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The two sisters from the Our Lady of Angels convent had driven down from Pennsylvania with a message for their Congressman: Say no to Star Wars. It was proving a tough sell.

A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."

The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.

Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.

In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.

What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:

§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.

§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.

§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.

§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.

How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.

Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.

The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.

These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.

Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.

If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.

Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"

Policies are more confused than at any time since the weapons were invented.

What sticks in my mind more than any particular accomplishment of the supersecret National Security Agency is its mammoth size. Only a few miles from my home, I now know, exists a secret Orwellian town where tens of thousands of people live and work. It is surrounded by barbed-wire fences, massive boulders and thick cement barriers, all hidden by tall earthen berms and thick forests. Armed police patrol the boundaries of Crypto City, as this restricted area near the sleepy hamlet of Annapolis Junction, Maryland, is called. Telephoto surveillance cameras peer down. Heavily armed commandos dressed in black and wearing special headgear are on standby in case of trouble.

Beyond lies a forbidden city unlike any other on earth. Its main business is global eavesdropping; its mission is to obtain secrets about foreign enemies and friends alike, and to identify terrorist threats, drug trades, illegal arms sales and so on, all by intercepting voice, phone and radio communications. Using math, cryptology, statistical and other techniques, the NSA can break any code or cipher. The raw material is collected by its spyplanes, ships, satellites and through various other technical means, then is processed by the largest, most powerful electronic brain on earth.

More exact details of this forbidden city remain secret. County officials say they have no idea how many people work there, and no one will tell them. But James Bamford, in his Body of Secrets, offers some clues. The city's post office distributes 70,000 pieces of mail a day; there are more than 37,000 cars registered there. The local police have more than 700 uniformed officers and their own SWAT team. The city's consumption of electricity--to power six acres of computers, twenty-five tons of air-conditioning equipment and more than a half-million lightbulbs--costs nearly $2 million per month. In case of power outages, its own power-generating plant can quickly produce enough wattage for a community of more than 3,500 homes. It has its own fire department as well as twenty-three separate alarm systems and 402 miles of sprinklers, feeding 210,000 sprinkler heads. There are theaters, a bank, kindergartens, fitness centers, gas stations, clubs (even its own Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees--"GLOBE"--club). Religious services are held in an unbuggable room, where priest and minister have security clearance far above Top Secret.

At the heart of this community is the NSA headquarters; with 3 million square feet of floor space, it could accommodate the entire US Capitol building four times over. The headquarters building almost metaphorically represents the NSA as well: From the outside, it looks like a stylish modern office building of dark one-way glass. But the real building is hidden under this reflective glass and is protected by a skin of orange-colored copper and unique windows--a thick outer pane, five inches of sound-deadening space, a thin copper screen and an inner pane. The protective shielding is designed to keep all sounds--and indeed any type of electromagnetic radiation--from getting out. It is used throughout much of the city to keep what is said to be the largest body of secrets ever compiled.

Created at the height of the cold war, the NSA was to be the eyes and ears of the Central Intelligence Agency after the Communists drew an impenetrable "iron curtain" around their borders and effectively put human spies out of action. Its very existence has been so highly classified that few people outside the top echelons of government knew much about it. Until, that is, Bamford's first book, The Puzzle Palace, was published in 1982.

Body of Secrets is more than an update of Bamford's previous effort. It includes an engaging and informed history of signals intelligence during World War II, chronicling the breaking of Japan's ciphers and Britain's success in cracking Germany's code. After the war's end, the United States insisted on hosting the opening session of the United Nations in San Francisco to enable it to "eavesdrop on its guests," Bamford says. "Like cheats in a poker game they [the Americans] were peeking at their opponents' hands." For a few years after 1945, the United States also read encrypted Soviet communications. But one Friday in 1948--it is still known as Black Friday among intelligence watchers--all Soviet ciphers went dark. Just as the Americans had successfully penetrated secret Soviet networks, so the Russians had penetrated the Army Security Agency. After that, Washington apparently knew little about Communist intentions. In 1950, when the North Koreans invaded the South, Washington was caught by surprise. Ditto on China's entry into the war. With the Russians having just exploded a hydrogen bomb, the situation was getting more perilous. The loss of effective intelligence work prompted the Director of Central Intelligence, Walter Bedell Smith, to tell the National Security Council that he was "gravely concerned" by "ineffective" intelligence operations. President Truman, on Election Day 1952, scrapped the Pentagon-run operation and created in its place a new agency to be largely hidden from Congress, the public and the world.

Bamford, an accomplished journalist, weaves a narrative about the NSA that includes sympathetic portraits of key players and detailed accounts of such highly publicized events as the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the capture of the spy ship Pueblo by North Korea. There are many heretofore undisclosed tidbits of information. President Eisenhower, for example, was personally micromanaging each U-2 high-altitude surveillance flight over Russia but refused to admit it after Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960. Further, Eisenhower instructed his Cabinet officers to lie about it while testifying under oath. The famous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which officially plunged the United States into the Vietnam War, was passed by Congress on the strength of Robert McNamara's "unequivocal proof" of a North Vietnamese attack on a US ship; that "unequivocal proof" turned out to be a "major blunder by NSA, and the 'hard evidence' on which many [in Congress] based their votes for the war never really existed."

Beyond this there is Bamford's somewhat speculative account of an Israeli assault on the US spy ship Liberty during the 1967 Middle East war. Bamford argues that it was a coldblooded action by Israel but offers no evidence of the culpability of the Israeli political leadership. The attack may well have been sanctioned by an Israeli military commander, but it is hard to imagine the top Israeli politicians signing off on such a risky venture, which carried enormous potential dangers for their state.

The NSA is only one component of the US intelligence community, and for a good deal of its existence it has been subservient to the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Its business was to collect raw information that was then analyzed by other agencies. The Director of Central Intelligence--head of the CIA--supervised the whole process. All along there has been, to be sure, a good deal of institutional and bureaucratic rivalry among the agencies, which is presented by Bamford in readable and dramatic fashion. Underlying these rivalries is a doctrinal issue: the conflict between old-fashioned, cloak-and-dagger human intelligence (humint) versus high-tech signals intelligence (sigint). The NSA, which spends the lion's share of the $30 billion annual intelligence budget, reflects America's predilection for gadgetry and high tech.

If there is a serious shortcoming in this massive book, it is the failure to provide a critical assessment of the mission for which the NSA was founded: to provide Washington with accurate information on the political, military and economic state of the Soviet Union. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, the NSA had one singular objective: "to break the stubborn Russian cipher system and eavesdrop on that nation's most secret communications," Bamford writes. But there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the NSA ever cracked a single high-level Russian cipher system. That being the case, what are the nation's most precious secrets that Bamford keeps mentioning are held in a fantastic system capable of storing 5 trillion pages of text--a stack of papers 150 miles high--allowing for almost instant retrieval of any piece of information? What is there to be retrieved?

Not much, I suspect. From personal experience I know that whenever the NSA did successfully accomplish something--it managed to decrypt Russian voice communications in the early 1970s and for a long time eavesdropped on the phone conversations of Soviet leaders talking in their limousines--word of its success filtered out. Washington, apart from its almost bottomless appetite for "intelligence," is also a town where anything worth knowing is quickly disclosed by gossiping officials eager to show that they are in the loop. One such official told me in early 1973 about a car accident involving Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin. He knew exactly when it happened and where, but nothing more. As a young reporter, I rushed breathlessly to my office, already envisioning it on the front page of the Post the next morning. I had no idea how this information had been obtained; now I know that we would have blown an important intelligence operation had we published the story. But executive editor Ben Bradlee knew it was sensitive enough to require consultations with the Post's legal counsel Joseph Califano and Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms. After protracted haggling the story was scrapped, but not because of Helms's talk about dire consequences: Only if Kosygin was hurt and a leadership change was imminent, Bradlee said, would he run the story.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, US intelligence stood accused of having failed in its primary mission. Since few people knew much about the NSA, blame naturally fell on the CIA; critics said it had overestimated the Soviet military threat and not foreseen the economic and political demise of our prime adversary. Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence from 1977 to 1981, talked about the "enormity of failure" in a 1991 article in Foreign Affairs, in which he alleged that "I have never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of defense or state, that numerous Soviets recognized a growing systemic economic problem." William Odom, NSA director from 1985 to 1988, argued in 1994 that the CIA was superfluous and should be disbanded. "The only serious issue here is whether you want to continue to pay all these people.... I consider...their analytical effort a welfare transfer package," he stated at the Harvard Intelligence and Policy Project, conducted by professors Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.

How did US policy-makers get into such a state of ignorance? Solid though the product of an intelligence service may be, it is only as good as the uses to which it is put. Governments--all governments--gather, conceal, suppress and manipulate "intelligence." American leaders have frequently done so to serve their political objectives. Richard Nixon, under the rubric of "national security," tried to use the intelligence community to hide his involvement in the Watergate scandal; he also used the NSA to secretly target antiwar protesters. In the late 1970s Congress outlawed wholesale, warrantless acquisition of raw telegrams and arbitrary watch lists containing the names of Americans, but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act did not cover Americans living abroad.

The product, by the late 1970s, was no longer solid. Internal bureaucratic struggles consumed the community. Once an unwanted stepchild of the CIA--the NSA director was initially denied a seat on the Intelligence Advisory Committee--the NSA had in fact grown large and powerful. Its original mandate was to collect intelligence, not analyze it, but by the late 1970s the NSA began hoarding its information. The material it distributed was sanitized, according to then-Director of Central Intelligence Turner, who charged it with "deliberate withholding of raw information from the true analytic agencies. NSA wants to get credit for the scoop."

Under Ronald Reagan, arguably the most zealous cold war President, the intelligence community regained its footing to become once again the chief tool of US foreign policy. Its anti-Soviet activism led to the criminal excesses of the Iran/contra scandal. The chief strategist of malfeasance was William Casey, the first Director of Central Intelligence to be a member of the Cabinet as well. Casey chose as his deputy Robert Gates, a hard-line anti-Soviet analyst. Odom was their soulmate, "an arch-conservative military hard-liner" who wanted the NSA to assume a greater analytical role.

Throughout the 1980s the intelligence community provided Congress and the public with exaggerated accounts of Soviet military and economic prowess. The slick annual Pentagon review called "Soviet Military Power" showed the Russians developing and deploying ever-more dangerous weaponry. America was facing a "window of vulnerability"--a time when the Soviet Union, an indestructible colossus, could start a nuclear war. Paul Nitze and his Committee on the Present Danger speculated that the Russians could win such a war, owing to their extensive civil defense network and capacity to absorb a US retaliatory strike but deliver the final nuclear blow. As late as October 1988, top CIA analyst Robert Gates warned that "the dictatorship of the Communist Party remains untouched and untouchable. A long competitive struggle with the Soviet Union lies before us." When the Senate intelligence panel asked Gates earlier what the intelligence community was doing to prepare American policy-makers for the consequences of Gorbachev's reforms, Gates replied: "Quite frankly, without any hint that such fundamental change is going on, my resources do not permit me the luxury of sort of just idly speculating on what a different Soviet Union might look like."

Yet we all know that in 1989 the Soviet empire was dismantled; in 1991 the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and American leaders were clueless. What went wrong?

Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, who says in his memoirs that he was "misled, lied to" by the CIA, reveals that Casey had effectively usurped the prerogatives of the Secretary of State and had run an alternative foreign policy. Casey could do so because he controlled the analytical process, the estimates, covert action and counterintelligence. Casey's views, Shultz writes, "were so strong and so ideological that they inevitably colored his selection and assessments of materials. I could not rely on what he said, nor could I accept without question the objectivity of 'intelligence' that he put out, especially in policy sensitive areas."

Gorbachev was initially described as "just talk, just another Soviet attempt to deceive us," Shultz says. "When it became evident that the Soviet Union was, in fact, changing, the CIA line was that the changes wouldn't really make a difference."

Casey and Gates systematically ignored their own specialists and overstated the "evidence" of Soviet arms procurement programs, and the state of the Soviet economy in general, to buttress their argument. Douglas MacEachin, director of the CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis from 1984 to 1989, has testified that the pattern of self-deception was promoted by an Administration eager to rebuild US military power. The intelligence community aided the effort by inflating projections of Soviet military strength.

"Never mind that the Soviet Union never in ten years, from the late 1970s through the entire 1980s, ever lived up to the projections that were made," MacEachin said. "We projected these huge forces, then used those projections as a rationale for our [military] spending, and they never lived up to those projections." Richard Kerr, deputy director for intelligence, took a memo to that effect from MacEachin before the National Foreign Intelligence Board--but it wasn't mentioned, even as a footnote, in the final documents.

The problem here was not one of honest people with strong views having honest disagreements. Rather, it was a blatant politicization of intelligence. Hawks were in charge; those who disagreed were singled out for being "soft" on communism. Robert Blackwell, a high-level CIA official, talked of palpable tension at Langley. "Whether anything was being twisted or reordered upstairs or not, people felt that they were under extra burdens to somehow be very careful about how things were said." MacEachin said the Reagan Administration "thought of us as the enemy." The implication was, he added, "that part of the national threat was that the CIA undercut our ability to rebuild our national forces."

MacEachin's successor, George Kolt, had set up in September 1989 a supersecret contingency planning group "looking at the possibility of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what we do." This was rejected by the higher-ups, however. Robert Gates's views on Russia had not changed. A month before the collapse of the Berlin wall, Vice President Dan Quayle publicly referred to Gorbachev as a "master of public relations" and called perestroika a "form of Leninism."

Gates was consistent to the end. When on August 19, 1991, Kremlin hard-liners mounted a coup attempt against Gorbachev, Kolt called President Bush's National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, saying the coup might not succeed and implicitly suggesting that the White House condemn the coup leaders. Gates saw no reason to hope the coup would fail, and President Bush's initial pronouncements were noncommittal. As Gates explained later, "Based on all prior experience in Russian and Soviet history, when you know at the outset that you've got the KGB and the army and the party all together in a coup attempt, the chances of it not succeeding...are near zero."

Something is obviously wrong with what Bamford calls the largest, best-funded, and "most advanced spy organization on the planet." The entire intelligence community has grown lazy and fat over the years. In the case of the NSA, there is a cozy relationship between it and parts of private industry: Former top NSA officials often end up working for TRW, Honeywell, E-Systems or Booz-Allen & Hamilton. Eavesdropping equipment alone is a $2 billion-a-year market.

Is our money being spent wisely? A former intelligence analyst, Robert Steel, who now runs a private intelligence firm called Open Source Solutions, recently demonstrated to the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that he could produce more usable information more quickly by using open sources and the Internet than the intelligence community could get from its secret work (his demonstration included satellite photography and military orders of battle).

I'm not suggesting outsourcing here. But what is the point of having a powerful spy agency in the sky--eavesdropping on friend and foe alike--when we are caught by surprise by India's nuclear tests in 1998? Or when, as during the Gulf War, we are unable to locate Saddam Hussein's Scuds?

Not so long ago, the United States declared war on terrorism. Yet there are only two references to Osama bin Laden in this book (one of them being that the NSA, "to impress cleared visitors," occasionally plays audiotapes of bin Laden talking to his mom), and other well-known groups suspected of international terrorism are not even mentioned. Perhaps there is a great deal of information about them in 50-100 million documents that the NSA classifies each year--more than all other agencies of the US government combined. But I wonder who reads these documents and evaluates their content. As someone who is bilingual, I seriously question the quality of work of the NSA computers said to translate up to 750 pages of Russian text per hour. NSA language training itself sounds pretty skimpy: Chinese and Japanese take "two years," Bamford reports, but this reads as more than presumptuous to anyone even remotely familiar with Chinese (a literate Chinese uses between 20,000 and 40,000 individual characters, which take many years to learn). Michael Hayden, the current NSA director, does assure us that "There is a whole other addition there [in training] to turn someone who has working knowledge of the popular language into a cryptolingist." Good Lord! Is Hayden kidding us or does he believe this? I hope it is the former.

"That NSA has the technical capability to intercept and store enough information to wallpaper much of the planet is unquestionable," Bamford writes. "What is in doubt, however, is the agency's ability to make sense of most of it."

In the acknowledgments to Body of Secrets, Hayden is the first person on the author's list of thank-yous. Which is an important clue. The NSA is an agency in search of a new mission. Some of its work remains invaluable, especially tactical intelligence needed by the Pentagon. But sigint now has far less strategic value. Moreover, digital communications, fiber-optic cables and powerful encryption software make it nearly impossible for the NSA to dominate the ether the way it did a decade ago. There is also a growing realization in Congress that something is wrong. In 1998 the House Intelligence Committee threatened to withhold funding unless the agency made "very large changes" in its "culture and methods of operation." For several years auditors found that the NSA had ignored laws and regulations, that its financial statements were not in order and that it had mismanaged its expensive high-tech systems. Hayden's attempt at candor may be a way to rally support.

Judging by the book's last chapter, NSA leaders hope that new scientific breakthroughs--fabricating computing devices out of biological entities, using biological processes to manufacture nonbiological devices--will solve their problems. The computer of the future, we are told, is going to be constructed from both mechanical and living parts. It will be 100 billion times faster than the fastest PC today. What that means when it comes to problems of terrorism, international organized crime, arms proliferation, narcotics trafficking, illicit trade and such issues is a mystery.

Just think, though, how impressive it will be!

On April 26, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced the creation of a memorial for the soldiers who died during France's bloody war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which ended in humiliating defeat and the loss of the empire's most prized possession. It was among the most savage of colonial wars: Of the 1.7 million French soldiers who served in Algeria from 1954 to 1962, 30,000 never returned; between 300,000 and a million Algerians were killed, and hundreds of thousands were placed in concentration camps, where torture was routine. Until two years ago, when it finally acknowledged having fought a war in Algeria, the French government referred to the conflict as les événements--the events.

In case there were any doubts as to what these young men died defending, there was Paul Aussaresses, an 83-year-old general wearing an eye patch and the cross of the Legion of Honor. In an interview with Le Monde last November, Aussaresses confessed, without a note of remorse, to torturing and executing Algerian militants. Even so, no one, certainly not Jospin, was prepared for the incendiary memoir that Aussaresses was to publish ten days later.

The book, Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, has riveted the French, stirring long-suppressed memories of the "war without a name" and generating calls for an official declaration of repentance and judicial action against its author. It is a remarkable document, both for what it reveals of France's crimes in Algeria and for what it reveals of the miscarriage of justice that took place after the war.

When Aussaresses arrived in Algeria in 1955, he was a hero, having carried out a series of daring intelligence missions across enemy lines for de Gaulle's Free French forces. In Algeria, he quickly acquired a mastery of the very tactics that he had feared would be applied to him had he been caught by the Gestapo. Electrodes to the eyes and testicles, half-drownings, beatings--he stopped at nothing in his efforts to get his suspects to crack. After torturing and killing his first Arab, he writes with a disturbing detachment that calls to mind Camus's Mersault: "I thought of nothing. I had no regrets over his death--if I had any regrets, it was because he did not talk."

Aussaresses's book sheds light on some of the most important unresolved mysteries of the war, notably the deaths of Larbi Ben M'Hidi, an FLN leader, and of Ali Boumendjel, a prominent Algerian attorney. The French have always maintained that both men committed suicide. In fact, Aussaresses meticulously arranged their deaths--and, one suspects, many others--to look as if they were suicides. Boumendjel, he reports, was thrown from a rooftop after having been tortured for forty-three days. Aussaresses drove Ben M'Hidi to a farm outside Algiers, where the prisoner was strangled to death.

The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an early opponent of the war, told Le Monde, "One must take this book for what it is, the memoirs of an assassin." True enough. But Aussaresses was not alone. He was no more a rogue agent than the Vichy collaborators Maurice Papon and René Bousquet were--or than Bob Kerrey and his men were in the jungle of Vietnam. Aussaresses is well aware of this fact. In torturing and executing suspects, he says he was simply employing the "special powers" that he had been granted in 1956 by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet, with the support of the Communist Party. According to Aussaresses, François Mitterrand, Mollet's justice minister, had "an emissary...in the person of the judge Jean Berard, who covered for us.... I had the best possible relationship with him and I never hid anything from him."

Aussaresses's book has inspired widespread revulsion; 56 percent of the French have expressed support for an official apology and legal action against officers who ordered torture. Prime Minister Jospin, who insists that torture was "an aberration," has firmly rejected the idea of a parliamentary inquiry, proposing further "scientific research" by historians. President Jacques Chirac, who served in Algeria and says he is "horrified" by the book, has initiated proceedings to strip the general of his uniform.

Unfortunately, nothing more is likely to come of the indignation roused by Aussaresses's book. There is a ten-year statute of limitations on war crimes in France, and the broader definition of "crimes against humanity" applies only to abuses committed since 1994. The generals of Algeria also enjoy the protection of amnesties granted in 1962 and 1968. In mid-May, a French court threw out a suit against Aussaresses for "crimes against humanity" by the International Federation for Human Rights. The general's actions, the court opined, are "in all likelihood covered by the amnesty of July 31, 1968." It will require extraordinary audacity for any French politician to challenge these legal obstacles. Meanwhile, Paul Aussaresses can talk about his crimes, which are also France's crimes, without fear of punishment. His freedom is a grim reminder that when nations fail to settle their accounts with torture, it is torturers who have the last laugh.

Best known as a place where the Air Force shoots satellites into orbit, the
Eastern Space and Missile Center--just south of the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida's Brevard County--would appear to fo

This is not a picture from your kid's sci-fi comic. It's an illustration from a report by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Space Commission. The report advocates circumventing the intent of international laws (notably, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967) that seek to keep space free from war and urges that the President "have the option to deploy weapons in space." National Missile Defense, begun as Star Wars under Reagan, is just one layer of this much larger scheme to "control" space and "dominate" the earth, in the words of the report. "The United States is seeking to turn space into a war zone," maintains the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). To read the entire Space Commission report go to www.defenselink.mil/pubs/spacechapter2.pdf.

News that the United States has been voted off the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN international drug monitoring board has elicited vows of revenge from conservatives in Congress. They threaten to withhold payment on the long-unpaid dues owed the UN. They blame our adversaries--China, Cuba, Sudan and others--for the insult. But the secret votes enabled allies as well as adversaries to vent their mounting exasperation with US policies. At the last session of the commission, the United States stood virtually alone as it opposed resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS drugs, acknowledging a human right to adequate food and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, while it continued to resist efforts to ban landmines.

The global outrage is by no means limited to US policies on the Human Rights Commission. In barely 100 days in office, the Bush Administration has declared the Kyoto accords on global warming dead, spurning eight years of work by 186 countries. It banned US support for any global organization that provides family planning or abortion services, even as an AIDS pandemic makes this a matter of life and death. It bade farewell to the antiballistic missile treaty, while slashing spending on nuclear safety aid for Russia. It casually bombed Iraq, helped shoot down a missionary's plane over Peru and enforced an illegal and irrational boycott of Cuba. It sabotaged promising talks between North and South Korea, publicly humiliating South Korea's Nobel prizewinning president, Kim Dae Jung. The nomination as UN ambassador of John Negroponte, former proconsul in Honduras during the illegal contra wars, is an insult. "There is a perception," said one diplomat in carefully parsed words, "that the US wants to go it alone."

Our lawless exceptionalism is a deeply rooted, bipartisan policy that didn't begin with the Bush Administration. Under previous Presidents, Democratic and Republican, Washington denounced state-sponsored terrorism while reserving the right to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan or unleash a contra army on Nicaragua. It condemned Iraq for invading Kuwait while reserving the right to invade Panama or bomb Serbia on its own writ. The United States advocated war crimes tribunals against foreign miscreants abroad while opposing an international criminal court that might hold our own officials accountable. Our leaders proclaim the value of law and democracy as they spurn the UN Security Council and ignore the World Court when their rulings don't suit them. The Senate refuses to ratify basic human rights treaties. The US international business community even opposes efforts to eliminate child labor. And of course, there are those UN dues, which make us the world's largest deadbeat.

Worse is yet to come. US policy is a direct reflection of its militarization and the belief that we police the world, we make the rules. The Bush Administration plans a major increase in military spending to finance new weapons to expand the US ability to "project" force around the globe--stealth bombers, drones, long-range missiles and worse. The tightly strung Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds increasingly like an out-of-date Dr. Strangelove as he pushes to open a new military front in space, shattering hopes of keeping the heavens a zone of peace.

As the hyperpower, with interests around the world, America has the largest stake in law and legitimacy. But the ingrained assumption that we are legislator, judge, jury and executioner mocks any notion of global order. From the laws of war to the laws of trade, it is increasingly clear that Washington believes international law applies only to the weak. The weak do what they must; the United States does what it will.

After the cold war, we labeled our potential adversaries "rogue nations"--violent, lawless, willing to trample the weak and ignore international law and morality to enforce their will. Now, in the vote at the UN, in the headlines of papers across Europe, in the planning of countries large and small, there is a growing consensus that the world's most destructive rogue nation is the most powerful country of them all.

This is not a role most Americans support. Public interest groups and concerned individuals will vigorously remind Congress of the widespread popular backing in this country for paying our UN dues, for global AIDS funding and other forms of international involvement. Unilateralism must be opposed in all its guises, from national missile "defense" to undermining efforts to curb global warming. The United States was founded on a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. Let's keep it that way.

I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.

Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.

By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)

Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."

The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.

We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."

If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.

Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."

I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.

I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.

And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.

There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....

This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?

The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.

What exactly Bob Kerrey did one night in a Vietnamese community should concern every citizen.

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