That Book about What Everyone Really Knew but No One Wanted to Say

The buzz is all about the new Jane Mayer book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday, July 15, 2008) – and yes, you cannot buy a copy before that date, but the press and all the reviewers got advance copies last week. There’s plenty out there – news stories in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and so on, and there are early reviews. 


Not many people actually still read books – no one has time and our attention spans have shortened – but if you find yourself in an airport shop looking for something to read while jammed in an aluminum tube with a few hundred odd people thirty-five thousand feet over Kansas, this book may do the job of keeping you from feeling both absurd and outraged at where you find yourself.


Or this book may just make you feel things are inherently absurd and you ought to be outraged. It seems that on the back or on one of the flaps you’ll find this:


In the days immediately following September 11th, the most powerful people in the country were panic-stricken. The radical decisions about how to combat terrorists and strengthen national security were made in a state of utter chaos and fear, but the key players, Vice President Dick Cheney and his powerful, secretive adviser David Addington, used the crisis to further a long held agenda to enhance Presidential powers to a degree never known in U.S. history, and obliterate Constitutional protections that define the very essence of the American experiment.


THE DARK SIDE is a dramatic, riveting, and definitive narrative account of how the United States made terrible decisions in the pursuit of terrorists around the world – decisions that not only violated the Constitution to which White House officials took an oath to uphold, but also hampered the pursuit of Al Qaeda. In gripping detail, acclaimed New Yorker writer and bestselling author, Jane Mayer, relates the impact of these decisions – US-held prisoners, some of them completely innocent, were subjected to treatment more reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition than the twenty-first century.


THE DARK SIDE will chronicle real, specific cases, shown in real time against the larger tableau of what was happening in Washington, looking at the intelligence gained – or no – and the price paid. In some instances, torture worked. In many more, it led to false information, sometimes with devastating results. For instance, there is the stunning admission of one of the detainees, Sheikh Ibn al-Libi, that the confession he gave under duress – which provided a key piece of evidence buttressing congressional support of going to war against Iraq – was in fact fabricated, to make the torture stop.


In all cases, whatever the short term gains, there were incalculable losses in terms of moral standing, and our country’s place in the world, and its sense of itself. THE DARK SIDE chronicles one of the most disturbing chapters in American history, one that will serve as the lasting legacy of the George W. Bush presidency.


Republicans and those who buy into the neoconservative vision of an imperial America that can do no wrong – imposing its will on the world to keep our exceptional culture pure and safe – and the eighteen percent of Americans who believe this country is indeed headed in the right direction and the last eight years have been just peachy, will read that, feel the bile rising, and pick up a good mystery novel. Maybe it is preaching to the choir – all of what Mayer documents may well be true, but it doesn’t matter. For the rest of us it is also just documentation – confirming, specifically, that America has become something no one ever wanted it to become, led by – if we face the simple facts – war criminals. The question is whether the facts matter, or how they matter. Maybe some things just had to be done, as they say. More people will now be saying no, some things did not have to be done, and what was done made things worse.


There will never be an agreement on that, but there is the documentation. And this investigative reporter for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer (brief bio here), is known to get things right – she doesn’t make things up, she doesn’t speculate, she just reports. And she’s been here before. See her piece, Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s “Extraordinary Rendition” Program (The New Yorker, February 14, 2005). That caused quite a stir. She seems to think there are thing we all ought to know.


In a long, impassioned piece in Salon, Glenn Greenwald discusses what is going on this time and offers a quick tour of what you’ll find in the new book:


“Red Cross investigators concluded last year in a secret report that the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation methods for high-level Qaeda prisoners constituted torture and could make the Bush administration officials who approved them guilty of war crimes.”


“A CIA analyst warned the Bush administration in 2002 that up to a third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake, but White House officials ignored the finding and insisted that all were ‘enemy combatants’ subject to indefinite incarceration.”


“[A] top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees’ cases … ‘There will be no review,’ the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. ‘The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.'”


“[T]he [CIA] analyst estimated that a full third of the camp’s detainees were there by mistake. When told of those findings, the top military commander at Guantanamo at the time, Major Gen. Michael Dunlavey, not only agreed with the assessment but suggested that an even higher percentage of detentions – up to half – were in error. Later, an academic study by Seton Hall University Law School concluded that 55 percent of detainees had never engaged in hostile acts against the United States, and only 8 percent had any association with al-Qaeda.”


“[T]he International Committee of the Red Cross declared in the report, given to the C.I.A. last year, that the methods used on Abu Zubaydah, the first major Qaeda figure the United States captured, were ‘categorically’ torture, which is illegal under both American and international law”.


“[T]he Red Cross document ‘warned that the abuse constituted war crimes, placing the highest officials in the U.S. government in jeopardy of being prosecuted.'”


Greenwald lumps this together with the FISA warrantless wiretapping business, where Congress just said maybe the Fourth Amendment doesn’t much matter much these days so the president can break the law, and comments:


This is what a country becomes when it decides that it will not live under the rule of law, when it communicates to its political leaders that they are free to do whatever they want – including breaking our laws – and there will be no consequences. There are two choices and only two choices for every country – live under the rule of law or live under the rule of men. We’ve collectively decided that our most powerful political leaders are not bound by our laws – that when they break the law, there will be no consequences. We’ve thus become a country which lives under the proverbial “rule of men” – that is literally true, with no hyperbole needed – and Mayer’s revelations are nothing more than the inevitable by-product of that choice.


And he has a warning:


If the rule of law doesn’t constrain the actions of government officials, then nothing will. Continuous revelations of serious government lawbreaking have led not to investigations or punishment but to retroactive immunity and concealment of the crimes. Judicial findings of illegal government behavior have led to Congressional action to protect the lawbreakers. The Detainee Treatment Act. The Military Commissions Act. The Protect America Act. The FISA Amendments Act. They’re all rooted in the same premise: that our highest government leaders have the power to ignore our laws with impunity, and when they’re caught, they should be immunized and protected, not punished.


When our political and media elite aren’t defending the Bush administration’s lawbreaking, they’re dismissing its importance.


That last observation is followed by a lot of quotes, from the political and media elite. No one wants to say our leaders have made themselves felons, domestically, and war criminals, internationally – bad for the ratings, you see. Americans do not want to hear that. We’ve had enough trouble – the Clinton impeachment was far too much for everyone.


There’s only the evidence. It can be glossed over. No one likes a whiner, or someone who seems a left-wing nut on his moral high horse – you minimize it, or explain in. So sweet reason it will be – even if the evidence sits there like a steaming, fresh turd on the living room floor. Perhaps if we all ignore it then it really won’t smell at all – just stay cool and polite. Don’t make a fuss.


Of course, on Sunday, July 13, in the New York Times, Frank Rich made a fuss, with The Real-Life “24” of Summer 2008 – and you have to love his set-up:


We know what a criminal White House looks like from “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s classic account of Richard Nixon’s unraveling. The cauldron of lies, paranoia and illegal surveillance boiled over, until it was finally every man for himself as desperate courtiers scrambled to save their reputations and, in a few patriotic instances, their country.


“The Final Days” was published in 1976, two years after Nixon abdicated in disgrace. With the Bush presidency, no journalist (or turncoat White House memoirist) is waiting for the corpse to be carted away. The latest and perhaps most chilling example arrives this week from Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, long a relentless journalist on the war-on-terror torture beat. Her book “The Dark Side” connects the dots of her own past reporting and that of her top-tier colleagues (including James Risen and Scott Shane of The New York Times) to portray a White House that, like its prototype, savaged its enemies within almost as ferociously as it did the Constitution.


But he gets down to what strikes him as significant – that in 2004 two conservative Republican Justice Department officials had become “so paranoid” that “they actually thought they might be in physical danger.” They spoke to each other in code, and that would be Ashcroft’s deputy attorney general, James Comey, and an assistant attorney general, Jack Goldsmith. They told Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington that what they were doing was circumventing the Geneva Conventions and making torture the covert law of the land – and that seems to have been a real bad idea.


But it wasn’t really like the last days of Nixon:


Watergate was all about a paranoid president’s narcissistic determination to cling to power at any cost. In Ms. Mayer’s portrayal of the Bush White House, the president is a secondary, even passive, figure, and the motives invoked by Mr. Cheney to restore Nixon-style executive powers are theoretically selfless. Possessed by the ticking-bomb scenarios of television’s “24,” all they want to do is protect America from further terrorist strikes.


So what if they cut corners, the administration’s last defenders argue. While prissy lawyers insist on habeas corpus and court-issued wiretap warrants, the rest of us are being kept safe by the Cheney posse.


It’s just that we may not be any safer. The bad guys love that we made ourselves the nasty villains in this passion play, and that does wonders for recruiting. But Rich is amazed at something else Mayer found:


In her telling, a major incentive for Mr. Cheney’s descent into the dark side was to cover up for the Bush White House’s failure to heed the Qaeda threat in 2001. Jack Cloonan, a special agent for the FBI’s Osama bin Laden unit until 2002, told Ms. Mayer that Sept. 11 was “all preventable.” By March 2000, according to the CIA’s inspector general, “50 or 60 individuals” in the agency knew that two Al Qaeda suspects – soon to be hijackers – were in America. But there was no urgency at the top. Thomas Pickard, the acting FBI director that summer, told Ms. Mayer that when he expressed his fears about the Qaeda threat to Mr. Ashcroft, the attorney general snapped, “I don’t want to hear about that anymore!”


The word that may fit here is overcompensation, but as always with overcompensation, it’s counterproductive:


After 9/11, our government emphasized “interrogation over due process,” Ms. Mayer writes, “to pre-empt future attacks before they materialized.” But in reality torture may well be enabling future attacks. This is not just because Abu Ghraib snapshots have been used as recruitment tools by jihadists. No less destructive are the false confessions inevitably elicited from tortured detainees. The avalanche of misinformation since 9/11 has compromised prosecutions, allowed other culprits to escape and sent the American military on wild-goose chases. The coerced “confession” to the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to take one horrific example, may have been invented to protect the real murderer.


And that’s not the half of it:


The biggest torture-fueled wild-goose chase, of course, is the war in Iraq. Exhibit A, revisited in “The Dark Side,” is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an accused Qaeda commander whose torture was outsourced by the C.I.A. to Egypt. His fabricated tales of Saddam’s biological and chemical WMD – and of nonexistent links between Iraq and Al Qaeda – were cited by President Bush in his fateful Oct. 7, 2002, Cincinnati speech ginning up the war and by Mr. Powell in his subsequent United Nations presentation on Iraqi weaponry. Two FBI officials told Ms. Mayer that Mr. al-Libi later explained his lies by saying: “They were killing me. I had to tell them something.”


The whole war was based on information obtained by torture? We assumed to make the pain stop the bad guy would tell us only the gospel truth? What were we thinking?


It is madness, and Rich closes with this:


We can no longer take cold comfort in the Watergate maxim that the cover-up was worse than the crime. This time the crime is worse than the cover-up, and the punishment could rain down on us all.


And in comparison to excusing warrantless spying on everyone, while there are in both issues of who most follow the law, Andrew Sullivan notes that there are differences:


Needed post-9/11 adjustments to our surveillance and intelligence policies could always have been made with the cooperation of the Congress and the courts, in line with existing or revised law and treaty obligations. Democracies can adjust to new threats and retain their balance – if their leaders want to do so.


But a new war and security regime was instead enforced by executive diktat, as a deliberate, conscious attempt to use 9/11 to establish Schmittian precedents for an extra-legal executive branch. It was so far out there even executive enthusiasts like Jack Goldsmith drew a line. Warrantless wire-tapping was part of it – only recently brought under the law … But at least the intelligence procured by this illegality might have been useful and reliable. What was procured through torture is definitionally unreliable, and capable of creating an Imaginationland feedback loop in which tortured false confessions raise threat levels which justify more torture – all with no capacity for self-correction.


And Sullivan notes other things Mayer points to:


The ICRC report on CIA interrogation techniques concluded categorically that they were “torture” – not “tantamount to torture” as previously reported – and issued an explicit warning to the US Administration that the use of these techniques was a war crime which might subject U.S. leaders to criminal prosecution. This is the real potential headline maker from the book.


She provides a number of grueling examples of the application of the techniques including the brutal murder of Manadel al-Jamadi, the placement of prisoners in closed coffins for prolonged periods, and one instance in which a below-the-knee amputee with a prosthesis who had his prosthesis taken away and was forced to stand for hours on one foot, hanging from a rail.


She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called “Learned Helplessness” developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process. All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.


But these, in particular, stand out:


She describes an internal CIA investigation by IG Helgerson which concluded that the program violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law. Vice President Cheney intervened directly, calling Helgerson directly into his office and speaking with him, after which the CIA report was stopped in its tracks.


Steven Bradbury at DOJ was asked to resolve this by crafting opinions that gave CIA full latitude to torture, with no restraints- – setting aside the opinions crafted by Dan Levin which authorized techniques only within narrow constraints. After Bradbury rendered opinions exactly as solicited on his “probation,” Bush personally expressed his pleasure with Bradbury’s performance and nominated him to head OLC [Office of Legal Council]


According to James Comey, AG Gonzales repeatedly told him that he fully appreciated that the CIA program was torture and was criminal but he couldn’t oppose or block it because “Cheney wants it.”


There’s much more.


And elsewhere, Sullivan adds this:


Some of you have wondered how my passionate opposition to torture can be reconciled with my tolerance of the new FISA regime. And the invasion of our correspondence and communications by the government is indeed a threat to liberty; and there is no denying that our liberties have been seriously eroded by the last few years in this respect. I just understand that some loss is defensible in the war we now fight, and wire-tapping, if monitored by the Congress, a FISA court, as well as the executive is a price we may have to pay to keep our intelligence accurate. Torture, on the other hand, is a far more invasive attack on liberty, a threat to reliable intelligence, a danger to our own troops, a violation of treaty obligations, and an act of human cruelty inimical to the core meaning of the West.


And as to that last point, Sullivan points to what he wrote three years ago in The New Republic:


Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul, insofar as that is possible. As human beings, we all inhabit bodies and have minds, souls, and reflexes that are designed in part to protect those bodies: to resist or flinch from pain, to protect the psyche from disintegration, and to maintain a sense of selfhood that is the basis for the concept of personal liberty. What torture does is use these involuntary, self-protective, self-defining resources of human beings against the integrity of the human being himself. It takes what is most involuntary in a person and uses it to break that person’s will. It takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human.


And this:


The very concept of Western liberty sprung in part from an understanding that, if the state has the power to reach that deep into a person’s soul and can do that much damage to a human being’s person, then the state has extinguished all oxygen necessary for freedom to survive.


That is why, in George Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, the final ordeal is, of course, torture. Any polity that endorses torture has incorporated into its own DNA a totalitarian mutation. If the point of the U.S. Constitution is the preservation of liberty, the formal incorporation into U.S. law of the state’s right to torture – by legally codifying physical coercion, abuse, and even, in Krauthammer’s case, full-fledged torture of detainees by the CIA – would effectively end the American experiment of a political society based on inalienable human freedom protected not by the good graces of the executive, but by the rule of law.


Well, good-bye to all that.


Also see Matthew Yglesias – “No one could have predicted that methods copied from a report entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War” would wind up eliciting false confessions.”


Yeah well – it must have sounded good at the time, unless they wanted false confessions for their own ends – but we should not get all conspiracy crazy here. It sure is tempting.


But here, with a photo, Yglesias is puzzled that you can buy a t-shirt that says “I’d Rather Be Waterboarding” in big bold letters:


I saw this for sale at a conservative t-shirts website. I’m not necessarily one to say that torture is a subject about which we shouldn’t joke. Torture-related satire and other forms of torture humor are, I think, a clear way of coming to grips with the horror of what our government have become. It’s a difficult subject to contemplate, and express a view on, without resorting to humor on some level.


But that of course isn’t what’s happening here. Instead we see conservatives deciding to embrace torture as constitutive of conservative identity. If you’re a conservative, you like torture. If you’re against torture, you’re not a conservative.


And if you’re a conservative you don’t buy the Mayer book.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Books, Cheney, Civil Liberties, Conservative Values, FISA, Frank Rich, Glenn Greenwald, Habeas Corpus, Jane Mayer: The Dark Side, Orwell, Torture, War Crimes, Wiretapping. Bookmark the permalink.

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