THE DARK SIDE - Jane Mayer Reveals How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

Editorial Review

"If you intend to vote in November and read only one book between now and then, this should be it.” —Los Angeles Times


August 03, 2008

"The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals," by Jane Mayer (Doubleday. 392 pages. $27.50)

"The Dark Side," Jane Mayer's gripping new account of the war on terror, is really the story of two wars: the far-flung battle against Islamic radicalism, and the bitter, closed-doors domestic struggle over whether the president should have limitless power to wage it.

The euphemistically named but often grisly particulars of the fight against al-Qaida — the "extraordinary renditions" by hooded agents in unmarked planes, the secret "black site" prisons across the globe, the "enhanced" interrogation techniques, the "reverse rendition" of detainees lucky enough to be found innocent and dumped blindfolded at remote borders — are harrowingly recounted here, complete with fresh revelations. But in Mayer's hands the story of bureaucratic jockeying in well-upholstered offices and in the fine print of legal documents makes for an equally absorbing and disturbing story. It's a cage match between the Constitution and a cabal of ideological extremists, and the Constitution goes down.

The war on terror, according to Mayer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was a "political battle cloaked in legal strategy, an ideological trench war" waged by a small group of true believers whose expansive views of executive power she traces from the Nixon administration through the Iran-Contra scandal to the panicked days after 9/11. Mayer's prime movers and main villains are Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel (now chief of staff) David Addington, who after the terrorist attacks moved to establish "a policy of deliberate cruelty that would've been unthinkable on Sept. 10."

As the leader of the self-styled "war council," a group of lawyers who took the lead in making the rules for the war on terror, Addington startled many colleagues with the depth of his fervor and the reach of his power.

"How did this lunatic end up running the country?" an unnamed "high ranking and very conservative" administration lawyer quoted by Mayer recalls asking himself in meetings. "Even his admirers," Mayer writes, "tended to invoke metaphors involving knives." "Cheney's Cheney" was known to carry a dog-eared copy of the Constitution in his pocket — a detail that in another story might suggest a steadfast devotion but in Mayer's comes off as just a way of breaking it down before swallowing it whole.

The original copy of the Geneva Conventions rests in the vaults of the State Department, but Mayer describes how Cheney, Addington and their allies made sure this was less a place of honor than an oubliette, a concealed dungeon having only a trap door in the ceiling for exit. The war council settled on a "pre-emptive criminal model," in which suspects would be used — more or less indefinitely — to gather evidence of future crimes rather than held accountable for previous ones. There would be minimal oversight from Congress. The CIA would take

the lead, developing aggressive new interrogation methods that would be described as "enhanced," "robust," "special." What they were not, a series of secret memos issued by John Yoo and others at the Office of Legal Council would attempt to certify, was "torture."

Mayer pieces together detailed case histories for several prisoners, beginning with "detainee 001," the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, whose botched prosecution led the administration to decide, in Mayer's words, that "open criminal trials under the strict rules of the American legal system were not worth the risk." But even as such trials were largely abandoned, evidence gathering was stepped up, using increasingly exotic means.

SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) was a program developed by the military to train soldiers to resist torture or other rough treatment if captured. After 9/11, as Mayer first reported in The New Yorker, it was "reverse-engineered" into an offensive weapon. Under the influence of James Mitchell, a former military psychologist hired to supervise the project despite his lack of experience with either interrogations or Islamic extremism, the black sites, Guantanamo and eventually Abu Ghraib became a bizarro world where detainees were kept on dog leashes, subjected to "invasion of space by female" and bombarded with intolerable sounds, including "meows from cat-food commercials, Yoko Ono singing and Eminem rapping about America." Prisoners were sometimes held in tiny coffinlike boxes or forced to stand until overcome by the "self-inflicted pain."

The elaborately plotted interrogations — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of being the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, was subjected to "hundreds of different techniques in just a two-week period soon after his capture" in 2003 — were authorized and tracked at the highest levels, with officials in Washington, including George Tenet, at the time the director of central intelligence, approving any deviations from the "treatment" plans in what one source calls "top-down quality control" and Mayer calls a twisted version of Mother, May I? A secret Red Cross report given to the CIA last year and described to Mayer said some of these techniques were categorically torture. (An internal CIA review, she writes, was on its way to reaching the same conclusion in 2004 before Cheney derailed it.)

While waterboarding has drawn the most public criticism, a former government official familiar with the program told Mayer, the real brutality lay in the sheer number and duration of the different "procedures." "The totality is just staggering," this official said.

The early months of the rendition program, a CIA officer told Mayer, was the "Camelot of counterterrorism," with volunteers turned away. But as the harsh interrogations became "routinized," second thoughts — and fear of legal exposure — began to mount. As the CIA officer put it, "Do you really want to be building these skill sets?"

Meanwhile some in Washington were having doubts as well. In the last third of the book, Mayer shifts focus to the heroes of her story, the government lawyers — often hard-line conservatives — who tried to fight back against a program whose existence and scope they only belatedly grasped. There is a particularly fine chapter on Alberto Mora, then the general counsel of the Navy, who in early 2003 mounted a futile challenge to the interrogation policy, which he feared might result in war crimes charges. Mora reportedly warned Donald Rumsfeld's chief counsel, William J. Haynes, to "protect your client!" Haynes did — by getting another secret opinion from Yoo, superseding Mora's. (Mayer suggests the opinion may have been hammered out during a friendly racquetball match.)

Mayer also gives a gripping account of the now well-known standoff between Addington and Jack Goldsmith, who after being named head of the Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 moved to revoke Yoo's memos. (One of Goldsmith's successors, Steven G. Bradbury, issued another secret memo, reinstating much of their substance.) And she recounts how another group of administration lawyers met in secret in June 2005 to formulate "the Big Bang," a plan to shut down the black sites and bring the interrogations in line with international law by doing an end run around Cheney and going straight to President Bush, whom they believed to be sympathetic.

In reality, Mayer writes, "there is no record that Bush ever objected to the methods employed by the CIA in its black sites or insisted on any outside review of the CIA's claims that their approach was working." She vigorously argues that the approach did not work, and in fact did tremendous damage to national security by unleashing a flood of false and even dangerously misleading intelligence, including some used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

"What does that mean? 'Outrages upon human dignity'?" President Bush said at a news conference in 2006, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions applied even to "enemy combatants." In "The Dark Side" Mayer provides a chilling answer, along with the most vivid and comprehensive account we have had so far of how a government founded on checks and balances and respect for individual rights could have been turned against those ideals.

The Dark Side of Blackness

If the subtlest of genuine selflessness only represents a pebble rolled from mountainous love...

... does the briefest peak through a window into the skulls of President and Vice President evidence the darkest of souls and depths of inhumain capacity for a man-made hell on earth?

A willingness to contemplate a fratricide setup would seem to indicate the truth of such.

'Dark Age' indeed.

Jane Mayer Book Tour Schedule


* Aug 7 — World Affairs Council of Northern California, San Francisco , CA — 6pm

* Aug 8 — KPFA/First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Berkeley, CA — 7:30pm

* Sept 11 — NYU/Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, New York, NY

* Sept 22 — Miller Center of Public Affairs, Charlottesville, VA — 11:00am

* Sept 24 — Center for Law & Public Affairs/Woodrow Wilson School, Princton, NJ — 4:30

* Nov 1 — Texas Book Festival, Austin, TX

* Nov 15 — Miami Book Fair, Miami, FL