The “terror years” are right now, as recent months have clearly affirmed. To learn how the world has arrived at such a dangerous state, this collection of Lawrence Wright’s journalism dating to the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, arrives at the right time to provide the background.
Wright, 69, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker, wrote these 11 articles for the magazine, some of which later appeared in “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” Wright’s meticulous, Pultizer Prize-winning 2006 account of the people behind the deadly attack on the United States. (The first piece in this collection, “The Man Behind Bin Laden,” is from that book.)
Wright is an old-school reporter, relying on face-to-face interviews rather than e-mail, grinding out his research by frequent visits to the Middle East, many times in dangerous places, meeting anonymous (and mysterious) sources.
He’s also no stranger to the U.S. government, which sent agents to his home, tapped his phone and even included one of his children in their investigation of him.
“That troubles me,” Wright told Michael McConnell, then director of National Intelligence.
“It may be troublesome, it may not be,” was McConnell’s reply.
Wright’s profile of the nation’s first intelligence czar in “The Spymaster” is also troublesome. A career military man, McConnell appears to have little conflict about warrantless wiretapping or torture. Wright bores in on his positions, finding contradictions and even factual errors in his subject’s claims. In the reporter’s hands, McConnell is a creepy character out of a John le Carré spy novel.
Sixteen separate federal agencies make up the U.S. “intelligence community,” operating at a cost of $50 billion a year, Wright says. The position of director of National Intelligence was created during the George W. Bush administration in a feeble attempt to organize these groups, which were battling each other in a turf war.
In the McConnell piece, as well as in “The Counterterrorist” and “Five Hostages,” Wright constructs a disturbing overview of missed opportunities, failures of communication, political maneuvering and straightforward incompetence in the government’s war on terror.
He’s also a sharp critic of Israel and its policies in the Gaza Strip; “Captives” is a grim account of life and death in that small strip of disputed territory that’s home to a million Palestinians.
Not all of Wright’s words are negative. He finds plenty of admirable people on all sides working hard to find solutions or at least ways to ease the suffering that terrorism has caused. His profiles of Special FBI Agent Ali Soufan in “The Agent” and publisher David Bradley in “Five Hostages” are inspiring.
If the state of international affairs continues to falter, we should hear more from Wright in the future. For now, we have “The Terror Years” to lay out the complex background to help us understand today’s situation.
Bob Hoover is the former books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Terror Years
By: Lawrence Wright.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 366 pages, $28.95.