James Risen, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for exposing the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program, has long been one of the nation’s most aggressive and adversarial investigative journalists. Over the past several years, he has received at least as much attention for being threatened with prison by the Obama Justice Department (ostensibly) for refusing to reveal the source of one of his stories—a persecution that, in reality, is almost certainly the vindictive by-product of the U.S. government’s anger over his NSA reporting.
He has published a new book on the War on Terror entitled Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War. There have been lots of critiques of the War on Terror on its own terms, but Risen’s is one of the first to offer large amounts of original reporting on what is almost certainly the most overlooked aspect of this war: the role corporate profiteering plays in ensuring its endless continuation, and how the beneficiaries use rank fear-mongering to sustain it.
That alone makes the book very worth reading, but what independently interests me about Risen is how he seems to have become entirely radicalized by what he’s discovered in the last decade of reporting, as well as by the years-long battle he has had to wage with the U.S. government to stay out of prison. He now so often eschews the modulated, safe, uncontroversial tones of the standard establishment reporter (such as when he called Obama “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation” and said about the administration’s press freedom attacks: “Nice to see the U.S. government is becoming more like the Iranian government”). He at times even channels radical thinkers, sounding almost Chomsky-esque when he delivered a multiple–tweet denunciation—taken from a speech he delivered at Colby College—of how establishment journalists cling to mandated orthodoxies out of fear:
It is difficult to recognize the limits a society places on accepted thought at the time it is doing it. When everyone accepts basic assumptions, there don’t seem to be constraints on ideas. That truth often only reveals itself in hindsight. Today, the basic prerequisite to being taken seriously in American politics is to accept the legitimacy of the new national security state. The new basic American assumption is that there really is a need for a global war on terror. Anyone who doesn’t accept that basic assumption is considered dangerous and maybe even a traitor. The crackdown on leaks by the Obama administration has been designed to suppress the truth about the war on terror. Stay on the interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems. Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.
I spent roughly 30 minutes talking to Risen about the book, what he’s endured in his legal case, attacks on press freedoms, and what is and is not new about the War on Terror’s corporate profiteering. The discussion can be heard on the player below, and a transcript is provided. As Risen put it: “I wrote Pay Any Price as my answer to the government’s campaign against me.”
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GREENWALD: This is Glenn Greenwald with The Intercept and I am speaking today with Jim Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times who has released a new book, the title of which is Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. Hey Jim, thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me.
RISEN: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
GREENWALD: My pleasure. So, I’ve read your entire book, and I have several questions about it, beginning with a general one, which is: there have been a lot of books written about the failures of the War on Terror, deceit kind of embedded with the War on Terror, most of which have taken the war on its own terms, and critiqued it because of strategic failures or of failure to achieve the claims which have been made to justify the war, and I actually have written a couple of books myself about the War on Terror from that perspective. Yours is really one of the first that has focused on a particular part of the War on Terror, namely the way in which economic motives, what you call the Homeland Security Industrial Complex, has driven a huge part of the war, and there’s a lot of new reporting about how that functions.
I wanted to ask you two things about that. One is, is that something that you intended to do; that you set out to do when you began writing the book, and if so, what led you to do that, and the second part of it is, how much of this economic motive is the cause of the fact that we’ve now been at war for 13 years as opposed to traditional war objectives such as increasing domestic power or asserting foreign influence. How big of a role do you think it actually plays?
RISEN: That was my goal. That was one of the key objectives of writing the book, and I think it plays a really central role in why the war is continuing. I think it’s basically that after so many years there’s a whole class of people that have developed. A post-9/11 mercenary class that’s developed that have invested in their own lives an incentive to keep the war going. Not just people who are making money, but people who are in the government who their status and their power within the government are invested in continuing the war.
So I was trying to show that it wasn’t just greed—it was partly greed—but it was also status, and power, and ambition that all intertwined to make it so that there’s very little debate about whether to continue the war, and whether we should have any real re-assessment on a basic level. So you’re right, I was trying to get at those motivations, I was trying to understand how we could have this prolonged period of war with such little debate. And I think it’s both economic incentives and personal power incentives and ambition and status.
GREENWALD: Let’s talk about the economic part of the motive, because obviously one of the most striking things about the war is not just its duration but the fact that it’s continued essentially unimpeded, notwithstanding these wild swings in election outcomes. You have the Republicans, who were in power when the war commenced, get smashed in 2006 and 2008 as a result of, at least primarily, as a result of dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and the general state of things, but then you had the war continue under a president who kind of vowed to reign it all in, and then even when the Democrats get killed in 2010 and then again in 2014, there’s no signs of any of this letting up.
It’s easy to see why there’s this private sector—you know, the weapons manufacturers and the defense contractors, sort of a General Dynamics, Booz Allen world—that want the war to continue. They do really well when they’re selling huge amounts of machinery, weapons, and drones. But what causes the political class to be so willing to serve their interests so brazenly, even when public opinion is so overwhelmingly against it?
RISEN: That’s a question I’ve struggled with myself. I’ve tried to understand. I think we had one or two real moments when we could have gone in a different direction. The primary one was, of course, 2008. I think Obama had a chance. He had a mandate to do something different. And he didn’t do it. I think part of it was that he was never exactly what we thought he was, I think he was never really as liberal as people thought he was. I think a lot of voters invested in him their hopes and dreams without exactly realizing what he really was. I think he was always really more conservative than how he presented himself in 2008.
To give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, I think it’s very easy for the intelligence community to scare the hell out of politicians when they come in, and I think that Obama probably got seduced a little bit by the intelligence community when he arrived. All you have to do is look at a lot of raw intelligence to scare somebody. Convince them that “Oh, it’s much worse than you ever realized.” But at the same time, he must take some of the blame. He surrounded himself with a lot of the Bush people from the get-go. Brennan was on his campaign. Most of his team had some ties to the Bush years in the War on Terror.
To me, that’s the hardest thing to really sort out, the factors that led Obama—at that one moment, I think there was one opportunity he had in 2008 to make a significant change and he didn’t do it. And I think historians are going to be struggling with that for a long time.
GREENWALD: Well, let me struggle with that with you for a little bit because the idea, and I think it’s a commonly expressed one—there’s probably an element of truth to it—that a new president who doesn’t really have a great deal of experience with the military or the intelligence community has these impressive generals and CIA people coming in with medals on their chest and decades of experience and, as you say, purposefully scaring them.
But at the same time, anybody who’s remotely sophisticated about the world understands that that’s going to happen. Dwight Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex 50 years ago. And you know that there are factions in Washington who maintain their power by scaring you, and you have your own advisors. If you and I know that so much of that is fear mongering, he has to know, right?
RISEN: Right, and I’m not trying to excuse it at all, and in fact I think it’s what he wanted. My own gut tells me that what he decided to do was in early 2009 was to focus on economic and healthcare policies and that in order to do those things on the domestic side, he had to protect his flank on national security and not fight the Republicans on national security, so I think there was a calculated move by Obama to prolong the War on Terror in order to try to focus on domestic issues. And I think that after a while, he lost control of that narrative.
GREENWALD: It’s always hard to talk about somebody’s motives, right? I think we have a hard time knowing our own motives, let alone other people’s, who are complicated. As you say, he had this great opportunity in 2008 because things like closing Guantanamo and reining in the War on Terror and stopping torture—these were all things that he ran on, and won on, right?
GREENWALD: And you’ve been really outspoken about the fact that it’s not just the continuation of the Bush national security agenda but the even—especially, rather—an escalation of the attack on journalism. I’ve seen you have some pretty extreme quotes on that, that he’s the worst president on press freedom since at least Nixon, maybe worse. Do you think that’s a byproduct of the fact that every president gets progressively worse, or do you think there’s something unique and specific about his worldview and approach that has made him so bad on these press freedom issues?
RISEN: I think one of his legacies is going to be that on a broad scale he normalized the War on Terror. He took what Bush and Cheney kind of had started on an emergency, ad-hoc basis and turned it into a permanent state and allowed it to grow much more dramatically than it ever had under Bush or Cheney, and part of that—I think within that—was his attack on whistleblowers and journalists. I think it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. If you believe in the national security state in the way Obama does, then you have to also believe in squashing dissent.
GREENWALD: And I think that’s part of what makes war so degrading, right, for a political culture and a country is that it always gets accompanied by those kinds of things. Let me ask you a little bit about your own personal experience as part of that war on whistleblowing and journalism.
I know you’re a little constrained because your case is still pending. But one of the things I always find so interesting is that whenever your case is talked about, it always gets talked about in this very narrow sense: that you had a source for a story that you published in your book about some inept and ultimately counterproductive attempts to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear program and the case is about trying to force you to reveal your source, and like every good journalist should, you refuse to do so and therefore face a possibility of being held in contempt of court and being sent to prison.
But the background of your case, that I want to just step back and talk about a little bit, is that you’ve had this very adversarial relationship with the intelligence community, this increasingly adversarial relationship with the intelligence community, as a result of a lot of the reporting that you did, including exposing the warrantless NSA program in 2005, for which you won the Pulitzer Prize.
Can you talk about that, the tensions you’ve had with the government in the War on Terror reporting that you’ve done and how that has manifested and affected your life?
RISEN: Yeah, sure. In fact, I’ve said in affidavits in the case that I believe that the reason they came after me on this subpoena is because of the NSA stories that we did for The New York Times. I’m convinced, and I believe there’s a lot of evidence to show that they decided ultimately not to come after The New York Times on the NSA stories and instead wanted to isolate me by looking at something in my book. In fact, I know for a fact that they conducted leak investigations of at least three or four separate chapters in my book.
They interviewed a lot of people about totally unrelated things to the case that they ultimately came after me on and I think they were looking for something in my book to isolate me from The New York Times, and in their court papers they have repeatedly cited the fact that The New York Times decided not to run the story as one of the arguments for why it’s justified for them to come after me on it. And so I pride myself on the fact that I developed an adversarial relationship with the government because I think that’s what every reporter should do.
GREENWALD: I know from my own experience doing NSA reporting over the last 18 months—and I’ve heard you say before that you’re not going to let these kind of threats and recriminations affect your reporting. That was my mindset as well and I was actually even more determined a lot of times whenever I felt threatened to do the reporting even more aggressively, to make sure that those bullying tactics weren’t going to work. At the same time, when you hear top level government officials openly muse about the crimes that you’ve committed, when you hear privately through your attorney that the Justice Department might arrest you when you come back to the U.S., of course it does have an effect on you. It occupies a mental space. You spend a lot of time talking to your lawyers instead of focusing on journalism.
And one of the things I’ve always found so fascinating about your case is that you have a Pulitzer, you work for The New York Times, you’re one of the best known investigative journalists in the country—one of the most institutionally protected, even though they did separate you from the Times by focusing on your book. Still, though, the fact that they were able to target you this way, for this many years, I thought was a very powerful message that if we can even go after Jim Risen, we can go after anybody.
I know you want to maintain the idea, and I know that it’s true, that none of this consciously deterred you from doing the journalism. But how does being at the center of a case like this, where people are openly talking about you going to prison, including people in the Justice Department—how does this have an effect on your journalism, on your relationship to your sources, just on your ability to do your work?
RISEN: Well, you know, it’s interesting. It affected me a lot at first, for the first couple of years. It’s one of those weird things that I’m sure you know now—these things go on forever and they take a long time and most of the time nobody’s paying any attention except you and your lawyers. During the first several years, nobody paid much attention, and it did have an effect on me then. And it took a long time for me to realize I’ve got to just keep going. But the fact that now a lot of people are supporting me has really helped me, this year in particular.
In the last six months to a year, when I’ve gotten a lot more attention and people supporting me, I feel like now I have to represent the industry, represent the profession, and so it’s changed the way I even think about the case.
GREENWALD: You have become this kind of increasingly prolific user of Twitter, out of nowhere. You were never on Twitter. You were a very late joiner. I clearly see all the signs of addiction forming, and I say this as someone who recognizes it personally. You’ve evolved—you had a Twitter egg for a long time, and now you have a real picture.
RISEN: (Laughs) My son took that picture.
GREENWALD: (Laughs) Alright, well I knew it was going to be somebody else who caused you to leave the egg behind. But one of the things I find really interesting is Twitter is a venue in which you get to speak in a different way about different things than you do, say, in an article that you write for The New York Times, where you’re a little bit more constrained in how you’re talking. And you’ve expressed some ideas that I think are very rare for someone who is a reporter at a large, establishment institution like The New York Times to express, and I want to ask you a couple of questions about that.
You had this multi-part tweet maybe about a month ago. It almost sounded like something Noam Chomsky might say, or other people might say like that, about how the big plague of establishment thought in the U.S. is a fear of deviating from conventional wisdom, and it’s only after generation or two later when people who do that get vindicated, and so there’s this really strong incentive not to do that. Can you elaborate on the kinds of things you were talking about that and what you’ve experienced that has led you to see those things?
RISEN: That was actually part of a speech I gave at Colby College. I think the best thing I’ve written on this whole issue. I compared how Elijah Lovejoy, who was an abolitionist in the 1830s who was murdered because he was trying to run a newspaper in St. Louis that was pro-abolitionism, how he was so far ahead of his time that people thought he was crazy. He was so far outside the mainstream, and people thought abolitionism and the end of slavery was this idea that was insane.
And I was trying to compare that to what we have today, where anybody who says we shouldn’t have a War on Terror is considered delusional. And I was trying to show that conventional wisdom is a creature of our time. It’s not inherently true or not true. And that the mainstream press’s dependence on conventional wisdom ultimately cripples it in a lot of different ways.
GREENWALD: The impression that I have, and I’ve known you personally only for a few years, so it’s more just a speculative observation from having seen your work before that is that a combination of your going through this case with the government where your own liberty is very much at risk as a result of the government’s actions, combined with a lot of the reporting that lead to this book kind of has radicalized you in a way that I think is a pretty common thing that people in the War on Terror have gone through where people look at their country differently, much more so than they ever did before, look at institutions differently.
Am I right about that? Is the Jim Risen of today more willing to experiment with novel ideas that aren’t conventional than the Jim Risen of 20 years ago as a result of those experiences?
RISEN: Probably, probably. I have to think about that. I’m trying to think back. I think my real change came after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. I was covering the CIA as a beat then. And to me, it was fascinating talking to CIA people right after the invasion of Iraq and right before the invasion of Iraq, because it was kind of like privately talking to a bunch of Howard Deans. They were all radicalized against what Bush was doing.
To me it was wild to hear all of these people inside the intelligence community, especially in 2003, 2004, who were just going nuts. They couldn’t believe the radical change the United States was going through, and that nobody was opposed to it. And that led me to write my last book, State of War, because I was hearing things from within the intelligence community and the U.S. government that you weren’t hearing publicly from anybody. So that really led me to realize—and to step back and look at—the radical departure of U.S. policy that has happened since 9/11 and since the invasion of Iraq.
To me, it’s not like I’ve been radicalized, I feel like I stayed in the same place and the country changed. The country became more radicalized in a different direction.
GREENWALD: I wonder about that a lot. Obviously, I started writing about politics in 2005, and a huge part of it was that perception, that the country had radically changed, that things that we took for granted were no longer the case, and I’ve definitely had a rapid and significant evolution in my views of how I look at those things the more I focus on them and the more the country changed.
But if you go back and look at some media critics of the ’50s and ’60s, people like I.F. Stone who were kind of placed on the outside of conventional wisdom, and were viewed as fringe or crazy at the time—a lot of that can be traced to way before 9/11. Lies about the Vietnam War. The huge military industrial complex around the Cold War. Do you think 9/11 was this radical break from how things were done in the country, or was it more an injection of steroids into processes that were already underway?
RISEN: There have always been problems. But we’ve taken this to a new level. Both because the technology has allowed the government to do things it would never have done before, but also because of the willingness of the country to accept security measures and a reduction in civil liberties that I think would not have been contemplated before. I keep thinking that if you had a Rip Van Winkle from 1995 who woke up today, I don’t think they would really recognize the country. And that’s what I’m trying to write about, and what I view, because that’s the America that I remember.
GREENWALD: There’s this fascinating debate that took place in the ’90s, after the Timothy McVeigh attack on the Oklahoma City federal building, when the Clinton administration introduced these proposals to require backdoors into all encryption, for all computers and internet usage. And it didn’t happen, and the reason it didn’t happen is because all of these Republicans in Congress, led by John Ashcroft, stood up with a bunch of Democrats in alliance with them, saying “We’re not the kind of country that gives the government access to all of our communications. Privacy is actually a crucial value.” And just a few short years later, all of that reversed, and that debate became inconceivable.
RISEN: When Dick Cheney said, “the gloves come off,” I don’t think we realized how important that was, and what that really meant. As I’ve said before, that really meant, “We’re going to deregulate national security, and we’re going to take off all the rules that were imposed in the ’70s after Watergate.” And that was just a dramatic change in the way we conduct foreign policy and national security. And I think it’s been extended to this whole new homeland security apparatus. People think that terrorism is an existential threat, even though it’s not, and so they’re willing to go along with all this, and that’s what’s so scary to me.
GREENWALD: Let me ask you a few questions about some specific examples in your book, including one that relates to what you just said. You kind of have these different wars that you conceive of and one is called the “War on Normalcy.” One of the examples is, there’s this area on the U.S.-Canadian border that used to be kind of tranquil and now there’s a ton of War on Terror money that has gone to the state police there, and it’s kind of militarized that zone, and made it so the citizens are just interfered with in all kinds of ways.
One of the most overlooked trends, I think—you mentioned Cheney taking the gloves off—all of these things we were doing overseas aimed at ostensibly foreign terrorists have now begun to be imported onto U.S. soil, like the militarization of our police force using techniques from Baghdad, the use of drones, that “Collect it All” NSA model, which was first pioneered by Keith Alexander in Baghdad, is now aimed at U.S. citizens. Do you think that’s an important trend? Is that something that’s really happened, that what was the War on Terror aimed outward is now being aimed domestically?
RISEN: Absolutely, and that’s one of the most scary elements of it. To me, when the NSA started spying domestically that was like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. It was a really important shift. People thought that was absolutely forbidden. And when the NSA started doing it, and then when you started fooling around with creating a new Department of Homeland Security, merging all of these departments—creating Immigration and Customs Enforcement and all of this stuff—I think you’ve created a much more efficient federal domestic law enforcement apparatus, and efficiency is not always a good thing when it comes to that.
One of the things I always think about, and one of my earlier books was comparing the CIA and the KGB during the Cold War, and I always remember somebody telling me that the only countries that have really efficient security services are dictatorships.
GREENWALD: Right, and you can basically only have a really efficient security service if you’re willing to at least kind of go into that realm of authoritarianism—they kind of go hand in hand. Let me ask you: there’s this pretty new reporting you have on this company General Atomics, which is the maker of drones, and you kind of describe them as the new oligarchs. In 2001 they had $100 million in government contracts and now in 2012 they have $1.8 billion, an obscene increase. At the same time, coincidentally enough, you cite a good governance group documenting that they’ve spent more to fund congressional staff travel than any other company.
One of the things that always amazes me—I remember that there was this reporting that was done by Wired, during the debate over whether to give immunity to the telecoms that participated in the NSA program that you uncovered. An extraordinary thing to do, to retroactively immunize the biggest companies in the United States, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller became the leading spokesman for it at the time. He was the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and there were studies showing that right around the time when he became the leading proponent of telecom immunity, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint began donating lots of money to his campaign, they threw parties for him, but still, in the context of Jay Rockefeller—a Rockefeller—with a super safe seat in West Virginia, they were pretty trivial amounts to be able to just dominate congressional policy that way. And that was what struck me too about General Atomics. So they fund some congressional staff travel.
What is it about the D.C. culture that lets these kind of seemingly trivial amounts in the scheme of things end up translating into this massive influence?
RISEN: You know, I don’t think that it’s the money that really does the trick. I think what really, you’ve got to look at is that all of the staffers, and all of the members of Congress are thinking about what are they going to do after they leave those jobs. The same is true for military officers. What are you going to do when you retire from the military, or from the House Intelligence Committee, or whatever? You’re going to need a job at a defense contractor. And so I think that the real incentive for a lot of these people is not to upset their potential employers in the future. The campaign contributions themselves are just tokens, as you said.
GREENWALD: To say that, on one hand it seems kind of self-evident, but on the one hand, it’s a pretty extraordinary observation because it’s a form of the most extreme corruption. Public officials are serving the interests of really rich corporations in exchange for lucrative private sector jobs that they get when they leave after serving their interests.
RISEN: What really hit home was when I was working on a chapter on KBR, and one of the guys who I describe was kind of a whistleblower, Charles Smith. He was an auditor for the army who tried to stop about a billion dollars of payments to KBR because they didn’t have any proof that they’d actually spent the money—or they didn’t have sufficient records to prove it—and he lost his job over his fight with KBR, he believes.
And after I started talking to him he said, “There’s this one general you could talk to who was one of my bosses for a while. He was a good guy and he would vouch for me.” So I called that general, and he had since retired, and he said, “Well, I think Charlie was a great guy, but I now work for a contractor that does business with KBR, and I don’t want to say anything publicly about Charlie because that might upset KBR.” And that’s the kind of thing that you see all the time.
GREENWALD: There’s a case that you talk about in the book that’s Burnett v. Al Baraka, where 9/11 families sued the Saudis. There are lots of influential people in D.C., like Sen. Bob Graham, the former head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and others, who have said that the role that the Saudis have played in the War on Terror, and specifically the 9/11 attack, has been really actively suppressed, because of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia. And there is this sort of bizarre aspect that we’ve gone to war against a huge number of countries, one of the few exceptions to which has been the country that had the most nationals involved in that attack, and whose government has been the most persuasively implicated.
How persuasive or credible do you find those questions about the Saudi involvement in the War on Terror generally, 9/11 specifically, and whether that’s been actively suppressed?
RISEN: Well, as you said, I don’t really get into the substance of that in that chapter because it’s really about this bizarre operation and how crazy that operation became. But I think you’re right. I think it’s one of the unanswered questions of 9/11 that, as you said, Graham became fixated on, and they still have not unredacted parts of that report.
I think the role of the Saudi government is probably different from the role of wealthy people in the Persian Gulf. And that’s the distinction that people have tried to grapple with for a long time. Are these just individually wealthy people in the Gulf, either in Saudi Arabia or in the Emirates, or is there some direction from any of these governments? And that’s the question that the U.S. government has never wanted to address publicly.
GREENWALD: You said in an interview within the last week—it might have been at the Firedog Lake Book Salon, I’m not exactly sure where it was—but you described the period of time in 2004 and 2005 when you were trying to get the NSA eavesdropping story published as one of the most stressful times of your life. I think you even said the quote “most stressful period of your professional life.” The New York Times, to its credit, did eventually publish that story, and did a great job on it, but can you talk a little bit about what you meant by that? Why that period was so stressful?
RISEN: Eric Lichtblau and I were trying to get that in the paper beginning in October 2004, and they killed it, or they stopped it. They agreed with the White House not to run it before the election and then we tried again after the election, and they killed it again, and by that time it was pretty well dead. So I went on a book leave and I put it in my book, and I knew that by doing that, I was putting my career at The New York Times in jeopardy.
It was very stressful about what was going to happen between me, The New York Times, and the Bush administration. I really credit my wife more than anybody else. I told her at one point that if I do this, if I keep it in the book, and the Times doesn’t run it, I’m probably going to get fired, and I remember she told me, “I won’t respect you if you don’t do that.” And so that was enough for me to keep going, but I didn’t sleep for about six months.
GREENWALD: It’s got to be incredibly difficult knowing that you have a story of that magnitude, and that the story has been nailed down and you can’t get it out into the world. Your book, which I literally finished reading about 24 hours ago, is really riveting, and it’s not just a book that is a polemical indictment of the War on Terror, like you’ve read before, it really is an incredible amount of individual reporting on one of the most under-reported aspects of this war, which is just how many people are gorging on huge amounts of profit and waste at the expense of the taxpayer, and what a big part of the war that is. Congratulations on writing such a great book, and I really appreciate your talking to me.
RISEN: Well thank you.
Photo: Alex Menendez/AP