The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraqby George Packer
THE ASSASSINS' GATE: AMERICA IN IRAQ recounts how the United States set about changing the history of the Middle East and became ensnared in a guerilla war in Iraq. It brings to life the people and ideas that created the Bush administration's war policy and led America to the Assassins' Gate—the main point of entry into the American zone in Baghdad. The
THE ASSASSINS' GATE: AMERICA IN IRAQ recounts how the United States set about changing the history of the Middle East and became ensnared in a guerilla war in Iraq. It brings to life the people and ideas that created the Bush administration's war policy and led America to the Assassins' Gate—the main point of entry into the American zone in Baghdad. The consequences of that policy are shown in the author's brilliant reporting on the ground in Iraq, where he made four tours on assignment for The New Yorker. We see up close the struggles of American soldiers and civilians and Iraqis from all backgrounds, thrown together by a war that followed none of the preconceived scripts.
The Assassins' Gate also describes the place of the war in American life: the ideological battles in Washington that led to chaos in Iraq, the ordeal of a fallen soldier's family, and the political culture of a country too bitterly polarized to realize such a vast and morally complex undertaking. George Packer's first-person narrative combines the scope of an epic history with the depth and intimacy of a novel, creating a masterful account of America's most controversial foreign venture since Vietnam.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
“The most complete, sweeping, and powerful account of the Iraq War.” Keith Gessen, New York magazine
“A deftly constructed and eloquently told account of the war's origins and aftermath . . . Packer makes it deeply human and maddeningly vivid.” Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Authoritative and tough-minded.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A book that is not only relevant but discerning and provocative. [Packer] offers the vivid detail and balanced analysis that have made him one of the leading chroniclers of the Iraq war.” Yonatan Lupu, San Francisco Chronicle
“The great strength of George Packer's book is that it gives a fair hearing to both views. Free of cant--but not, crucially, of anger--Mr. Packer has written an account of the Iraq war that will stand alongside such narrative histories as A Bright Shining Lie, Fire in the Lake and Hell in a Very Small Place. As a meditation on the limits of American power, it's sobering. As a pocket history of Iraq and the United States' tangled history, it's indispensable. As an examination of the collision between arrogance and good intentions, it could scarcely be improved upon . . . In short, The Assassins' Gate is a book every American needs to read.” Tom Bissell, The New York Observer
“The best book I read in 2005.” Stephen Elliott, LA Weekly
“A brilliantly reported analysis of the war in Iraq.” GQ
“Masterful . . . Packer's sketch of the prewar debates is subtle, sharp and poignant . . . His reporting from Iraq was always good, but the book is even better, putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet.” Gideon Rose, Washington Post Book World (cover review)
“Packer provides page after page of vivid description of the haphazard, poorly planned and almost criminally executed occupation of Iraq. In reading him we see the staggering gap between abstract ideas and concrete reality.” Fareed Zakaria, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
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The Assassins' Gate
America in Iraq
By George Packer
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 George Packer
All rights reserved.
An Unfinished War
AT THE TIME of the Gulf War, in 1991, a man going by the name Samir al-Khalil started appearing on American television news programs. The name was a pseudonym, and the man's face was always turned away from the camera, his identity further disguised by a wig. Samir al-Khalil was the author of a book about Iraq under Saddam Hussein called Republic of Fear. It was written during the 1980s, while Iraq was at war with Iran and hundreds of thousands of men were dying in the trenches and minefields of the two countries' long border, by poison gas and in human-wave attacks, in fighting reminiscent of the stalemate and slaughter of the First World War—except that this war was more modern, fueled in the manner of twentieth-century wars by totalitarian ideologies: in Iraq an aggressive brand of Pan-Arab nationalism, in Iran a revolutionary dictatorship of the clerics. It was a death struggle between fear and faith. More than a million men were killed or wounded in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88. In this country hardly anyone noticed.
Against the background of this calamity, Samir al-Khalil, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had access to the great collection of Arab sources at Harvard's Widener Library, researched and wrote his book. Republic of Fear is dense and obsessive; it dissects the history and character of the dictatorship of Saddam and his Arab Baath Socialist Party in relentless detail, showing how much the regime resembled and borrowed from the European totalitarian movements, the Nazis, fascists, and communists. By the end of the book, a reader understood why its author had sought refuge behind a pseudonym and a hairpiece.
It took him three years to find a publisher. When the book finally appeared in 1989, it went predictably ignored—until August of 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait and put Iraq in the center of Americans' consciousness. Suddenly, Republic of Fear became a minor bestseller.
As the Gulf War came to a close in early March 1991, with Iraqi forces routed and in headlong retreat, Samir al-Khalil appeared in public at a Harvard forum and shed his pseudonym. His real name was Kanan Makiya. He was the son of one of Iraq's most distinguished architects and an English mother; he was a trained architect himself and had once managed his father's London firm. Makiya decided to reveal his identity because events in his country of birth were taking a disastrous turn. Shia in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north, encouraged by President George H. W. Bush's call for Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, were being slaughtered in the thousands by the remaining elite units of Saddam's army and his secret police. Iraqi helicopters were taking advantage of the cease-fire terms to massacre civilians from the air or drop suspected rebels to their deaths. At the Harvard event, Makiya urged Bush to stop the slaughter and finish the war by moving on to Baghdad and overthrowing the regime.
The first Gulf War did not turn out as Kanan Makiya had hoped. Saddam kept his grip on power, and soon Bush lost his, and Iraq slipped from most Americans' minds. But throughout the decade between the end of the first Gulf War and the morning of September 11, 2001, Iraq remained an irritant and a reminder of unfinished business. Saddam paved the lobby of an upscale hotel with a mosaic of Bush's face, so that guests had to walk over the features of the American president; apparently needing greater satisfaction, Saddam tried to have Bush killed on a visit to Kuwait. He commanded that his architects build a grand mosque, one of the largest in the world, with minarets in the shape of AK-47s, and he called it the Mother of All Battles mosque. It was as if Saddam were claiming victory after all. He had done something similar after the war with Iran, in which there was no winner, with catastrophic Iraqi miscalculations and losses. Saddam had ordered gigantic arms to be cast and smelted from models of his own, with the hands holding enormous swords that were crossed into triumphal arches over either end of the military parade ground in the center of Baghdad, about a mile from the Assassins' Gate. The helmets of dead Iranians, pocked with bullet holes, were embedded in the pavement under the arches, so that during the annual ceremonial parade Iraqi tanks would crush them and Iraqi soldiers would stomp on them.
To the world these projects seemed like preposterous delusions. But Saddam had a point: He had twice launched wars of aggression against neighboring countries, and he was still in power, Iraq's paramount ruler. Anyone who tried to overthrow him from within paid the final price. From his capital of grandiose monuments, Saddam continued to taunt and defy the superpower, the West, the United Nations, and his defiance made him a hero to young people and intellectuals across the Arab world. In 1994 he threatened a second invasion of Kuwait. His soldiers skirmished with American and British warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones that the allies had established across northern and southern Iraq in a belated move to protect the Kurds and the Shia. Over the years, not a single Iraqi missile or antiaircraft artillery round struck a single allied plane, so that you began to wonder if they hadn't been ordered to miss. Nonetheless, the engagements were reminders to a world that thought Saddam had been defeated: I'm still here. The UN sanctions on Iraq, which devastated the middle class and were estimated to have doubled the country's infant mortality rate, became a propaganda victory for Saddam in the minds of Arabs and some Europeans. The UN inspectors, who had achieved notable success in the first half of the 1990s in uncovering and dismantling Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, had to leave the country for their own safety after Saddam began to refuse them access to weapons sites and the Clinton administration responded with cruise missile attacks in December 1998; then Saddam shut the door behind the inspectors and locked it. By the end of the decade, Saddam's crushing defeat in Kuwait appeared to have become at least a moral victory—for him, if not for the Iraqi people. He had defied America and gotten away with it.
The fates of the two countries remained entangled, with brief hope, cruel disappointment, hatred born of relentless propaganda, humiliation, and ruin. All this was on the Iraqi side. On the American side, we lapsed back into our characteristic state of inattention.
After his moment in the media glare, Kanan Makiya returned to private life. He published more books, including a study of the crossed swords in Baghdad called The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq, and a passionate denunciation of the betrayal of Iraqis during the Gulf War by the Western powers and the Arab world called Cruelty and Silence. He even wrote a novel about seventh-century Jerusalem. It was a story of the intellectual relationships among Christians, Jews, and early Muslims at the time the al-Aqsa mosque was constructed near the Dome of the Rock—a story of relative tolerance, pluralism, and enlightenment that stood in pointed contrast to the religious ideologies of our own age. Makiya taught Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, and at Harvard he directed the collection and translation of a trove of official documents that had come out of northern Iraq after the Gulf War—an archive of the Anfal, the Kurdish genocide of 1987–88. He worked in a small apartment off Massachusetts Avenue that was filled with books in Arabic on Islam and the history of the region. On one wall there was a Ben Shahn poster of a characteristically existential-looking figure, and a quotation from a nineteenth-century Englishman named John Viscount Morley: "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him."
I was living in Cambridge during those years. It's not unusual to see bespectacled men walking the streets around Harvard Square with an air of disheveled preoccupation. Some are professors, some are homeless. In the mid-1990s, I began to notice among these walkers a man with a large, balding head and soft, distracted features who always seemed to be in a hurry. After perhaps a year, I figured out that this man was the Iraqi exile and author of Republic of Fear —Samir al-Khalil, Kanan Makiya. In a way, he was both a professor and homeless. I always felt a quiver of worry when I spotted him: The head bobbing along Massachusetts Avenue seemed like an easy target if there were agents of Iraqi intelligence in Cambridge.
One day I introduced myself, and after that Makiya and I would have coffee in the square a couple of times a year. He told me that after the Gulf War he and other Iraqi exiles had written a document called Charter 91, directly modeled on the Czech dissident group Charter 77, of which Vaclav Havel had been a founding member. Makiya was something I'd never encountered—an Arab dissident in the manner of Havel or Solzhenitsyn. Charter 91 was a manifesto calling for a democratic and secular Iraq—a "Republic of Tolerance." Once, when Makiya and I were talking about the relativism that had taken over liberal political philosophy, he suddenly said, in his disarmingly direct way, with his apologetic smile, "I'm a universalist." He identified with Europe's eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Human rights, he said, were an absolute that would have to be the foundation of a new Arab world—a new Iraq.
The fate of exiles is to dream and wait and decay. But Makiya wasn't decaying—he had his books, his projects. Beneath the slightly bewildered manner lay a fierce intensity and even stubbornness. Charter 91 and the Iraqi National Congress, the exiles' political organization (Makiya was a member of its assembly), seemed unlikely to create the Republic of Tolerance. The power of Saddam and the Baath Party, like the Soviet Union once, or apartheid South Africa, at that time seemed permanent, an iron lock. The miracles of 1989 and the democratic revolutions of the 1990s were not for Iraq, which belonged to an alien and frightening part of the world where governments and people routinely did terrible things and no light or air ever penetrated. I was a little embarrassed to sit with Makiya and hear his ideas. It was awkward to be confronted with this intelligence and idealism, to sympathize with his hopes, and have nothing to offer in return, not even hope. But he kept Iraq from being a complete abstraction. If not for Kanan Makiya and our irregular coffees, its future would never have crossed my mind.
* * *
DURING THE YEARS between the Gulf War and September 11, Iraq was rarely on the front page of newspapers. But another story was playing out, subtler but no less important than war: the development of certain ideas about America and its mission in the world. The Iraq War started as a war of ideas, and to understand how and why America came to be in Iraq, one has to trace their origins.
On March 8, 1992—almost a year to the day after Kanan Makiya came out of pseudonymity to urge the overthrow of Saddam's regime—The New York Times published selections from the draft of a document that had been leaked by an apparently dismayed official in President Bush's Pentagon. The document, forty-six pages long, was called the Defense Planning Guidance, a policy statement that outlined America's political and military strategy after the Cold War. It was written by Zalmay Khalilzad and Abram Shulsky, both of whom would become second-tier players in the Iraq War under the second President Bush. The Defense Planning Guidance was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and overseen by the undersecretary for policy, Paul Wolfowitz. Its intellectual ambition confirmed Wolfowitz's reputation as a big thinker.
"Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival," the draft declared at the outset. The United States would preserve its preeminent power across the globe and discourage potential competitors by keeping defense spending at high levels. Those competitors were as likely to emerge in Europe as anywhere, in spite of America's longstanding alliances with the Western democracies. Germany and Japan came in for special suspicion. "Like the coalition that opposed Iraqi aggression," the authors wrote, "we should expect future coalitions to be ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted." There was no mention of the United Nations or any other international organization. Instead, the document described a world of dangers and power struggles in which America had to remain the superpower, for its own security and for stability everywhere else.
The Defense Planning Guidance was one of those internal bureaucratic memoranda—like the famous NSC-68 paper of 1950 outlining an aggressive Cold War strategy—that foretell a grand historic shift. After the leak was published in The New York Times, President Bush at first disputed that the implications were far-reaching at all, then he ordered Pentagon officials to rewrite it. When the document was released in May, the language about preeminence was gone; the toned-down revision made reassuring noises about cooperation and alliances. The press played the story as a case of the mature, sober Defense Secretary Dick Cheney reining in the rambunctious thinking of Undersecretary Wolfowitz. In hindsight, this account seems unlikely. With its language about American dominance, ad hoc coalitions, and preemptive war to prevent threats from unconventional weapons, the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 foreshadows with uncanny accuracy, down to the wording of key sentences, the second President Bush's National Security Strategy of 2002, which poured the foundation for what came to be called the Bush Doctrine, and its first test, the Iraq War. And this second document reflected, as much as anyone else's, the ideas of Vice President Cheney.
The DPG was a barely visible hairline fracture that over time developed into a profound break. That the leaked document was cleaned up for public presentation wasn't just a response to poor early reviews. Between its authors and the president they served lay a philosophical gulf too vast for the editing out of a few phrases to close. Bush the father belonged to the Nixon-Kissinger school of political thought. In the jargon of foreign policy, he was a "realist," which meant that he believed in preserving the balance of power between states that acted out of narrowly defined interests. For realists, the key phrase was "vital national interest." To officials of this persuasion, the fall of the Soviet Union wasn't an occasion for America to expand its military dominance across the face of the earth. It was a cause for concern, because it upset the balance of power. One realist even wrote an article titled "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War." The mainstream of the Republican Party was dedicated to this line of thought, and after the Cold War its leaders seemed uncertain about what course to pursue—especially once Bill Clinton defeated George Bush. With a Democrat in the White House, Republican wise men began to call for American retrenchment around the world. They disliked the new president's forays into the margins of geopolitics like Haiti and the Balkans. They especially disliked the talk of human rights and democracy as causes for expending blood and treasure abroad. To the realists, these were dangerous fantasies. What foreign regimes did to their own citizens within the privacy of their own borders was no business of the United States.
During the presidency of Bill Clinton, this view pushed the Republican Party close to its old isolationism of the years before Pearl Harbor. But throughout the 1990s, another current of thought ran alongside or beneath this mainstream, quietly at first, later gathering force.
Excerpted from The Assassins' Gate by George Packer. Copyright © 2005 George Packer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books, including Blood of the Liberals (FSG, 2000), winner of the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is also the editor of the anthology The Fight Is for Democracy. He lives in Brooklyn.
George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, which received numerous prizes and was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by The New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of the novels The Half Man and Central Square, and the works of nonfiction The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, The Village of Waiting and Blood of the Liberals, which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. His play, Betrayed, ran in Manhattan for five months in 2008 and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. He lives in Brooklyn.
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This book reminds me of "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman. I simply didn't want to put it down and its 480 pages flew by. I expect Packer's masterpiece will stand the test of time and soon be considered a classic as well as required reading in regards to the Iraq war. It is carefully researched and well written.
I picked this up because it was regarding the "war" in Iraq and I wanted to read up on it. I didn't believe anything I was being feed by the media so I started reading for myself. This book is written by a journalist who has actually been to Iraq and seen it for himself. He does not fill this book with his own opinions and his own assumptions but rather gives the reader the information in almost third person so the reader can make their own decision.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who questions the Iraqi "war".
Since it all began, the Iraq War has been one that has slowly fallen apart due to a mass of different reasons. Whether it be the questionable reason for starting the war or the unsuspected rise of insurgencies after the major fighting was said to be over with, it has been a war that has many questions surrounding it. But George Packer puts together a great documentation of how it all came to place in The Assassins' Gate. Being absolutely packed with details, the book never fails to give the reader too little information or opinions for that matter also. It also paints a great picture of what life is like over there for both soldiers and every day civillians through many of the stories that were told in the book. It covers an almost exhausting amount of topics while going through the book but never fails to leave an important detail out that tops it off for the reader. Things like that and the importance of the war in our time makes this book something that anyone who likes a challenge and wants to know the facts should read. It's a great portrayal of past, present, and future Iraq and digs deep into American politics at the same time. A must-read for the up to date citizen.
Packer does a really good job in this book. What I really enjoyed was, how he explained the evolution of the neoconservative political thought that lead to the decision of war. It has been hard to me to figure out why our country made the decisions to fight especially since it has become obvious the reasons given were exaggerated to persuade the public. Through Packers discussions with mid-level bureaucrats and random Iraqis, as well as his own thoughts, he does a great job explaining the complexities of Iraqi society, that were drastically overlooked, as well as, the failures in prewar and early invasion policy that has lead us to where we are today. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone asking the question: Why?
Assassin's Gate is a very good book. Through interviews with Americans and Iraqis at many levels of society, Mr. Packer provides a multidimensional view of the war. His own preconceived notions were shattered by the chaos and poor planning that he witnesses in the Bush administration. Yet he sees a verve and vision in the average GI Joe that still finds a purpose for fighting this poorly equipped and planned war. After reading it, I felt I understood the dimensions and ambiguities of the war far better and recommend it wherever your views or opinions lie on the political spectrum
Going into this book with some trepedation I found this book to be extremely poignant. You need to go in with an open mind otherwise you will never be able to look at all the sides presented to you. The author's ideas are intelligent, factual and elequently written. If you are looking for another unique side to this war, pick The Assassins' Gate up.
Having just read the superb book, 'Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy' by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, I am beginning to understand how effective the prevailing neoconservative thinking has been in directing the Bush administration. That it has reaped a succession of political victories seems to be coming to a disastrous end with our lingering presence in Iraq. Within this context, New Yorker staff writer George Packer has written a powerful, warts-and-all account of the Iraq war that exposes a devastating lack of planning on the part of the Bush administration to bring resolution to the most nebulous of conflicts. From the current regime's perspective, the whole purpose of the war is the post-war re-shaping of Iraq. However, as State Department and Pentagon officials raised warnings about the intractable and costly lessons learned by the Clinton White House in Bosnia and Haiti, the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld seem doomed to repeat history no matter the cost financially, physically and emotionally. Packer confirms many of the points raised by Mark Crispin Miller in last year's 'Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order', specifically that the Bush administration has been tapped by God to lead a journey to spread American democracy to countries they deem unenlightened. Through his informative tome, Packer has invoked a theme that especially resonates now - the fatalistic difference between abstract terms and concrete realities that defines current policies from Washington in regard to Baghdad. Packer uses an idealistic Iraqi exile as his protagonist for key parts of his book, his friend Kanan Makiya. Under the nom de plume of Samir al-Khalil, Makiya was one of the first to alert the rest of the world to the barbarism of Saddam Hussein's regime in the late 1980's. In fact, he accomplished such an effective clarion call for action that Dick Cheney cited Makiya as one of the Iraqis who had assured him that Americans would be welcomed as liberators. Ironically, many of his fellow Iraqis branded Makiya as an out-of-touch naïf, and Packer reports on this disparity firsthand. In devastating detail, the author then broadens the context of this difference to the entire landscape of Iraq, especially the tragedy of errors that the US occupation has brought to the country. He should know since he had been a news regular in Iraq before and during the conflict. Before 9/11, he chronicled the intellectual arguments of neocons and Iraqi exiles as they won the fight to take on Saddam, and he was there in Ramadi and Fallujah as the US soldiers fought with dwindling force in capturing Iraqi hearts and minds. Similar to what former CIA official Michael Scheuer wrote in his illuminating 'Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror', Packer confirms that the Bush administration has a fanciful notion that democracy would somehow be a panacea in Iraq and that they continue to display the imperialistic hubris of knowing what is best for Iraq's future. Tellingly, however, they have made no plans to secure this vision for Iraq, as evidenced by Donald Rumsfeld's indifference to peacekeeping or nation-building efforts. Rumsfeld continues to deny the scope of the current insurgency, and additionally, the failure of Paul Wolfowitz proves the shakiness of the neocon vision. One of the brutal ironies out of Iraq, according to Packer, is that the Bush administration came to power dismissing nation-building but has wound up mishandling many of the same long-term infrastructure problems in Iraq that it is now mishandling in New Orleans after Katrina. Watching the disparity unfold in Packer's account makes for surprisingly suspenseful reading, at least when the book doesn't infuriate with its various exposés. For instance, the lesson of the resurgence of the Taliban and the recent London bombings provides proof that Osama bin Laden has succeeded in tunin
This book purports to explain the current mess in Iraq and the genesis of US involvement through a series of vignettes and observations. The book consists of an elaboration on a series of articles contributed to 'The New Yorker': he has been a columnist for the magazine since 2003. The book weighs in heavily on conspiracy theory, postulating that a cabal of 'neocons' eventually (in effect) 'hijacked' the benighted Bush Administration into invading Iraq. Packer tends to invoke 'Trotskyism' as a motive force, though precisely how an ultra-leftist and historically anachronistic program of 'permanent revolution' obtains in a neo-conservative construct was not specified. Packer has the cloying tendency to proffer tragic and semi-tragic vignettes as broader symbolic roadsigns on the trajectory to chaos and political ruin in Iraq. If only the US had absorbed the folk insights of the masses, he seems to say. Finally, however, the book does illustrate the complexities of establishing a democratic regime in Iraq, which is evidently the current mission of the Bush Administration. Those who subscribe to this concept would do well to recall that, as Robespierre remarked in 1792, ¿No one loves armed missionaries.¿
Not only clear, shaded, factual and elegant --but BIPARTISAN. A must read for anyone interested in what really happened and why.
This isn't a book for conspiracy theorists, rabid Bush-haters or anyone else who is too close-minded to look at the Iraq situation from a scholarly, three-dimensional viewpoint. If you are ready to move past the rhetoric about 'war crimes' and the flimsy Vietnam analogies, this book is both highly useful and incredibly thoughtful
This is a rehash of his New Yorker articles, and they were the disgrace of the New Yorker. Like the invasion of Vietnam by the US, but much, much worse, the Iraq aggression is not a mistake or something that went astray - it was a war crime. It was precisely the war crime people were hanged for at Nuremberg.
One big rehash of the already published New Yorker articles, that can all be read online by the way. It is entertaining but chock full of partial conspiracy theories. Nothing new you haven't already read or watched.