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Delving into war secrets of the Bush administration

In his new book, ''State of War," New York Times reporter James Risen has made a persuasive but not compelling case against the Bush administration and what he calls its ''secret history" of activity that he claims has torn the fabric of the executive branch's checks and balances.

Risen, whose reporting was the basis of the Times's Dec. 16, 2005, revelation about President Bush's secret domestic spying program, argues that Bush has thrown out the ''cautious pragmatism" of presidents since World War II in the areas of foreign policy and national security. Instead, the president ''has taken an enormous gamble with American policy in the Arab world -- and with the lives of American soldiers."

At this point, no one can tell whether democracy will succeed in Iraq. If it does, it may be of a far different political stripe than its neoconservative progenitors expected. Right now, Bush's Iraq policy may be interpreted as a bold stroke of genius, or a disastrous stumbling in foreign policy.

The author argues that a pattern of oversight avoidance in the executive branch came close to being the norm. ''After 9/11, the moderating influences of the slow-moving bureaucracy were stripped away. The president and his principals -- Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and a handful of others -- held almost constant, crisis-atmosphere meetings, making decisions on the fly." Rice comes in for major criticism. According to Risen, she was no match for the political infighting abilities of Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney while she was director of the National Security Council.

The substratum of this strategy, according to Risen, is the thesis of plausible deniability for Bush. The author explains: ''It features a president who created a sphere of deniability in which his top aides were briefed on matters of utmost sensitivity -- but the president was carefully kept in ignorance."

If true, I think critics have cause to question the legitimacy of a sphere of deniability that senior officials are alleged to have set up for the president. In Washington, however, ''deniability" has always been hard to prove. Senior officials don't get to perches of power by divulging state secrets. Or, if they do, they don't stay there long. Sometimes a nod, a shrug, or silence can give consent to ''deniability." Those intent on such a policy know, from long years of experience, how to convey agreement without getting burned.

Risen gives evidence for what he calls ''an explosive chain of events" in the secret history of the Bush presidency. It includes sponsoring a questionable domestic spying operation by the National Security Agency, creating ''a zone of deniability" for issues of torture, giving nuclear bomb designs to Iran, the CIA's keeping from the president the fact that Iraq had no nuclear weapons, and allowing Afghanistan to continue as a narco state.

In ''State of War" Risen adds that ''the technical wizards of the National Security Agency have been engaged in a program of domestic data mining that is so vast, and so unprecedented, that it makes a mockery of long-standing privacy rules."

Concerning the torture of prisoners, Risen notes that ''Cheney and senior White House officials knew that Bush was not being briefed and that the CIA was not being given written presidential authorization for its tactics."

In a chapter titled ''Casus Belli," or the case for war, former CIA director George Tenet comes in for criticism. Risen states that ''just as Tenet failed to stand up to Rumsfeld, he and his management team failed to act as a buffer against the pressure being brought to bear by the administration's hard-liners."

CIA leaders acted as if they had information about weapons of mass destruction and about how close Saddam Hussein was to building nuclear weapons. But, Risen reports, some at the agency weren't so sure. In fact, the author says that evidence for Iraq's WMDs was so thin as to be transparent. ''The United States did not have the proof to back up what the president was saying publicly about Iraq," he writes.

''Merlin" was the CIA's code name for an operation that would pass on to Iran flawed nuclear blueprints via a Russian scientist on the CIA's payroll. It was a dangerous plan involving giving plenty of accurate information to Tehran, but with some misinformation. The idea was to find out what stage the Iranians were at in developing a nuclear weapon, and then send them down the ''wrong technical path." For reasons of spycraft amateurism, it went awry.

A final example of Bush administration bungling: It arrested Haji Bashir Noorzai, a major player in Afghanistan's drug trade as well as an Al Qaeda financier. But the administration became so distracted with the Iraq war that it cooled in its efforts to diminish the Afghani drug trade and never took advantage of its ability to turn Noorzai.

The Times held the Dec. 16 story for a year. Protection of sources, more in-depth reporting, and national security considerations were given as explanations for the delay by executive editor Bill Keller. Questions about holding the article that long continue to be asked by readers of the paper and others.

One wonders if the eavesdropping story was published in the paper when it became evident that the Risen book, originally scheduled for Jan. 16, was moved up to Jan. 3. The paper's embarrassment of being scooped by its own reporter's book would have been worse than the criticism it received for waiting a year at the request of senior administration officials.

After the publication of the story, the Department of Justice announced in late December that it would launch an investigation into the disclosure of classified information about the NSA program.

Risen acknowledges in his note on sources that some information he cites in his book was given to him ''on the condition of anonymity." It may be true, as he says, that ''the very best stories" rely on such sourcing. This approach is a heavy burden for the reader. Trusting a reporter with a record for honesty is sometimes the only way to get a story, but objective verification of the facts is better.

Risen has written a useful summary of the state of Iraq policy in the midst of the Bush administration's turmoil. Critics on both sides will have something to say about the arguments Risen lays out in ''State of War." But there isn't enough negative material in the book to knock George W. Bush off course. The president gives every indication of carrying on what began as the war on terrorism to America's increasing number of enemies -- and critics -- around the world.

State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration
By James Risen, Free Press, 240 pp., $26

Michael D. Langan is a retired Treasury enforcement official. He served as a senior expert with the UN Monitoring Group on the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

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