Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Dig by John Preston

Paperback, 272 pages Published April 5th 2016 by Other Press (first published May 3rd 2007)

This beautifully composed short novel by John Preston may be most notable for its simplicity and understatement. In restrained tones that recall J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, we are treated to Edith Pretty, aged and wealthy owner of Sutton Hoo estate, who determines to discover if there is anything inside the earthwork mounds that dot her riverside Suffolk property. It is 1939 and the threat of a German invasion is everywhere discussed.

Preston’s fiction would be wonderful even if it didn’t describe a real event: the discovery in 1939 of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship for a king, long turned to sand, containing jewels and helmets, coins and gold trinkets, silver bowls and implements. When it was discovered, the find redefined Britain’s Dark Ages for what it showed of human capability and development.

I read the novel not knowing of the truth of the matter, and was completely captivated by Preston’s characterizations and narrative arc. The pace of his story allows us to meditate on themes he does not explicitly state: the impermanence of life and the pathos inherent in missed opportunities for a long and life-giving love.

That the author John Preston is rumored to be related to at least one of the characters in the real-life drama just makes the novel more intriguing. The Epilogue of the novel gives the viewpoint of the heir to Sutton Hoo estate many years later, who at the time of the discoveries was a young boy. He has the distance of many years from which to view events at that time and his thoughts on the “fragile shell” of a turned-to-sand body discovered in a pit nearby the hull of the ship makes us feel the churn of history, even the personal histories of individuals, very keenly.

As a novel, this is an exquisite gem. As a fictionalized version of an important archeological discovery, it is a must-read. At the time, the discovery was hailed as Britain’s Tutankhamun. Many historical societies and university departments vied for the opportunity to manage the dig, shouldering one another aside until a court decision put ownership of the find squarely in Edith Pretty’s hands.

Just two weeks before British involvement in World War II, Edith Pretty donated the find to the British Museum, making her the largest donor in history. Now artifacts from the find are beautifully displayed in the British Museum, giving resonance and meaning to life at the time of Beowulf.


Further information on the find can be found in the these links:
Encyclopedia Britannica
Archeology Society of Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo page of The National Trust


You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Hardcover, 332 pages Published February 2nd 2016 by Spiegel & Grau

Somehow the word “novelist” doesn’t quite capture Yann Martel’s art. If I had to describe what he does, I might say he writes storybooks for adults. They often have talking animals and a kind of magical realism. He questions the ordinary, celebrates the fantastic. “Stories benefit the human mind.” We understand through stories, and each of us interprets a story differently.

Martel’s new novel drops us into a strange and distant land, at a time before any of us can claim first-hand knowledge. While he presents the facts of the case, we wonder what knowledge we are meant to bring to aid understanding. We listen, feeling homeless, unsure. He then leads us homeward, and in the last third we find ourselves quite at home and at peace…with a chimpanzee…in Portugal.

Religious belief, the bond animals and humans share, and big questions (“That’s the great, enduring challenge of our modern times, is it not, to marry faith and reason?”) are enduring themes in Martel’s work. We move through a century in one family’s history, collecting wisdom, only to have to succeeding generations keep the form but not the reason for an added custom, like walking backward in a state of grief, or the name and circumstance of one they worship as a “saint.” In three parts we have three married couples, all of whom have lost one lifelong partner, searching for meaning in their grief.
“Grief is a disease. We were riddled with its pockmarks, tormented by its fevers, broken by its blows. It ate at us like maggots, attacked us like lice—we scratched ourselves to the edge of madness. In the process we became as withered as crickets, as tired as old dogs.”

Martel’s stories are always filled with symbolism, some sitting on the surface and easy to grasp, and others discovered only after much contemplation. Real issues critical to our understanding of the world are treated with whimsy and humor, not scorn or disdain.

Martel makes the point that neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi makes in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air: that the goodness and blind faith required of us by religion is too hard to live up to on a daily basis. Reason is easier, both to comprehend and to use as a kind of measure of goodness. Neither faith nor reason is enough on its own: neither explains the world adequately. “Reason is blind. Reason, on its own, leads us nowhere, especially in the face of adversity.” And what of joy? Love? Reason doesn’t explain those, either.

Martel creates a character who suggests that an Agatha Christie murder mystery might combine the two: “the solution [is] stories that put reason on brilliant display while keeping one close to Jesus of Nazareth.” He compares the form of Agatha Christie novels to the gospels and hypothesizes that both are stories with a central murder mystery. The facts are laid out with great formality and ceremony, but no one ever seems to remember who the murderer is. Who killed Jesus? It is true that murder mysteries are compulsive reading material for adults, as are our bibles, whichever religion we examine.

Martel goes further. He takes the central imagic trope in the novel, an ancient carved wooden crucifix, and proposes us that the figure of Christ on the Cross might actually be a Chimp on the Cross--a crudely-carved naïve attempt at perspective, a statement on the development of man from ape, or a challenge that man was more pure, present, and godlike before he developed reason. That would be to say nothing of the literal: that humans have lorded over and crucified wild animals, even those so close in genealogy to ourselves, bringing us shame and not salvation.

Martel has no sacred cows. Reviewers have criticized him in the past for challenging the sanctity of well-protected myths and histories. I find Martel dazzling in his fearlessness, rigorous in his thinking, and deep in his conclusions. He is not dismissive of faith: he thinks it both interesting and necessary, providing a kind of useful moral structure. The formal ritual of organized religion does not impress him: “architectural modesty best suits the religious sentiment. Only song needs to soar in a church; anything fancier is human arrogance disguised as faith.”

There is something intoxicating and deeply reassuring about the final section of the book in which is recounted the story of Odo the chimp, rescued from the research lab in America’s southwest. Odo is old and wise enough to have developed a kind of culture and a rudimentary understanding of language. He can communicate, if not without misunderstandings. Odo seems to have no notion of past and future; he is all about the present. His human companion, Peter, discovers that he would prefer to become more Odo-like in his “profound simplicity of means and aims...members of [Peter’s] own species...are too noisy, too fractious, too arrogant, too unreliable. He much prefers the intense silence of Odo’s presence, his pensive slowness in whatever he does…”

A couple of last things: There is a profoundly affecting marriage consummation scene in this novel which gives readers a glimpse into what kind of man the author is, for who else could create such a scene? Both husband and wife are virgins; he twenty-one and she seventeen. Sex itself is all still a mystery, but they work it out together. The bride had never known desire, nor where hers lay, but her new husband searched for, and found, her hidden place and they lived and loved passionately ever after. Martel makes it beautiful, sexy, joyous, and absolutely right-sounding.

Was there ever an Iberian Rhinocerous? I doubt it, though he had me believing, just a little.

I’m a fan.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Mon amie américaine by Michèle Hudsveldt, translated by Bruce Benderson

Paperback, 176 pages Published Spring 2016 by Other Press

Two film producers and critics, Molly and Michèle, have more in common than their professions. They are friends, deep-bonded in a way that comes rarely in a lifetime. Michèle writes that Molly is just another iteration of herself, one who had made different choices but was essentially the same. Each woman could see how their life might have turned out had they made the choices of the other, one with children and one without. That one was French and one American made no difference, at least to them.

This gorgeously-written and -translated novel leaves us pondering our responsibility to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. The truths it contains are recognizable dilemmas any of us might face: we can imagine having to make these choices.

Halberstadt defines the friendship between the two women distinctly. The two meet several times a year on different continents, attending festivals where they watch the current crop of films, compile their critiques, and plan their free time together. Laughter and shared intimacies leave each feeling unrestricted and free to be themselves, reflected and treasured by the other. When the sudden nagging migraines of forty-year-old Molly turn out to be a brain aneurysm, Michèle blames herself.

In the explanation to her small children about why she cries, Michèle describes Molly’s coma as the deep sleep of a princess. “Waiting for Prince Charming to come and give her a kiss!” the children crow, closer to the truth than they know. When Molly finally wakes after three months, she is partially paralyzed, and her persistent short-term memory loss leaves her feeling angry, cheated of life. While she seems to retain some of her personality, her drive and verve is gone. Molly’s reaction to her condition is more a tragedy than the actual fact of her disability. She loses her defenses.

What is so involving about this novel is the immediate form, written, in the beginning, as a letter from Michèle to Molly as Molly lay unmoving, unhearing. Michèle counts the ways she loves her friend: her sappy romanticism, her trick of whistling like a boy with two fingers, her frozen-food gourmandism. How she misses her. Michèle’s own life with her husband and her children has stresses and strains that she longs to share, to get relief and perspective. But as Molly languishes, Michèle feels there is no way to tell her friend that her husband has begun an affair--wearing aftershave, getting haircuts and new clothes, carrying his phone like a talisman—and that her children now turn to the nanny for comfort. Things are slipping away and Michèle appears to be losing almost as much as Molly: her best friend, her husband, and her children.

There almost seems something unfinished in this novel, but I believe whatever it is that is missing is what we are meant to supply. Both women react similarly to crises in their lives at first, true to the nature of the shared core they recognize and celebrate in friendship. They do nothing. Molly refuses to take up the challenge of carrying on her profession, or any profession, by carrying her disability there.
”You don’t understand. I’m about to turn forty-one. Who am I supposed to be fighting for? For the guy I don’t have? For the children I’ll never have? I’m tired… I don’t even have the nerve to end it all.”
Michèle, when faced with her husband’s infidelity, doesn’t have the courage to call him on it.
”I still haven’t spoken to Vincent. As long as the words aren’t spoken, the things they conceal have no reality…three words on a cell phone have turned me into this tense, nervous, unhappy woman I scarcely recognize.”
But Michèle does eventually act (“Molly, you would be proud of me”) and that is why she will survive when Molly cannot.

At its finest, this novel is a meditation on the need for courage in the face of challenge. Sometimes it takes more than we think we have. But without courage, life can lose its meaning. Layered into the meditation are the uncertainties that come with friendships and married relationships. What do we owe one another? How we deal with our relationships, and with our challenges, will define us.


You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, March 28, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Hardcover, 228 pages Published January 12th 2016 by Random House

What makes human life meaningful? Kalanithi, a thirty-six year old neurosurgeon, tried to locate the nexus of language between science and philosophy to answer the question. “Literature provide[s] the best account of a life of the mind, illuminates another’s experience, and provides the richest material for moral reflection.” There is messiness and weight in real human life that is not accounted for by science, says Kalanithi. Science and analytics (and atheism) cannot encompass all the mystery of human life. He gives the best argument I have heard for religious faith, suggesting that no one human has any answers because each individual has only piece of the puzzle. It is only in human connection that we can start to put the pieces together, making sense of the world. “Human knowledge grows in the relationships we form between each other and the world.”

Science, created by human hands to make sense of the world, cannot contain the world. It doesn’t account for those things that make literature, and life, so compelling and so meaningful: “hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue…sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness…justice...goodness…mercy.” Questions without answers. Pieces of a puzzle.

Kalanithi died of lung cancer shortly after writing these words. But he strove every day, in his work, in his studies, in his family and friends, to find meaning in life. He thought it might reside in words. Language. As a neurosurgeon he was taught, and he believed, that if a person lost the capacity to communicate--to speak or to understand language—their life became no life at all. He was a student of literature besides being a neurosurgeon, and in language was meaning.

This memoir is Kalanithi’s attempt at connection. The Foreword is written by a Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the unique and unforgettable novel about medicine and Africa, Cutting for Stone. The Epilogue is written by his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, also a doctor. Their words fore and aft add heft and a kind of imprimatur: this man really existed and, yes, he was as thoughtful as he appears. His life had meaning.

Kalanithi changed my mind about something, and showed up a deficit, a smallness in my own thinking. I have always been suspicious of people who spend their lives in school, even though they might be concurrently working, piling up more and more degrees. Anybody can do that, I thought. Kalanithi completed a Bachelor's in English literature and human biology, a Master's in English literature, a degree from Cambridge in the history and philosophy of science and medicine, a medical degree with neuroscience and neurosurgery specializations. He was in his mid-thirties when he finally finished. And then he died. That last year he wrote this book and he managed to show me that, if one is focused and serious and seeks the critical nexus between life and death, one may begin to perceive the outlines of a moral philosophy that might help answer the large questions. We only have a lifetime to find meaning, and sometimes that lifetime is short.

When Kalanithi talks of his 8-month old daughter shortly before his death, how she is all future and he is all past, we see what he sees: that their circles just touch, but don’t significantly overlap. She will never know him. This has the poignancy, truth, messiness, love, and tragedy of literature. Of life.

I listened to the audio of this book, read by Sunil Malhotra and Cassandra Campbell. I have encountered Malhotra before and he is one of the best narrators in my experience. His pacing is perfect and he makes the reading very easy to follow. I ended up buying the hardcover because the book was so meaningful for me and because it is easy to pass around.
“One key to managing a terminal illness is to be deeply in love, vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful.” –Lucy Kalanithi



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Red Notice by Bill Browder

Paperback, 416 pages Published October 20th 2015 by Simon & Schuster (first published January 1st 2015)

Bill Browder has a fascinating tale to tell, of his family background as the grandson of a noted Communist, of his math-whiz father and mother, of his physicist brother. He was the black sheep of the family…until he became a billionaire in his thirties by investing in undervalued Russian oil stocks. His first foray into Russia, to advise the Murmansk Trawler Fleet on privatization, must go down in the annals as a classic of West meets East. The whole story of Browder’s rise to wealth, with its moments of terrifying vertigo as markets collapsed with the Asian economic crisis in 1997, is propulsive and gripping. But more was to come, and no one could imagine the way the saga unfolded.

A red notice is issued by Interpol for the provisional arrest and extradition of an individual for whom an arrest warrant has been issued in the requesting country. Russia requested a red notice from Interpol with regard to Bill Browder, charging him in absentia with tax evasion among other crimes including the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a Browder lawyer who perished in a Russian jail after medical interventions were withheld. This book tells the story of how Magnitsky’s oppressors became international pariahs, had their U.S.-based assets frozen and visas revoked or refused, a result of The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act passed in the United States in December 2012.

Browder’s Hermitage Capital Management hedge fund still operates, though after his expulsion from Russia Browder was obliged to expand his investment purview, opening Hermitage Global which focused on emerging markets. Hermitage Capital Management almost from its inception was an activist fund which exposed criminal wrongdoing by majority shareholders in undervaluing or “stealing” company assets in order to allow profits to flow to corrupt bureaucrats and their businessmen partners. Browder would purchase a minority share in a [often large oil] company, and then expose how the shares were undervalued, prompting many investors to jump into the market for the shares, enriching Browder. One year Browder paid $230 million in income taxes to the Russian state on $1.3 billion in profits. It is just this sum which was later the subject of Russia’s state investigation.

Putin and his circle including Medvedev are implicated in Browder’s story, though Browder shows how Putin was initially outraged at the theft of assets from state coffers, back at the beginning of Browder’s hedge fund successes. Actually, the whole setup—the issuing of vouchers to every Russian for “ownership” of state assets—is a fascinating history that requires further investigation. This compelling story of Browder and Magnitsky does what good nonfiction is meant to do: it makes you hungry for more depth, more history, more info on Putin, Pussy Riot, and Russia itself.

Browder’s writing is best in the beginning, when he tells of his early interest in East European stocks and how he came to look at the investment banking scene. It is pure Michael Lewis-style disbelief at the life of a Wall Street banker. We revel, then, when he sets off on his own, scaring up seed money and taking chances. Browder also shares his personal life, his expensive (and often working) vacations, including resort names, which allowing us a little vicarious vacationing ourselves.

If Browder’s gee whiz writing style began to grate a little by the end, and become a little less believable coming from a much older and wiser billionaire, I put it down to his awareness of his role in creating the disaster that resulted in the need for the Magnitsky Act. There may be something inherently corrupting about making vast amounts of money, albeit perfectly legally, by exploiting the discrepancies in unfair or exploitative valuations as a result of societal and political dislocations. There appears to be no shortage of real oppression in Russia today, and laws have not been robust enough to protect people from exploitation. It looks like a place where we can see naked human nature on display. I thank Browder for the introduction.


You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, March 17, 2016

United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists by Peter Bergen

Hardcover, 416 pages published April 12th 2016 by Crown (first published February 10th 2015)

When America began experiencing religious-motivated extremism in the 1990's, officials theorized that the people perpetrating acts of terror were psychiatric cases, loners, angry and destitute, or out of step with society. Bergen asks several questions in this book: who are the terrorists, what is their path to radicalization, and is there a way to short circuit their deadly plans? Looking over hundreds of cases of homegrown jihadism, Bergen chooses several that illustrate some “classic” characteristics and discusses how those cases ended up. He tells us that we may never know why an individual chooses to become a suicide bomber among innocents, but if we recognize the patterns, we might be able to intervene at some critical stage to turn the motivation.

Shortly after 9/11, the work of a long-time CIA psychiatrist contravened most of the then-current suppositions about terrorists, revealing that the majority of “men who joined were middle-class, relatively well-educated, mentally stable and often married with children.” But another man, a radical jihadist himself, thought the top-down bureaucracy of Al Qaeda too inflexible to last and recommended spontaneous operations, or leaderless jihad. No direct affiliation with a terrorist organization has become a prevalent form of successful terrorism in this country in the decades since 9/11, though individuals might receive encouragement, perhaps training, and some resources from overseas, or from websites created overseas. The type of person involved often has some education and appears adjusted until there is a “cognitive opening” (a shock, disappointment, or tragedy) that makes individuals question their place in the world. Gradually they may begin to limit their circle of friends to those who agree with their worldview, may change their appearance, and try to convert others. Only a third of those examined were employed at the time of their change because the radicalism takes over one’s life. Bergen suggests mosques could have an important role in recognizing and defusing Islamic-type radicalism.

There were seventy-two plots against America by homegrown jihadists since 9/11, and Bergen details some of them here. He also points out that the NYPD and the FBI were aggressive in pinpointing nascent aggression and set up stings to get individuals out of circulation.
“Al-Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan has mounted six terrorist plots (of varying sophistication); al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has mounted two; the Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate have each mounted one. Three other plots were engineered by the NYPD. The FBI has been responsible for thirty.”

Bergen discusses the U.S. administration’s preferred way to deal with terror cells: drone strikes.
“Under the Bush administration, there was an American drone attack in Pakistan every forty-three days. During the first two years of the Obama presidency, there was one every four days. And in 2011 and 2012, just as strikes in Pakistan began to slow, Obama vastly accelerated the campaign in Yemen. Just one drone strike occurred in Yemen under Bush; under Obama the numbers climbed to 120 drone and cruise missile strikes.”
Bergen discusses the circumstances and lead-up to the death of the American cleric al-Awlaki and, separately, his son in Yemen. When some American officials expressed concern over the targeting of an American overseas, after looking at the vast body of evidence, they concurred with the decision. Awlaki’s son was “collateral damage,” killed because someone with whom he was travelling was targeted. I have watched Jeremy Scahill’s film, Dirty Wars, which addresses this incident, among others. I do not find myself troubled by the questionable legality of targeting of al-Awlaki, Sr. Collateral damage will always be a stain on us, however, and even if it does not trouble us, it troubles others, and will be something we will be defending forever, as this is the radicalizing element.

Bergen addresses the means of collecting information about possible terrorists and concludes that among homegrown terrorists,
“sixteen [plots] involved a terrorist act that was not prevented by any type of government action, such as the failed attempt by Faisal Shahzad to blow up a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. Of the remaining fifty-six plots, the public record shows that forty were uncovered by traditional law enforcement methods, such as the use of informants, community tips about suspicious activity, and standard policing practices….With regard to the 330 individuals involved in jihadist crime in the United States since 9/11, surveillance of American phone data had no discernible role in preventing acts of terrorism and only a marginal role in preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fund-raising for a jihadist group.”
While Bergen’s numbers do not precisely add up, we can take his analysis to mean that the NSA program is not as effective as previously touted, but it may have been something we needed to try to see if it netted information we were missing. It didn’t. We can therefore rest easy that the law has been changed not to allow it with little fear about our ability to stave off threats.

One final thing Bergen raises at the end of the book is the increasing role of women in jihad. The one thing that was different about the San Bernadino attacks is that a woman was involved. He notes that women travelling to the Middle East to join ISIS also have a prominent place in the media surrounding the camps there, tweeting to possible recruits about how cool it is to be part of a movement.

What makes this book special is its exquisite fluency, clarity, and roundedness: it addresses most of the questions ordinary citizens might have about the nature of the threat in America and is so interesting it is difficult to put it down. We get details about events we only marginally understood at the time it was happening. We get the background theory behind administration policies and the radicalization of citizens that make those policies necessary. It is a fascinating look at the work done by law enforcement to try to understand where the limits to privacy begin and end. It’s a terrific, informative read.

I’d heard of Peter Bergen before but I’d never read anything by him before this book. Bergen, with Peter Arnett, was responsible for the first TV interview of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1997. Bergen is now CNN’s national security analyst, a print and broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is also a Vice President at the New America non-partisan think tank based in Washington. Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars was a former president of New America, an institution now led by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living, is a fellow in the International Security Program at New America. Bergen's long list of books on security threats have won many awards, but it wasn't until I heard Bergen interviewed by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central and heard Bergen's laugh that I wanted to look at this book. Call me shallow.




You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Black Banners by Ali H. Soufan

Audio, 14 pages Published December 1st 2011 by Blackstone Audiobooks (first published September 1st 2011)

Ali Soufan was an FBI Special Agent in charge of Al Qaeda-related research and attacks when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11. He knew and had worked closely with NYC FBI Special Agent John O’Neill before he resigned to work in the towers as security chief there. Born in Lebanon, Soufan is an Arabic-speaker that gave him more immediate access to informants and materials collected as a result of raids on plot suspects. This is his story of how the investigation into the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the World Trade Center attacks unfolded.

Soufan comes across as insightful, meticulous, and fiercely devoted to his task. Through his telling we see the culture of suited and pressed (buttoned-up) FBI contrast sharply with the looser, intuitive (unbuttoned) CIA, with whom it had to work closely. The FBI was meant to focus internally in the U.S. while the CIA was tasked outside the country, but in the case of terrorism, they often were meant to cooperate. Soufan’s testimony illustrates how important it is to have personnel who can function with a maximum of critical thinking and a minimum of ego expression, and how often that simple requirement is the fulcrum upon which patient legwork rests. This is one of the ultimate crime stories, not without its moments of ludicrous missteps and the sudden discovery of important clues.

While the level of detail in this book may be interesting only to other investigators (or the investigators of investigators, like the 9/11 Commission), casual readers/listeners can glean some important insights into the nature of terrorism, Islamic society, Al Qaeda, the FBI, the CIA, effective methods of interrogation, the tenor and tone of U.S. State Department and administration policies, and Yemen involvement and/or acquiescence in allowing the plots to unfold. For those insights, it is an indispensable document.

What specifically struck me was the nature of the folk we have come to call our enemy. Soufan managed to show that many of the “extensive network of terrorists” are simple people in technologically backward nations who don’t think linearly, often name themselves from the town in which they originate, have a very shallow vision of the world outside their immediate purview, are fiercely adherent to blood and tribal connections, and are as impressed and overwhelmed by great wealth and power as any human with limited horizons. The nature of the enemy has evolved since then, but reading this was a little like discovering the stuff missing from the back of our car wasn’t stolen: we’d left the hatchback open and the stuff had fallen out. Shock, dismay, and what could we have done differently?

The other thing I learned was how interrogations can be conducted. In many cases, interrogations are like the blind man and the elephant. The interrogator is not sure what exactly it is that he/she expects to find. The information might be false, but there are ways of circling back to clarify inconsistencies. What Soufan shows us is that a painstaking and agonizingly slow process by knowledgeable and respectful interrogators can yield results that more aggressive methods (like Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) do not. Soufan points out that CIA documents later asserted that EIT were meant to “gradually” elicit information, not get the information quickly. Long after the interrogations were finished, detainees admitted lying during EIT sessions in order to end the torture. One thing should have been glaringly obvious to those involved in these interrogations: Going to the dark side negates everything we are and fear is our greatest enemy.

The CIA only gained authority for interrogations on September 17, 2001 when President Bush wrote a “Memorandum of Notification” that allowed CIA to capture, detain, and interrogate terrorism suspects.” Previously the CIA collected information, and the FBI and military intelligence conducted interrogations. The CIA had no institutional experience or expertise in this area and were making it up as they went along. They hired a psychologist, Boris, with no experience and used EIT of his devising on high value detainees.

The curious and revelatory thing about this book is that it was published September 12, 2011 and yet it is written as though it were a diary: at the beginning we do not see the end, even though we already know the history. We only gradually perceive Soufan’s growing confidence and awareness of the outlines of the endeavor in which he is engaged. Because of his language skills and his experience growing up in Lebanon and the U.S., he was not as intimidated as others by confusion in the environment into which he was thrust: he recognized the detainees for what they were. Some were high level operatives and many were mere conduits. He could get information from all of them without inflating their respective roles. Respect and patience and behind the scenes research did more for information recovery than any EIT devised. The transformation of a new FBI recruit to one of the most respected names in terrorist interrogation is one Soufan allows us to trace. Yes, he is telling the story, but it has some credence because of his growing anger at and diligent recording of CIA activities conducted on behalf of the White House and authorities there, which have been authenticated by the 9/11 committee.

If we did not have enough evidence of incompetence, hubris, and the pernicious nature of covert activities run amok, the evidence presented here should suffice to close the CIA down. Instead we learn that some of the most egregious acts were made by folks now seeded throughout congress oversight committees. I understand mistakes, but I cannot understand why the mistakes are not taken to heart. Some mistakes are too big to forgive.

By now we all know the failures of intelligence that led to 9/11. A 2006 article profiling Soufan by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker covers much of the material in this book in a much shorter format, but it did not yield the insights that I gleaned from this lengthier account.

What I’d really like to know now, after reading Guantánamo Diary by detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is what Ali Soufan made of his case. We know Soufan visited Guantanamo and probably interviewed Slahi because at one point Slahi was thought to be the highest value detainee in the facility. He does not mention him in his chapter on Guantanamo. If he did not consider him a high-value detainee then, he might have a moral obligation to speak out now about that case because Slahi is still being held.

I listened to the Blackstone Audio production of this book, read by Neil Shah. Shah did a superb job with pronunciation and pacing. The book was heavily redacted towards the end, so this provided some discontinuity, but it was comprehensible enough.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? by Henry Kissinger

Hardcover, 320 pages Published June 14th 2001 by Simon & Schuster (first published 2001)

Kissinger wrote this book in the spring of 2001, and in a very short period of time it was completely out of touch. Kissinger berates the American public in Chapter One for being unable to find other countries on a map, and for being so consumed with ourselves. Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski did the same, in 2008 in America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy. They are probably right. The map looks differently in two dimensions, and certainly we can be self-obsessed. One wonders if they would be pleased if we formed opinions on their conduct of foreign policy on our behalf.

Kissinger nowhere mentions the challenges that faced us later in 2001, an indication of how closely he was paying attention to world events. In a way, this book is a dry run for his later, shorter, more historically distant, and better received World Order (2014). While in that later book Kissinger talks about the long history of foreign relations, in this 2001 book he talks about the continuity of U.S. foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At one point he suggests that Germany might align its interests with Russia, often historically powerful allies, showing how hard it must be for an old cold warrior to lose his traditional enemy and to admit that thinking of the world in large strategic chess pieces may cause us to overlook important details.

Kissinger does a better job of looking at Latin America and Africa than these types of books usually manage, though the only thing he praises about the “maladroit” handling of foreign affairs by President Clinton is NAFTA, the “fair trade” deal which we are reconsidering now. (Conversely, he praises the “wisdom” of President George W. Bush.)
“…it would be an irony if the new millennium’s most distinctive achievement were to turn into a vulnerability…the very process that has produced greater wealth in more parts of the world than ever before may also provide the mechanism for spreading an economic and social crisis around the world. Just as the American economy has been the world’s engine of growth, a major setback for the American economy would have grave consequences transcending the economic realm. Depending on its magnitude, it could threaten political stability in many countries and undermine Americans international standing.”
He got that right.

Regarding China, he makes the observation that Deng Xiao Ping “had been perhaps too daring in his economic reforms and surely too cautious in the political reforms his policies made inevitable—ironically, the opposite mistake of his contemporary, Mikhail Gorbachev.” Later he says
“American foreign policy became increasingly driven by domestic politics…[like when] early in his administration [President Clinton] made the granting of Most Favored Nation status to China dependent on Chinese demonstrations of progress on human rights within a year…Nothing illustrates better the collapse of the Westphalian notion of noninterference than the proposition that freedom of speech and the press, which has never existed in the five millennia of Chinese history, could be brought about through legislation by the American Congress…”
I guess that’s a “no” on tying cooperation to human rights.

One of Kissinger’s last arguments, disagreement with the “Responsibility to Protect” U.N. mandate adopted in 2009, was one which shows how far out of step with the world he was becoming.
”The United States has come a long way since John Quincy Adams warned against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy…On one level the growing concern with human rights is one of the achievements of our age and it is certainly a testament to progress toward a more humane international order…There is irony in all this when one recalls that, during the Cold War, the Wilsonians [the ideological Left] had argued that excessive concern with security was leading to strategic overextension and an illusion of American omnipotence. Yet now, in the post-Cold War era, they are urging a global mission for the United States and on behalf of humanitarian and moral values, which risks an even more sweeping overextension.”
I grudgingly concede he is right about that, which has led me to an in-depth study of foreign policy at this time. If we must lead by reason of our role as the world’s sole superpower, how can we best to do that? Even as I write this, I wonder if there might be some unexpected and enlightened leadership from an unlikely source, not a superpower, considering our domestic disarray and our navel-gazing populace. Whatever we decide will have to include some accommodation with the massive changes that will come when water rises around the globe and the dislocations resulting from that and changing weather patterns. How can we best face those pressures with dignity, grace, and that insistence on human rights?

At the end of this book is a remarkable polemic on universal jurisdiction, or the concept of submitting international politics to judicial procedures.
“The doctrine of universal jurisdiction asserts that there are crimes so heinous that their perpetrators should not be able to escape justice by invoking doctrines of sovereignty or the sacrosanct nature of national frontiers. …But any universal system should contain procedures not only to punish the wicked but to constrain the righteous. It must not allow legal principles to be used as weapons to settle political scores…”
Kissinger sounds horrified that Americans, in particular Americans in leadership, could be judged by such international standards of justice, when they were only pursuing a foreign policy that was for their exclusive benefit. Kissinger tries to explain his role in the CIA overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and the installation of the notorious Pinochet regime. In any case, he should have known better. When the International Criminal Court later wanted to convict some of the leaders in the former Yugoslavia for “crimes against humanity,” an American judge put in place significant roadblocks which had the effect of raising the burden of proof involved in convicting political leaders. Thus Americans were not indicted for a range of activities that came awfully close to such definitions.

As usual, what Kissinger says is more reasonable and palatable than what he does.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Paperback, 550 pages Published July 1st 2008 by Serpent's Tail (first published January 1st 2007)

One can draw a straight line from Tim Weiner’s extensive report on the CIA, Legacy of Ashes and this book by Jeremy Scahill on the outsourcing of American military, security, and investigative duties. Scahill centers his work around the event that transfixed the world and brought awareness of Blackwater to the fore for those of us not immediately engaged in military operations: the 2004 murder of Blackwater employees in the city of Fallujah wherein the victims were killed, dismembered, and hung from an overpass to remind Americans that in Fallujah at least, Americans were not welcome.

What Scahill shares with us here is his report of a Christian army of for-profit soldiers headquartered in North Carolina who have grown in size and weaponry to rival national militaries around the world. Begun in 1997 as a private advanced training facility for active-duty soldiers and police, Blackwater grew during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to supplying weapons-trained military “security personnel,” receiving lucrative contracts from a U.S. government unwilling to face the political backlash from a public unhappy with military losses overseas. Blackwater marketed its services by saying it could accomplish more with less, though it is difficult to see how their proffered services cost us less.

As profits grew for the corporate organization, Blackwater sought cheaper and cheaper contracts with mercenary soldiers in South American and Latin American countries, as well as Eastern European, African, and select Asian countries. Sometimes when they cut corners on equipment, training, or staffing they found themselves embroiled in lawsuits in the U.S. as a result of tragic and allegedly preventable deaths.

What was particularly shocking to me was the overt tone of the speeches and promotional material produced by the leadership of the organization, in that it completely resembled ISIS rhetoric about holy wars, and fighting for the will of God. Far right wing religious groups with which Blackwater founder Erik Prince is affiliated were writing in the 1990’s that the Christian community might need to face the possibility that the “regime” (our government!) might force their Church into confrontation ranging from “noncompliance…to morally justified revolution.” It is in this context that the largest privately-held store of military grade weapons was begun. Their god is a Christian one, but they stand allied with Israel, and trace their religious roots back to the Crusades, which was medieval in its very concept and reflected the fanatic religious warriors now terrorizing the Middle East.

Scahill is scrupulous in his reporting on the effect of Blackwater forces in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and when it seems he might be getting off the point by describing, for instance, the Chilean mercenary contingent that became a part of Blackwater, he is so vastly interesting that I’m glad he left the material in. Scahill also details the use of Blackwater forces in the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, providing property and force protection for FEMA officials. It seems appropriate somehow that Bush was more concerned with property than with residents.

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that these contractors do not operate under the same restrictions and set of rules that govern national troops, and their contracts often leave them free of liability or of obligations in terms of insurance that we commonly find acceptable. Critics decry the rise of heavily-armed mercenaries as “killers for hire,” suggesting that their contractual freedom from culpability and their for-profit motive may lead them to start conflict rather than prevent it.

The growth of Blackwater was exponential during the years of a Republican government and was not curbed enough under a Democratic president. “In 2008 the number of private contractors in Iraq was at a one-to-one ratio with active-duty U.S. soldiers,” according to Scahill. This book was published in 2007 and updated in 2008, but a June 2010 article in Nation magazine written by Scahill brings us up to date:
“Blackwater is up for sale and its shadowy owner, Erik Prince, is rumored to be planning to move to the United Arab Emirates as his top deputies face indictment for a range of alleged crimes, yet the company remains a central part of President Obama’s Afghanistan war. Now, Blackwater’s role is expanding…

...Earlier this year, Schakowsky and Senator Bernie Sanders reintroduced the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which would phase out the use of private security contractors by the government. Ironically, Hillary Clinton was a co-sponsor of the legislation when she was a senator and running for president. Now, as Secretary of State, she is the US official in charge of most Blackwater contracts. Blackwater is also bidding on a contract potentially worth up to $1 billion to train the Afghan National Police.”

It is difficult for me to accept the concept of a religiously-motivated army and I am not comfortable with a extra-legal military force that operates for profit.

Scahill won the George Polk Award for his reporting on Blackwater. The book is beautifully written and though a big book, it is an engrossing read. I listened to the Blackstone Audio production audio read by Tom (not Tim) Weiner and thought it terrific.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, March 4, 2016

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

Audio CD, 17 pages Published June 28th 2007 by Blackstone Audio Inc. (first published January 1st 2007)

Tim Weiner deserves enormous credit for amassing such a huge and detailed body of information for us to look at and judge the CIA. He writes history the way I prefer to read it: chronologically. When characters appear before or after their moment in the limelight, Weiner tries to keep them in context of events happening contemporaneously. This is a huge aid to both our understanding and to our judgment. That having been said, this was a difficult book to read/listen to because of the poor assessment of the Agency, because of the accretion of evidence of mistakes and incompetence, because of the massive amount of information readers get about how the Agency operated at different times under different leaders with different mandates.

The easy solutions to repairing or overhauling the Agency when they have done something spectacularly inept--or not done something, like prepare us for 9/11--have all been tried, each unsuccessful in its own way. Weiner has given us the material with which to begin to understand what we as citizens have tasked (and funded) the Agency to do and to ask ourselves if this is still a valid and do-able goal.

Soliciting secrets held by foreign governments can be very difficult work. Most of the time those secrets are revealed because individuals have a reason for wanting to impart the information, a reason that may have little to do with money, though money often does grease the wheels. The information could be disinformation. It takes an unusual person who is willing to use their language skills and familiarity with other countries to live overseas undercover, to deceive, steal, and manipulate their way to secrets. “It’s a dirty business.” [Richard Helms] It would seem the very nature of the work would predicate a small clandestine field arm, therefore limiting the size of the analyst arm.

Weiner starts with the genesis of the Agency, an outgrowth of the Office of Strategic Services which parachuted agents behind enemy lines in WWII Europe to sabotage the enemy and influence the course of the war. While it was put about when speaking with the American public that an Agency that could understand the intent of hostile nations would be better prepared against attack by those nations, really its model was not merely listening, but acting. Immediately upon its conception, a result of the predilection of Agency leaders and because powerful men, including presidents, found the secrecy aspect of the Agency irresistible, the Agency became an instrument, not simply of “intelligence” but of covert action. And every president sought to change (even wanted to abolish) the Agency when its failures became politically unbearable.

The truth is that a spy agency that operates in secret has also often withheld their secrets from the president and his council of advisors. Worse than that, sometimes they tailored the information they gave to the president to suit his predilections.

Weiner gives examples of successes amidst the roster of failures of intelligence. The CIA muscled the Taiwan government into abandoning its plan to develop a nuclear weapon; they managed to cripple the Abu Nidal organization through disinformation; the CIA stymied Soviet attempts to steal corporate software by implanting bugs into targeted software. And Weiner seems to admire, or at least not coruscate, certain CIA officers like Robert Ames, the Arabist scholar-spy memorialized by Kai Bird in The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames and who was killed in the Beirut embassy bombing in 1984. Weiner also gives a pass to Robert Gates, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense under two presidents. Weiner acknowledges the extraordinary patriotism and selflessness of certain agents in the field, who tried to accomplish their missions despite the dysfunction at home.

It is easy for us to forget that the Agency was only started after WWII, in 1947. Before that, we used to get intelligence through journalists, businesspeople, and embassies. We did not usually attempt to influence events except through pressure at national levels, among statesmen. When it began, the Agency was obsessed with Soviet power around the world and a balance of that power. Even then our intelligence was faulty, subject to political jostling, and influenced by the fears of our government. Although revolting to learn, it does us no good to turn away from Weiner’s assessment of these years, since millions of Americans before us have made their indignation known and demanded better. It forced changes in an Agency decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union, an event which caught the vast arsenal of analysts completely by surprise.

The Agency underwent several RIFs in its history, and it was even thought that outsourcing to private contractors would provide better intelligence. The result was higher prices for intelligence and less control over agents. Weiner talks us through the failures of several directors, and their determination to make the Agency great again: Charges of too big, too small, too old, too young, too restrained, too wild have all been dealt with in the way one might expect a large bureaucracy might try to change its image. None of the changes have really worked. Finally, because presidents have had difficulty relying on the CIA for accurate information, they now call on a plethora of different agencies for intelligence which are run mostly by current or former military men, and much of the CIA's capabilities are outsourced.

What is undeniable is the secrecy of the organization has come close several times in its history to ruining us. Outside threats are one thing, but many times the Agency was operating to contain threats we created through fear-mongering. The reason our democracy has succeeded as long as it has is because we have managed to maintain some kind of public accountability through transparency. Weiner asserts that Soviet leaders knew before the Berlin Wall fell that the lies and secrets their government kept from their people ultimately ruined them. A large and secret bureaucracy takes on a life of its own that cannot have adequate oversight. It becomes a danger rather than an aid.

Despite his dire assessment of the Agency and its current capabilities, Weiner does not advocate its abolition. He acknowledges it may have an important role to play in spite of the difficulty of its mission and the difficulty of finding the right personnel. He suggests that it may one day be refashioned to fit the needs we have with a leadership that can shape and control it. Until then, however, it is a liability we rely upon at our peril.

The fact that we now experience violence and terror from non-state actors might predicate more changes for the CIA. More agents has been the simplistic solution loudly proposed by at least one presidential candidate (Marco Rubio), but we already know that is hardly likely to produce the desired results. The CIA has always been plagued by its inability to recruit and retain good personnel because of its image and history but also because covert work is very hard to accomplish successfully. It may be time to reduce the size of the Agency once again, which may seem counterintuitive in this time of diverse threats. Getting vast numbers of analysts or agents unsuited to the task is probably not going to yield the kind of information we wish we had.

I remain skeptical that a large bureaucracy can produce intelligence beyond what a large news organization can organize and analyze. I wonder that we have the hubris to influence events in allied countries, or to organize the defeat of leadership in countries with which we are not allied. I have no argument with obtaining information, as long as that information serves to better prepare us for changes which affect us. I note that the largest changes which are bound to affect us profoundly in immediate years, e.g., climate change, do not seem to have registered a blip on the government radar while we scurry to contain events which will not have as great an impact on us. It looks like a kind of overheated masculine-style delusion predicated on fear rather than the rational measure of risk.

Therefore, before eliminating the organization entirely, perhaps we should bring it back to its earliest roots during this time of terrorist insurgency. Keep the organization small and flexible and covert, like our enemies’ organization. Covert undercover work may have been useful during WWII, but it didn’t work well after that. The CIA did real damage to countries around the world by involving themselves with regime change predicated on fear whipped up by our leaders. Surely the American people have progressed beyond that, even if some of their self-proclaimed leaders are still caught in the dark ages.

Weiner told us nearly everything, but he didn’t tell us what became of the analyst(s) who were responsible for the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, reporting that it was a weapons cache.

I listened to the Blackstone audio production of this book, read by Stefan Rudnicki. It was beautifully produced and read, and though Rudnicki mispronounced some people and place names, those mistakes did not obscure understanding. This is a real masterpiece of journalism.


You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores