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Why America's Spies Struggle To Keep Up

In Intel Wars, historian Matthew Aid details how bureaucratic polices and a glut of raw data have weakened the intelligence community in its war against would-be terrorists.

38:44

Other segments from the episode on January 11, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 11, 2012: Interview with Matthew Aid; Review of Francois Houle and Benoit Delbecq's album "Because She Hoped"; Review of Shalom Auslander's novel "Hope: A Tragedy."

Transcript

January 11, 2012

Guest: Matthew Aid

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who is off this week. Our guest, Matthew Aid, is a historian of the American intelligence world who wrote a highly regarded history of the National Security Agency called "Secret Sentries." In his new book, Aid looks at the enormous growth of the intelligence world since the 9/11 attacks and how the nation's spies have responded to the challenges of new missions and new technology.

And he assesses how well the intelligence world has addressed the failures highlighted in the 9/11 Commission's report. Matthew Aid's new book is called "Intel Wars: The Secret History of The Fight Against Terror." Well, Matthew Aid, welcome to FRESH AIR. In this book, you give us a picture of just how big and sprawling the U.S. intelligence community is. There's one page where you list all these different agencies and about how many employees each has.

How many people are we talking about? How many agencies?

MATTHEW AID: Before 9/11, there were 16 agencies. We're now up to 17, if you include the addition of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is the nominal intelligence czar of the United States. Total number of personnel is about 210,000 civilians and military personnel deployed in the United States and about 170 countries around the world.

DAVIES: And that's government employees. That doesn't count all the private contractors who do work, right?

AID: That's correct.

DAVIES: OK. Now, people know of the CIA and then, of course, the NSA, the National Security Agency, but I'm fascinated by some of the other agencies that are here. The National Reconnaissance Office. What is that?

AID: The National Reconnaissance Office, for the last 50 years, operates and maintains the constellations of spy satellites. And this includes what they call imaging reconnaissance satellites, meaning the satellites that take pictures of the earth below; as well as signals intelligence satellites, which are these gigantic monstrosities of machinery that are parked 22,000 miles above the earth and can scoop up radio signals and electronic emissions from the earth's surface.

You know, at any one time, there are probably somewhere around 15 to 25 of these secret satellites in orbit over the earth. What happens is when they stop functioning, whether, you know, for mechanical reasons or they reach the end of their operational lifetime, they basically just stay in space. They become space junk and cluttering up our stratosphere.

So, you know, it's a - but it is, the National Reconnaissance Office is probably the single most expensive component of the intelligence community, and it always has, since it was created back in 1960.

DAVIES: And they take all of this data and then parse it out to the other 16 agencies?

AID: There are two agencies that basically take all of the information that the satellites collect. The pictures that the satellites take go to an agency called the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is based in Northern Virginia now. And there, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of imagery analysts who go through the pictures and generate intelligence from it.

The intercepted radio signals and radar emissions and the other electronic paraphernalia that the satellites collect, goes to the National Security Agency up at Fort Mead, Maryland. And there, you know, the material is processed and then, you know, sent down to Washington D.C. to be fused with other information into reporting going to President Obama and other intelligence consumers, here and overseas.

DAVIES: And then, of course, each of the military branches have some intelligence apparatus. The Pentagon has, you know, what, tens of thousands of people. Even the Coast Guard has its own intelligence force?

AID: Yeah. You know, 9/11 created a bunch of new players in the intelligence community and one of which is the U.S. Coast Guard. Well, you know, the Coast Guard is always been in the information collection business, primarily because of its longstanding involvement in trying to interdict the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States. But, you know, that was sort of an afterthought to its main function of just cruising around in the Caribbean and the Pacific trying to stop this stuff.

After 9/11, they created their own intelligence organization, including, you know, recruiting and training a number of signals intelligence specialists. And all the Coast Guard cutters, especially the big ones that you occasionally see anchored in our harbors or cruising off our coast, have a little compartment inside, very deep inside, with a cipher lock on the outside and the people inside the compartment are radio intercept operators listening to the radio communications of Columbian narcotics traffickers and the like.

So yeah, the Coast Guard has now become a player in the intelligence game.

DAVIES: You posed the question what do American spies look like, by which you mean, of these 210, 000 government personnel involved in this, is there a demographic profile?

AID: No. You know, if you read the books the Cold War, you know, many authors describe the CIA as being, you know, it was a very narrow demographic. Usually graduates of Ivy League universities, coming from well-to-do families, you know, well traveled, well educated. The demographic has changed dramatically, but it's been changing steadily since the 1960s. But 9/11 has just accelerated the dramatic changes in the demographic of the intelligence community.

The people who now populate the 17 spy agencies, pretty much resemble you and I in most respects. They're still very bright, well educated, well traveled, but they're no longer restricted to just, you know, the Ivy League schools in the Northeast. You know, recruiting now takes place on all university campuses across the United States. The clandestine service of - or what used to be called the clandestine service of the CIA, still goes out and recruits a lot of people who have special skill sets, people who have no problem lying for a living.

DAVIES: And so where do you go fishing for that kind of personality?

AID: Well, the CIA has gone out and looked for people who are aggressive personalities. And what they've done is they've recruited a lot of police detectives, a lot of criminal prosecutors - people who are used to dealing with ne'er-do-wells on a day to day basis are basically pretty aggressive in terms of their personality. And there are other types of people who fit that profile.

DAVIES: And you write that the Mormon community is a rich source of recruitment, right?

AID: The Mormon community has historically provided a significant number of linguists to the National Security Agency and the CIA and the other branches of the intelligence community, because the church requires that all members spend several years overseas as missionaries. And so, you know, these people come back to the United States and they're culturally sensitized and aware.

They usually are pretty well versed in the language or languages that they spoke, and so it's like a happy hunting ground for the intelligence community. And because, you know, they don't smoke or drink, getting a security clearance for members of the Mormon church is a relatively easy process.

DAVIES: You know, after the 9/11 attacks, there was an effort to change the way the intelligence community operated. The 9/11 Commission called for a complete overhaul to deal with the fact that information was not shared among disparate agencies. You know, dots weren't connected and signals, you know, signs, clues, were lost that might have detected the 9/11 plot. And there was this idea that we're going to create a director of national intelligence, someone that could make all of the parts work smoothly together and get out of their kind of bureaucratic isolationism.

Well, first of all, how was that proposal viewed among people in the intelligence world when it was made?

AID: They hated the idea of an intelligence czar. You have to understand that each of the 16 intelligence agencies that existed before the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, they're bureaucracies and they have a bureaucratic identity and lifespan of their own. Which means that, you know, they love their independence. So I mean, it's in that sense, they're no different than a major corporation.

DAVIES: But surely they recognized that the inability to share information and coordinate investigations harmed the effort, endangered the country. What did they think needed to be done, if not, you know, a new intelligence czar, some directorate?

AID: Well, the purpose of the, you know, the creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was exactly as you suggested, to create an intelligence czar, a strong individual who would sit on top of the 16 other intelligence agencies and force them to share information and work together in peace and harmony.

DAVIES: Right, and after a lot of debate in Congress, there was an office of what? It was the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, right, was created.

AID: That's correct.

DAVIES: And did it do that? Did it address the issue?

AID: Well, yes and no. The no portion is that the legislation that finally came out of Congress was so badly watered down by rival interests, you know, both within the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill. And everyone knows in Washington that if you want to run the ship, if you want to make sure that everybody follows your lead, you have to control the money. And the first thing that Congress did is took away the authority of the director of national intelligence to control the budgets of the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community.

The other problem is that former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld got a couple of members of the House and Senate to revise the legislation in such a way that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was given very, very limited authority over the 100,000 or so spies who work for the Pentagon. So the result is that basically you have, today, two intelligence communities.

You have sort of the civilian agencies who report to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who is now General Jim Clapper, and then you have another 100,000 or so spies who work strictly for the Pentagon and they have their own boss who is the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. They have separate budgets, they report to different committees, and, you know, it's a structural nightmare.

DAVIES: So if the director of national intelligence doesn't really have any authority over the military intelligence apparatus, is there a mechanism by which information is shared and, you know, investigations are coordinated?

AID: Oh, yes. I didn't mean to suggest that the director of national intelligence didn't have some degree of control over the activities of the various intelligence components of the U.S. military. The money component is handled by the Pentagon, but there are various mechanisms by which the military provides all the information that they collect, you know, into a series of databases which are, you know, operated and maintained by the director of national intelligence or his subordinate agencies.

But it's just, you know, you talk to officials who used to work or work today at the director of national intelligence's office, and there's just frustration. I think I quoted one DNI official to the effect of, you know, it would be nice if the boys over at the Pentagon, you know, once in a while let us know what they were up to, you know, which is, I think sort of gives a hint that things could be more tightly controlled than they are right now.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Matthew Aid. His new book about the American intelligence community is called "Intel Wars." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with intelligence historian Matthew Aid. He wrote a history of the National Security Agency called "The Secret Sentry." His new book is "Intel Wars: The Secret History of The Fight Against Terror." All right. Big question here. Even though we didn't get a national intelligence czar which truly controls the budgets and personnel of the intelligence community, everybody knows that there needs to be or there needed to be much more sharing of critical information.

Is that happening? Are we better at connecting the dots now?

AID: We're better at connecting the dots. To give the intelligence community its due, not only is it collecting vastly larger amounts of information than it was prior to 9/11, but the quality of the information is much better and there is much greater sharing of information within the intelligence community. New databases have been built and new communication systems have been put in place to ensure, you know, the more even flow of information within the intelligence community.

The problem is some of the databases were sort of put together on a spit and paste basis. They weren't designed to be as gigantic as they are today and so they don't work very well. The other problem is - you know, I've interviewed a number of analysts and collectors who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and one of their biggest complaints was, you know, isn't it wonderful? Here I am sitting in a foxhole in the back desert of Afghanistan and I've got 3,000 emails coming in from Washington every morning with all the latest intelligence and, you know, the guy said, you know, it's wonderful that they're sharing the stuff with me. I just wish they were a little more selective about what they were sending me.

The bottom line is that we're so focused on pushing intelligence down to the lowest common denominator in the field that we're drowning our intelligence analysts working in, you know, not just Afghanistan, but in the Philippines and Yemen and elsewhere.

DAVIES: Well, and there's just an incredible increase in the amount of data coming in, all these drones that are in the air producing information, right?

AID: Absolutely true. And, you know, the drone is - it's the superweapon of the intelligence community. It's become, over the last decade, the principal means of finding and monitoring insurgents and terrorists around the world. And just to give the, you know, the listeners an idea, on 9/11 the U.S. military had a grand total of, I think, about 200 drones in its inventory.

Today, there are over 6,000 of, you know, a multitude of sizes flying all over the world. And I'll tell one funny story of I was in Afghanistan driving south of Kabul with my driver who was also my fixer and we felt nature's call so we got out of our SUV and I looked up and there was a very small - it looked like a balsa model that I used to fly when I was a kid, hovering right over us monitoring what we were doing by the side of the road.

And, you know, it turns out that about 80 percent of the time spent by these drones is - it's not spent trying to kill al-Qaida. It's basically, you know, drones fly up and down, up and down roads and dirt tracks in Afghanistan looking for guys trying to plant bombs by the side of the road to kill U.S. and NATO troops.

But, you know, they've become omnipresent and they've become essential to the way the intelligence community works. The problem is that each new iteration or generation of these drones produces several orders of magnitude more data than the last one. And again, the amount of data is literally drowning the analyst to the point where it now requires something on the order of 275 operators and analysts to analyze the result of each drone intelligence mission.

DAVIES: Have military intelligence operations grown to the point where they rival or are bigger than the CIA?

AID: Yes. We've spoken already about the operations of unmanned drones as sort of an example of sort of the new omnipresent weapon of the U.S. intelligence community. Well, with the exception of the 30 drones operated by the CIA, which are, you know, used for a very specific purpose in northern Pakistan to hunt down and occasionally kill al-Qaida, the remaining 5,970 drones that belong to the intelligence community are controlled exclusively by the three military services.

And I get the impression that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence actually has very little control over whether the Air Force buys one drone or another or how many it buys, how much it pays for these drones or necessarily how the information is collected and used and analyzed. And, you know, this is, again, one of those frustrating facts of life of trying to do business within the intelligence community.

And just so you know, the number of people engaged in working on the drone program within the U.S. military, probably about 40 to 45,000 people. You know, I'm talking about pilots and intelligence analysts and maintenance personnel and all the various other support people. So the CIA has 25,000, maybe 30,000 people. There are more people working on the drone program than the entire CIA combined.

That just gives you an example. Another example is the U.S. Army intelligence apparatus consists of 54,000 people, almost twice as large as the CIA. You know, this is, you know, the Army has all these people stationed, you know, around the world, especially in Afghanistan, but it just gives you a sense of how large the military's intelligence presence is around the world and, you know, how potentially severe the problem could be if the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not enough control over their activities.

DAVIES: Matthew Aid's new book is called "Intel Wars: The Secret History of The Fight Against Terror." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Matthew Aid. He's a historian of the American intelligence world, whose new book looks at the dramatic growth in intelligence operations since 9/11 and how well the nation's spies are coping with new missions and new technologies. His new book is called "Intel Wars."

You wrote a book called "Secret Sentry," about the National Security Agency - which, you know, has this massive network of analyzing signals intelligence and monitoring all kinds of communications around the world. And I wanted to talk a bit about the chapter on the warrantless surveillance of the communications of Americans - which was, of course, revealed in a New York Times story in December 2005. But this program had been going on for a while. How closely held was knowledge of this program within the NSA?

AID: Well, the number of people at NSA who were cleared for access to the warrantless eavesdropping program was maybe one or two hundred people. It was a very closely held program, kept secret by orders of former Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, who largely ran the program from, you know, the West Wing of the White House. And you know, this was the way the program was run for basically the first four or five years that the program ran after 9/11. And the program has been brought under the rubric of FISA now, so they're a lot more people who are cleared for access to it today.

DAVIES: Yeah, for FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, right?

AID: Surveillance Act.

DAVIES: OK. Right.

AID: Correct.

DAVIES: Right. Now, there's the question of the legality of this program, and the National Security Agency is not supposed to be spying on Americans. It's - in fact, its director had said before this was revealed that it was an urban legend that such things were happening. There are, of course, lawyers within the NSA. Did they consider the legality of this?

AID: Yes. According to former NSA director Mike Hayden, before he went ahead and executed the program, he brought in a group of lawyers and asked them, you know, can we do what the White House wants and still keep it, you know, within the legal framework? And they told him, according to General Hayden, yes, we can. The problem is that Hayden himself is not a lawyer and I'm not convinced that the NSA lawyers were fully briefed into the nature and extent of the program. You know, they were given a very narrow legal question that they were asked to answer and they did, you know, based on the information that they were given. The more I learn about the program, the more concerned I am about the legality of the program, particularly during the first four years of the program when it was largely unregulated.

DAVIES: Right. And just briefly, I mean what was the program? What are those concerns about its legality?

AID: My concern about the program is that the legal authorities for the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program were not written by NSA. It was written by a lawyer in the Justice Department named John Yoo, who basically wrote a series of legal briefs between 2001 and 2002 that, you know, the gravamen of his argument was that the president's wartime powers superseded the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which is to say that, well, in wartime there are no restrictions or bars on what the president of the United States can and cannot do.

We have one of John Yoo's briefs which has been released by the Justice Department, but my attempts to get the Justice Department to release the other five that Mr. Yoo wrote have been rejected by the Justice Department.

DAVIES: But when the National Security Agency's own lawyers and its Office of General Counsel were considering the legality of this, did they get to see the legal arguments, the briefs that the Justice Department had prepared?

AID: No. That's the interesting part, which is why I question how the lawyers up at NSA headquarters could have made an informed judgment about the legality of the program without seeing the Justice Department authority which formed the legal basis for the entire warrantless eavesdropping program. And then there came a point, I think in 2004, when the inspector general and the general counsel of the National Security Agency finally, three and a half years after the program began, asked to see John Yoo's legal briefs to find out if in fact what the agency had been doing for all these years conformed with, you know, with federal statute. They came down to Washington from Fort Meade and were told in no uncertain terms by David Addington, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, no, you can't see these documents. So the NSA officials got back in their car, drove back up to Fort Meade, and we still don't know what if anything they said to NSA Director Mike Hayden at the time.

DAVIES: Right. So in the end the program was exposed and there was a long controversy that followed. The administration got Congress to enact a bill granting the communications companies immunity from, I guess, civil and criminal action for the actions that they had taken in cooperating in this surveillance. But I'm interested in - did the career professionals at the National Security Agency that you know and spoke to believe that the program itself was effective?

AID: Depends on who you talk to. Most of the people I've spoken to were, you know, had no security clearance for access to this program. Some may have seen the finished product that came out of the program. I've talked to people, you know, elsewhere in the intelligence community who claim to have seen the material and there's sort of like 60, 70 percent of the people I've spoken to say the material that resulted from the warrantless eavesdropping program was of marginal and maybe little assistance to their counterterrorism efforts, but it really didn't result in any major arrests, it didn't expose any al-Qaida sleeper cells in the United States. And in fact, most of its successes, at least the ones that I'm familiar with, were overseas in places like Iraq, trying to halt al-Qaida or Iraqi insurgent attacks on the United States.

So I guess where I come down on this is that we spent a hell of a lot of money building a system of dubious legality which really didn't give us very much in terms of making the United States more secure. But I reserve the right to change my opinion, you know, if and when the Obama administration or future administrations declassify some more documentation about the program.

DAVIES: In your book about the National Security Agency you talk about some of the challenges that they face, including new technology, which - that generates communications they have to monitor which are hard to monitor, like Skype, you know, the kind of - the video images through computers and BlackBerries and cell phones and the like. But one of the things that's hard to believe that you said is an issue for them is a shortage of electrical power?

AID: As ironic as it is, the NSA during the 10 years after 9/11 was spending billions of dollars on new collection systems and vast amounts of computer hardware and software and jamming it into its headquarters complex up at Fort Meade but did not build additional power stations to keep all these new systems, you know, that were being installed in Fort Meade up and running. So you had these embarrassing instances, you know, three, four years ago, where if you plugged in a coffee pot you literally could knock the electricity out for an entire wing at NSA headquarters. So you had these rather strange situations where every office had to have an electricity monitor. And if you wanted to install a new percolator coffee pot in your office, they had to measure the number of amps that the coffee pot generated and then they had to, you know, write up a formal request to install the coffee pot...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AID: ...in their office, which then had to go through 27 approvals before some very senior official signed on the dotted line and then it went back down the chain of command. I mean that's how serious the electricity problem was.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Matthew Aid. His new book is "Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is historian Matthew Aid. His new book is "Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror." The book is filled with fascinating little revelations. And one of the things is you describe an FBI program of surveillance flights over Washington - planes operated by the FBI that go up and look at something. I mean you talk about where the hangar is. What are they up to? What are they looking for? Do you know?

AID: Yeah, that's the question. We don't know. Just to sort of take you back just a little bit, the reason I became interested in this subject is it sort of fell into my lap. I started noticing that there were these frequent flights of helicopters over my very quiet residential neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. And as time - this is all post-9/11 - as time went by, the number of flights increased and they became very irritating, especially when - I'll give you one example. I came out of the George Washington University library and there's almost always a helicopter conducting some form of surveillance, low-altitude surveillance, in the neighborhood. And the helicopter came down and started hovering over my position, and being somewhat irritated at the time, I raised my right hand and gave the helicopter the finger, which the helicopter then proceeded to follow me...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AID: ...for the next 10 minutes as I walked to a metro station. But what I started doing was taking down the tail numbers of these helicopters. And I plugged the tail numbers of these helicopters into the computer database of the Federal Aviation Administration and the computers identified five front companies that had been formed by the FBI in the late 1990s during the - sort of the tail end of the Clinton administration to operate upwards of 130 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters which they're based everywhere in the United States. It's not just the Washington, D.C. area. If you live in New York City there's a Naval Air Station in New Jersey where the FBI keeps a small fleet of aircraft that are in the air over New York City at any one time. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, FBI aircraft are operating over all of the major urban areas in the United States.

DAVIES: Well, this does raise a question that I'm sure you come across all the time in your research and that is, you know, what can you responsibly report? I mean I assumed you asked the FBI about these aircraft. Did you have any qualms about revealing this and the location of their hangars and that kind of information?

AID: Well I have, first of all, I'm not a reporter so I have no First Amendment protections, and so I have to be very, very careful. I have to self-censor because, you know, obviously it goes without saying that the worst thing that could possibly happen to me is to get a knock on the door and a pair of FBI agents are standing there in the doorway. So I tried to be very careful. I kept a lot of material out of the book that dealt with ongoing operations, particularly those of a technical nature - which, you know, if I was to say or write anything about them, you know, could cause harm to national security.

DAVIES: But it was OK to describe where these FBI aircraft are? I mean did you talk to them about it?

AID: No. Actually, I talked to some people in the intelligence community about the whole issue and they said, look, if you can find this hangar - and, by the way, if you knew where to look, the information is available on Google. It's - you just have to know where to look. I mean I'm not claiming that, you know, this was any massive discovery on my part; it's just, you know, all the various bits of data were out there, you just had to know where to find it. And I'm sure the FBI will not be happy with me about this, but I didn't disclose a lot of information about the activities of these aircraft or the identities of the companies involved. That may have gone, you know, crossed the line and I just didn't want to go there.

DAVIES: Well, Matthew Aid, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

AID: My pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: Matthew Aid's new book is called "Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror."

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Clarinetist Francois Houle lives in Vancouver and Benoit Delbecq lives in Paris. They first played together in 1995, but because each keeps busy with multiple projects close to home, they don't meet up all that often. But jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says on their third duo album, they pick up right where they left off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Duke Ellington's "The Mystery Song" played by French pianist Benoit Delbecq and French-Canadian clarinetist Francois Houle. That's from their third duo CD, "Because She Hoped" on Songlines. Their previous recording was a decade ago, but they can a strike a mood together quickly. That quiet misterioso air is one specialty, conjuring a dream state: a slow-motion sleepwalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: There's some modern chamber music in this duo's approach. Benoit Delbecq often prepares his piano in the way composer John Cage made popular. He wedges small pieces of wood or rubber between selected strings to get muted, percussive or bell-like sounds. Preparing different notes different ways makes piano into a percussion orchestra.

The instrument has a lot of voices, and Delbecq may give each voice its own character role. One buzzing note might suggest an mbira, the plucked-metal West African thumb piano. Another clacking key might simulate Cuban clave sticks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Clarinetist Francois Houle also uses various so-called extended techniques, which we might define as techniques unusual 50 years ago which are almost common now. But just as pianists prepared their instruments by laying paper on the strings long before John Cage, you can trace Houle's striking percussive notes back to vaudeville clarinetists of 100 years ago. It's not the newness of the technique that counts; it's what players do with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Benoit Delbecq and Francois Houle playing Steve Lacy's tune "Cliches," with Houle quoting or mangling some familiar licks on clarinet. That solo is subtly funny, but his singing tone sounds good even if you miss all the jokes. Some people think extended techniques are mostly the province of classical music - check out the Wikipedia page for prepared piano.

But jazzman John Carter pointed the way toward extreme high notes for clarinetists like Houle, and a bumper crop of contemporary improvisers prepare their pianos. For proof, check out Dred Scott's new solo album called "Prepared Piano," or Albert van Veenendaal's 2010 CD "Minimal Damage," or various works by Andrea Neumann, Cor Fuhler or Denman Maroney.

Composer Richard Barrett has said he listens to improvised music to discover what sounds are possible, sounds he can use as a composer. Improvisers who really investigate an instrument know the possibilities best. They can create their own little sound worlds, like Francois Houle and Benoit Delbecq.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the new duo CD "Because She Hoped." Coming up, a review of Shalom Auslander's debut novel. Maureen Corrigan calls it a caustic comic tour de force. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

What do you do with a novel that has the audacity to suggest that Hitler is history's greatest optimist? Welcome to the absurdist worldview of Shalom Auslander. Auslander is a best-selling memoirist, short story writer, and regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life. His debut novel is called "Hope: A Tragedy." Auslander said he set out to write a comic novel about genocide. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, my husband and I were friendly with another couple who had a child the same age. The friendship came to an end when the wife of the couple let slip that her husband had dressed their daughter as JonBenet Ramsey for Halloween. He has an offbeat sense of humor, the wife explained to me. That's one way to look at it. Or else, as I thought, maybe hubby's humor wasn't funny at all - just perversely detached from the horrific death of an actual 6-year-old.

I thought of that couple as I was reading the debut novel "Hope: A Tragedy" by Shalom Auslander, another guy with an offbeat sense of humor. Except, the difference is that Auslander is funny - very funny. Consider the title of his memoir about growing up in a strict Orthodox household. He called it "Foreskin's Lament."

In Auslander's novel, a young man named Solomon Kugel relocates his family from the city to an old farmhouse in Stockton, New York. Kugel wants a fresh start, and Stockton is defiantly proud of being famous for nothing. But Kugel's attempt to escape the burdens of the past is doomed from the moment he starts tracing the source of a mysterious tapping transmitted through the heat vents of his house.

Climbing to the attic, he discovers none other than a very old and very nasty Anne Frank. She's hiding up there working on her novel, which, she tells Kugel, has to sell at least as well as her blockbuster diary. I'm out of matzoh, Anne Frank growls. I can't work without matzoh. Oy.

As he surely intended, Auslander opens up a whole big can of slimy moral and aesthetic dilemmas in "Hope: A Tragedy." Maybe plunking Anne Frank down in your novel - as, by the way, Philip Roth did in "The Ghost Writer" and, later, in "Exit, Ghost" - is excusable if there's a big enough point and if your writing is strong enough to carry it off.

Maybe artistically appropriating Anne Frank, herself a brilliantly observant artist of her own tragic predicament, is not as creepy as dressing your child up to look like a little girl who, like Frank, was murdered. And maybe I have a headache because Auslander clearly wants to lampoon identity politics, as well as the acutely understandable Jewish sense of victimization, by sending up Anne Frank, also known as, as she says here, "Miss Holocaust, 1945."

Auslander, of course, benefits from the identity politics he makes fun of. It's impossible to imagine a non-Jew writing this novel, even as it's tricky enough, as a non-Jewish critic, to review it. If I like the book, I'm insensitive; if I say it's in bad taste, I'm falling into the guiltily pious attitude toward Frank that Auslander ridicules.

The quality of Auslander's writing is the easiest question to address: "Hope: A Tragedy" is a caustic comic tour de force. As Kugel wrestles with his Anne Frank problem - he considers getting rid of her by playing Wagner or hiring another Holocaust survivor like Elie Wiesel to evict her - he also contends with other annoyances.

Kugel's marriage is strained by the presence of his dying but resilient elderly mother, who has nursed delusions of being a Holocaust survivor herself. She even once claimed that a lampshade, clearly labeled Made in Taiwan, was Kugel's grandfather. Here's a riff on the consequences of that whopper:

(Reading) If the intended effect was to make Kugel fearful of people, it had, in actuality, something of an opposite result; he came to fear inanimate objects. If the lampshade could be his grandfather, was the sofa his cousin? Was the ottoman his aunt?

Auslander has said in interviews that he wanted to write a funny book about genocide - and he's succeeded. Whether or not you read it, however, will probably depend on whether you think some things and some people are just not funny; or, whether you think that the immense consolations of art include finding laughter and ideas in some pretty grim places.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Hope: A Tragedy" by Shalom Auslander. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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