New Books, with insights about our changing world
Here reviews of two books, each revealing much about the national defense machinery of western nations. I recommend reading both in full.
- “Other People’s Mail“, Bernard Porter, London Review of Books, 19 November 2009 — Review of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew
- “The Lies They Told“, Jacob Heilbrunn, New York Times, 15 November 2009 — Review of The Ground Truth – The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 by John Farmer
(1) “Other People’s Mail“, Bernard Porter, London Review of Books, 19 November 2009 — Review of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew — Excerpt:
All this must I imagine be just a little exasperating for those who set up this whole project – the ‘authorised history’ – in the first place. Convinced of MI5’s probity and contribution to Britain’s security over the last hundred years, chiefly because they hadn’t read their own history (except in sanitised in-house versions), they will have expected Andrew, with his great reputation, to back them up, at least in general terms; only to be presented in the end with what can be seen as at best a mixed assessment, and not – because of the restrictions placed on him – a necessarily convincing one.
… Very unusually, and indeed surprisingly in a book of this kind, sponsored by a secret government agency, The Defence of the Realm takes us up to the present day. That creates its own problems (much less can be safely revealed about very recent and continuing operations) but it also gives the security service a chance to redeem itself.
There are signs here that it has indeed turned over a new leaf since the 1960s and 1970s; ‘changed out of all recognition’, as Stella Rimington puts it. Three factors seem to have been responsible for this. The first was the greater openness forced on it, partly by European legal rulings, which culminated in the Security Service Act of 1989, which first put MI5 on a statutory footing. The second was the shift of focus from counter-espionage and counter-subversion to counter-terrorism, originating partly in the Irish Troubles of the 1970s, although it was some time before MI5 took over the ‘lead intelligence role’ in that. The third was the gradual change in the character of its personnel, dating from roughly the same period, transforming it from the body of reactionary old soaks that Rimington amusingly recalls from her own early days in her memoir, Open Secret (2001), to – well – presumably a more normal bunch of women and men.
Counter-terrorism seems to have made MI5 broadly acceptable again, rather as World War Two briefly did, with everyone now (as then) acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of its targeting, as they had not always done in the case of ‘subversives’ and peacetime spies. Obviously, it is too early to assess its achievement against Islamist terrorism. Andrew’s interim judgment is that it was very late onto it (lack of ‘strategic thinking’, again), but then made up for lost time, with its successes so far having had, according to one of Andrew’s sources, ‘a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of the plotters’.
(2) “The Lies They Told“, Jacob Heilbrunn, New York Times, 15 November 2009 — Review of The Ground Truth – The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 by John Farmer. Excerpt:
Preoccupied with building a costly missile defense system to counter a spurious menace from Russia and with maintaining “full spectrum dominance” over the rest of the globe, most Bush administration officials blithely ignored the danger emanating from the caves of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his acolytes plotted against America. Confronted by a small group of mostly Saudi nationals armed with box cutters, the central nervous system of the country’s defense agencies went into a state of cataleptic shock. The only decisive action taken on 9/11 came not from the military, but from the courageous passengers who stormed the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93, leading the hijackers to crash the plane over Pennsylvania farmland before it could reach its intended target in Washington.
… Perhaps nothing perturbs Farmer more than the contention that high-ranking officials responded quickly and effectively to the revelation that Qaeda attacks were taking place. Nothing, Farmer indicates, could be further from the truth: President George W. Bush and other officials were mostly irrelevant during the hijackings; instead, it was the ground-level commanders who made operational decisions in an ad hoc fashion. The memoirs of the White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke, which Farmer credits with good faith, make it sound as though a dramatic videoconference that Clarke led played a crucial role in organizing a response to the hijackings, but Farmer says that “this account does not square in any significant respect with what occurred that morning.”
To bolster such contentions, Farmer focuses minutely on newly available transcripts from the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad). He shows that, perversely enough, the one defense agency that had suffered draconian budget cuts was Norad, which had seen its alert sites reduced from about two dozen to a pitiful seven and, in any case, was unable to view large areas of the continental United States owing to its antiquated radar system.
… Yet both Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney, Farmer says, provided palpably false versions that touted the military’s readiness to shoot down United 93 before it could hit Washington. Planes were never in place to intercept it. By the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector had been informed of the hijacking, United 93 had already crashed. Farmer scrutinizes F.A.A. and Norad records to provide irrefragable evidence that a day after a Sept. 17 White House briefing, both agencies suddenly altered their chronologies to produce a coherent timeline and story that “fit together nicely with the account provided publicly by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney.”
… It doesn’t require scouring the archives to notice that 9/11 was relentlessly exploited by the Bush administration to serve as the founding myth for the war on terror, which was seamlessly expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq. In retrospect, the administration’s public portrayal of itself and the armed forces as acting heroically on 9/11 can be seen as an integral part of the selling of the Iraq war.
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