establish itself as the hub of cyberspace security around the world.
The first idea, decency, examines the excuses and abuses for the application of torture, an idea that has surfaced before and more recently with the Senate report condemning the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation. Risen’s story follows that of Damien Corsetti, who described Abu Ghraib by saying, “if an evil place ever existed, that was it. It was all just death and fucking death. That single place changed everyone who was there. A cancerous growth went on there.” As should be common knowledge, “The only people who have been held to account are those who were at the very bottom of the chain of command.”
The whole torture archipelago, which extended well beyond Abu Ghraib and the CIA, “was built on a myth … despite strong evidence to the contrary.” The newly redefined torture tactics—“enhanced interrogation techniques”—“had been originally designed to break men and force them to spout lies and propaganda,” but the advocates claimed “they would elicit the truth, and not lies and propaganda. In the upside down world of the global war on terror, their explanations were widely accepted.”
After reading this chapter, another wonder rises: why would anyone bother to visit a psychiatrist or psychologist, as they and their associations were complicit in the torture setup.
“The War on Normalcy” first explores the towns of Derbyline, VT, and Stanstead, Quebec, really just one village bisected by the international border and, before 9/11, without any concerns about citizens meandering back and forth going about their daily business. That of course changed post 9/11, as one resident said, “There’s no negotiating with these people [Homeland Security]. It’s totally senseless. There is no thought put into it. Al Qaeda has won. They have changed our lives.” Big business, big money, has also won.
To this day, “The rush to transform the United States from an open society to a walled fortress … has not been curbed by the killing of Osama bin Laden.” The U.S., and indeed much of the western world, has succumbed to the fear of terror, “reinforced by the network of independent terrorism analysts that has grown up around the global war on terror … by consistently warning that America is under siege [they] have built a cottage industry out of fear.”
Terror is used as a political strength. “In the White House and Congress … American leaders have learned that keeping the terrorist threat alive provides enormous political benefits.” It is also used to create wealth for those in power and connected to power, “Fear sustains the multibillion dollar security industry through both Republican and Democratic administrations.”
This fear factor carries over into the final chapter, “The War on Truth,” which discusses the burgeoning role of the NSA and cyber security. It is “the story of the people who tried to stop the NSA’s domestic spying program … in the face of money, power, and greed. It is also the story of how government secrecy—and a crackdown on whistleblowers—has enabled the worst excesses of the post 9/11 era to go unchecked, from torture to data mining on a massive scale. Secrecy has enabled a new class of national security entrepreneurs and wild freebooters. Secrecy breeds corruption.”
Secrecy, greed, and corruption go together, “government secrecy has prevented the public from understanding the true nature of the cyber threat or knowing the full extent of the government’s intrusions into their online privacy in the name of cybersecurity.” There is, as per Edward Snowden, “little real difference between cybersecurity and domestic surveillance.”
There is now a whole new cybersecurity industrial complex, one which is also used offensively, as “the NSA is now one of the world’s leaders in the use of offensive cyberattacks,” and “has been behind some of the most sophisticated and damaging cyberattacks ever mounted,”—except of course for those we do not hear about, either from the U.S./Israel side, or the ‘other—evil’ side.
In closing, Risen says that his response to both the government’s campaign against him and to the endless wars and endless fear factors is the writing of Pay Any Price. It is his answer as “to how best challenge the government’s draconian efforts to crack down on aggressive investigative journalism and suppress the truth in the name of ceaseless war.”
Risen’s writing is clear and concise. He notes when certain personnel have refused comment on a particular subject, and has kept some of his sources at their request, from being named. The information he provides is well referenced and he uses outside indicators to support his anecdotal material. It is an enlightening read for the individual stories that are told, and for the repercussions that the global war on terror, and its associated power, greed, and secrecy has had on our daily lives.
 Two books well worth reading concerning torture, its history, applications and illegalities:
Philippe Sands, Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law (New York: Allen Lane, 2008).
Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).