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New York Times Reporter James Risen pays the price for telling the truth about the war on terror in ‘Pay Any Price’

The war on terror has provided equal opportunity punishment for our political parties. It has decimated Republicans and Democrats alike.

In the wake of 9/11, a group of right-wing neocons convinced the country that an invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. They falsely claimed that Iraq was about to use weapons of mass destruction. The war on terror was on.

Five years later, a young Democrat, Barack Obama, promised to end that war. He was rewarded. His anti-war position defeated the neocon wing of his own party. He won the nomination and defeated the Republicans.

Ironically, a few weeks ago, that same President Obama led his party to massive defeat. He attempted to continue the war on terror that he once opposed. The tide had turned. Democrats paid a serious price.

How does one make sense of such self-destructive behavior by both sides of the conventional ideological spectrum? Why has this back and forth persisted for half a century?

Risen, veteran reporter for The New York Times, provides important answers in his book, “Pay Any Price: Greed Power and Endless War.”


Risen does not trifle with lengthy introductions. The opening section of his book is simply titled “Greed.” The first chapter of that section is called “Pallets of Cash.”

He reports that between 2003 and 2004 about $13 billion in $100 bills was flown to the Iraq war zone from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The volume of that cash pile was so huge that it filled the cargo holds of many C-17 Air Force planes on their way to Baghdad. There it greased the palms of our newly installed friendly government and its US advisers. There was no serious accounting. At least $2 billion completely disappeared.

Risen names the usual collection of suspects — Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — but makes it clear that there was a cast of thousands in the United States and in Iraq who profited handsomely from the death and maiming of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The loss of American tax dollars is significant, but sadly it only begins to define the damage.


Risen steadily moves toward the root of the problem. He shifts the emphasis to a bizarre, prolonged and poorly reported legal proceeding that is bogged down in federal district court in New York. There, a lawsuit has languished for more than a decade in which the plaintiffs attempt to place the blame for 9/11 on a small circle of the Saudi elite. The plaintiffs have linked well-connected Saudi business interests with a vast network of charities that siphoned funds to Osama bin Laden. It is claimed that these funds ultimately resulted in the events of 9/11.

With the support of Holder’s Justice Department, the Saudi government petitioned to have the Saudis removed as defendants in the case. Last July, in a scantly reported legal proceeding, the US Supreme Court reviewed the joint Department of Justice and Saudi government petition. The court refused to remove the Saudis from the case. A glimmer of hope remains.

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The legal proceedings drone on. Risen’s investigation is not finished.

Endless War

US military doctrine had scientifically documented that torture was an unsuccessful military interrogation tool. The Bush administration had simply cherry picked and distorted the military’s scientific findings.

Risen then moves to the final section, the open-ended war on terror that has dismantled our Constitution. He warns that our steady drift toward a national security state is a war on decency, normalcy and truth.

He recounts how well-intended US military enlisted personnel were led to participate in the disgraceful torture chambers run by our government at the prisons at Bagram and Abu Ghraib. He shows how the psychological pressures of war, augmented by legal approvals from the highest officials in the Bush White House, caused our enlisted personnel to engage in heinous acts of torture not seen since World War II. The loss of decency is further compounded as we learn that when the atrocities finally became public the government prosecuted the enlisted soldiers, and not the officials who developed the orders.

The torture program was a perversion of well-known official military research programs that were designed to accomplish just the opposite. US military doctrine had scientifically documented that torture was an unsuccessful military interrogation tool. The Bush administration had simply cherry picked and distorted the military’s scientific findings.

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He then describes how the war on terror has disrupted every aspect of our daily lives with the implementation of the National Security Agency’s national domestic spying program. This was done in secret. It had the approval of the highest judicial authorities. It was rubber stamped by the Senate and House Judiciary committees.

Risen calls this the war on normalcy.

The book concludes with the most tragic loss — the loss of truth itself. Risen describes many cases of government whistleblowers, all professionals from within the intelligence community, who went to great lengths to make the public aware of domestic spying. They were ignored, stonewalled and persecuted by all three branches of government.

Given this sad state of affairs, where are we to turn? The last resort is the Fourth Estate — the free press. Risen concludes with his description of his own persecution by the Bush and Obama Justice Departments. Attorney General Holder continues the Bush campaign against the press. Although prosecutors now say Risen would face limited questioning and not be asked to name his source if he testifies at the trial of an accused whistleblower, he still faces possible prosecution for the crime of reporting the truth.

[dc]“P[/dc]ay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War,” by James Risen, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 285 pp., $28.


Robert M. Nelson

Robert M. Nelson is a member of the board of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union. The views he represents are his own.

Republished with permission from the Pasadena Weekly.