The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals
By Jane Mayer
392 pp., Doubleday
In a few words: Jane Mayer traces the ideological origins of the Bush administration's torture memos in riveting investigative detail and with the storytelling skills of an accomplished novelist. She shows how a few men--George Bush, Dick Cheney, a handful of lawyers--subverted the nation's laws and established a regime of torture, secret prisons and illegal detention to prosecute their "war on terror." The book provides invaluable context to the debate over torture. (Read excerpts.)
How Jane Mayer (and Others) Scooped Obama on the "Torture Memos"
Days before Obama made the decision to release the memos, the writer Mark Danner published in the New York Review of Books a detailed account of an International Committee of the Red Cross report detailing every method of torture used against inmates at the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp or in secret CIA prisons around the world (the so-called “black sites”).
How Danner acquired the 43-page Red Cross report was never made clear. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to reveal in their entirety the revolting methods of torture applied to the Bush administration’s prisoners. For that’s what they were: not detainees of any legitimate system under American law, but prisoners of a detention system invented by a small coterie of the administration’s lawyers and ideologues, for the administration’s ends.
From Torture Memos to Executions: Connecting the Dots
Even then, the Red Cross report and Danner’s analysis were merely adding detail to a narrative that had been outlined by the exemplary work of reporters like the Washington Post’s Dana Priest (first to uncover “black sites”), The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer (who uncovered and documented torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Afghanistan), and The New York Times’ Scott Shane and James Risen (who traced brutality’s trail to its perpetrators in the highest offices in Washington).
In “The Dark Side,” Mayer connects all the threads. From the first page to the last, in details as absorbing as they are revolting, she provides two invaluably analytical layers of context that had been missing until then: the ideological origins of the Bush administration’s rationale for its torture regime, and the way an extremely narrow cohort—Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and a few lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel—went about translating that ideology into a policy that circumvented Congress, subverted the nation’s laws and invented “golden shields” to avoid prosecution, should the day come when the regime’s abuses are questioned.
Zeal and Self-Righteousnesss
Sure there were legal limits and a Congress to consider. Or, rather, to outwit. The Bush Administration’s “solution to this complex ‘conundrum,’” Mayer writes, “was cloaked in secrecy and it excluded much of the government, including almost all of the administration’s most experienced experts in military and international law. [Vice President Dick]Cheney, [David] Addington, and the handful of other like-minded conservative members of the self-appointed War Council, none of whom were military veterans let alone experts in military law, stealthily usurped the decision making. Their solution—the imposition of an alternative legal system following rules of the executive branch’s own devising—has proven the origin of almost all of the Bush Administration’s most vexing legal problems in the war on terror.”
Out of that alternative system grew the extra-judicial concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, the secret prisons in Thailand, North Africa and former satellites of the Soviet Union such as Romania and Poland, extraordinary rendition, and torture sessions conducted by CIA interrogators.
Why Torture Didn't Work
On Sept. 6, 2006, in the East Room of the White House, Bush delivered a 37-minute address justifying and euphemizing torture as “an alternative set of procedures” that worked. He said that the techniques used on Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (both of whom were waterboarded) had helped the CIA uncover plots. Bush never said that Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave false information under torture (Mohammed confessed, falsely, to murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl). Bush also never mentioned Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was also tortured, and who, under torture, fabricated evidence that Bush then used to justify going to war in Iraq.
So it can accurately be said that torture not only did not work. It produced fake evidence that led the United States into a war more devastating than the attacks of 9/11 had been, in lives and consequences. It also exposed the hollowness at the core of American ideals, the very ideals Bush brandished in his defense of bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan.