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Are the costs of security at ‘any price’ too high?

The ongoing war on terror has driven a dramatic rise in spending in the name of security. In his new book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War,” New York Times investigative journalist James Risen examines the cost -- in both treasure and lives. Judy Woodruff sits down with the author to discuss what he calls the new “Homeland Security-Industrial Complex.”

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next to the author of a new book on the costs, in lives and treasure, of the war on terror.

    JAMES RISEN, Author, "Pay Any Price ": The war or terror, the global war on terror has become essentially an endless war. It started with a search for justice. And I think, 13 years later, it's become a hunt for cash.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's a stark conclusion James Risen has come to in the decade-plus since September 11. The veteran New York Times investigative journalist is best known for the explosive revelation that the Bush administration ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants after 9/11.

    But now he has compiled examples of what he sees as that hunt for cash, greed for power, and lives wrecked in his new book, "Pay Any Price."

    The title of the book comes from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address when he said, let every nation know…

  • PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY:

    That we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Your argument is that that "any price" has been way too high a price. How so?

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Well, we have had 13 years of war now. A lot of people have gotten into the war on terror in order to make a lot of money or to gain status or power, both in the government and outside of the government.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Did it have to be this way? Could it have been at some point avoided before it all happened?

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Well, there's lots of points at which we made choices. We decided to invade Iraq. We decided to invade Afghanistan. We have occupied both those countries.

    Then we began you know remote battles across other countries. And we built a huge infrastructure for what we call Homeland Security here at home. And so we have had an enormous, just hundreds of billions of dollars poured into national security, homeland security and what I call the — what I call the new homeland security industrial complex.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That is a play on Dwight Eisenhower's famous phrase "the military industrial complex" coined amid the Cold War. Risen describes a new apparatus for a new war built in parallel, and almost entirely in secret, but with a staggering price tag.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    There are estimates that the entire war on terror, if you count Iraq, Afghanistan, all of the other things we have done, both domestically and internationally, have cost about $4 trillion. And that is an enormous transfer of wealth into a new sector of the economy, which is security.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you describe so many examples of how this has happened. You have got chapter after chapter.

    Picking out a couple of them, there is one where you talk about certainly money stolen from Iraq. There is another, an operation called Alarbus, where — name for the shell company that was created by the Pentagon, their special operations command. They created their own spy agency.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why was that necessary? Why weren't they able to work with the CIA?

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Well, there's been all kinds of turf battles inside the government over control of intelligence. You know, intelligence has become kind of the crown jewel within the government. Everybody wants a piece of it over the last 13 years.

    The Pentagon wants to get in on the CIA's turf. And so they created these front companies to act like the CIA does around the world. And in this case, there are all kinds of allegations about whether some of the people involved were taking advantage of the operation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    At one point, they were talking about assassinating suspected…

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Right. And there — yes, and one of the foreigners involved in the operation tried to — allegedly tried to use the bank accounts, or wanted to use the bank accounts set up by Alarbus for money laundering, for massive money laundering of hundreds of millions of dollars.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And so the government would have been engaged in this?

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But it didn't — it didn't actually happen?

  • JAMES RISEN:

    No, no, but there was an FBI investigation that has been secret, until now, of what happened.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In another chapter, Jim Risen, you write about millions of dollars spent on programs that were completely fraudulent.

    One was run by a man named Dennis Montgomery. He had worked in computer software, but he was a gambler.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And he sold the CIA and the Pentagon on technology that turned out to be not at all what he said it was.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Right.

    There was — it's difficult to tell in some of these cases who is scamming who.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Montgomery was, in his attorney's words, a con man. He and his partners eventually procured more than $20 million in government contracts. One program had officials at the CIA convinced that Montgomery could uncover plans for the next al-Qaida attack.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    If you talk to Montgomery, he argues that the CIA wanted him to do what he was doing.

    In this case, they began to believe, in this kind of war fever, that you could find al-Qaida messages hidden in Al-Jazeera broadcasts.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Middle East broadcaster was, at the time, al-Qaida's chosen outlet for broadcasting messages from Osama bin Laden. Montgomery convinced intelligence officials that his software could decode orders from the terror group to its operatives. So-called intelligence from his program about a new wave of airliner attacks was eventually delivered directly to President George W. Bush in December 2003, and led Mr. Bush to issue an extraordinary order.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    This highly secret program was used by the Bush administration to ground planes all over Europe and the United States.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    When actually there was nothing to it.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Right. Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It was a hoax.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    It's this very complicated story about a man recognizing an opportunity who had never been involved in national security before, and the CIA and the military all just hungry for whoever could come with the latest idea.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    At the end of the day though, yes, money may well have been wasted,in the million, hundreds of millions, and beyond, outlandish things happened, but the country hasn't had another huge terror attack, the way we did on 9/11.

    So, could it be argued, could the government argue, we have done our job, even if we made some mistakes?

  • JAMES RISEN:

    I think that's probably their argument.

    So, the question is, what — did we overestimate the threat and build up this huge infrastructure while hyping a threat, or has the — has this massive amount of money really had an effect?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Is there any way to dial it back? Are you saying…

  • JAMES RISEN:

    I think the country has to begin to get out of the constant state of fear over terrorism that we have been in since 9/11.

    To me, it reminds me a little bit of the McCarthy period, when we had this abstract threat of Russia. Everyone knew that Russia was a threat, but we didn't know that much about Soviet communism at the time. And so, because it was sort of abstract, we were able to think that the Russians were 10-feet tall.

    I think we have had something similar happen in the post-9/11 world where, because al-Qaida and Islamic terrorism are kind of new and unknown threats to us, we have made them 10-feet tall, when, in fact, they are not 10-feet tall.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    James Risen, author of "Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War," thank you very much.

  • JAMES RISEN:

    Thank you for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There's much more from the interview on our Web site, including James Risen speaking on his refusal to identify a confidential source, in defiance of a federal subpoena.

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