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Reading Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side”

January 11, 2009
New York, N.Y.

Terrorism is a two-prong attack: The first part is the assault itself, the seemingly random destruction and slaughter of innocent people. The second part is the response of the victims: If the attack is truly successful, the victims will retaliate by betraying their own standards of conduct, demonstrating to the world that they are just as bad as the terrorists said they were.

In that sense, the members of the Bush Administration were the perfect patsies for the attacks of September 11, 2001. The response to those attacks has included the open-ended incarceration of hundreds of suspected terrorists without evidence, charges, lawyers, trials, or any concept of due process; the widespread use of torture and humiliation in violation of international law and common human decency; and the unprovoked and unjustifiable invasion of Iraq. In dragging this country into its darkest and most morally reprehensible era, the Bush Administration has done more damage to America than Osama bin Laden could possibly have imagined.

This horrifying descent is brilliantly described by journalist Jane Mayer in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday, 2008).

The dynamics of the Bush Administration will doubtlessly be analyzed by historians for centuries to come. At the top is a man incapable of analytical thought and possessing only a rudimentary moral sense, and he plays a relatively minor role in The Dark Side. The biggest villains in this book are Vice President Chaney, the man who provided the title (“We’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will” — p. 9) and particularly his legal counsel and (later) Chief of Staff David Addington.

Cheney’s experience in the Nixon and Ford administrations apparently convinced him that in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandals, too much power had been stripped from the Executive branch, particularly during wartime. Cheney believed

Cheney seems to have found his perfect ally in David Addington, who storms through this book like a grotesque bully, enraged at even the slightest manifestation of humanity as “squishy” thinking. At various times, a seeming savior shows up (like virtually everyone in this book, a hardcore Republication) appalled by what the Bush Administration has been doing, only to be ridiculed and swatted down by Addington and persuaded to rethink his career goals.

Addington is the force behind the most shameful legal opinions of the Bush Administration — Colin Powell said flatly “He doesn’t believe in the Constitution” (p. 87) and Powell’s chief of staff Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson indicated Addington has “no scruples” (p. 125) and thus could easily manipulate “someone who doesn’t read a lot or pay attention to the details” (ie, Bush). Addington was clearly a dominating influence over Alberto Gonzales (a man evidently not comfortable in the deep end of the pool), and found a companion-in-arms in John Yoo.

How much power does John Yoo think the President has in wartime? The right to torture is absolute: “It’s the core of the commander in chief function. They [Congress] can’t prevent the president from ordering torture.” When asked, for example, whether a law could prevent the president from “crushing the testicles of the [interrogated] person’s child” he responded “I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that.” (p. 153)

White House lawyers are supposed to inform their bosses when a particular plan is illegal and shouldn't be pursued. The lawyers in the Bush White House seem to function more like mob lawyers: When their bosses want to do something illegal, the lawyers simply help them break the law.

The Dark Side is particularly strong in its analysis of torture. Many centuries ago, torture was a normal part of the judicial process, but it began being viewed as immoral during the Enlightenment over two centuries ago. (See Chapter Two of Lynn Hunt’s fascinating Inventing Human Rights: A History for more background on this moral evolution.) Opposition to torture and the granting of civil rights to defendants has thus been part of fundamental American principles and ideals from the time of Enlightenment-influenced documents like the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Prior to the Bush Administration, when we thought about torture in the United States, we might have thought about backrooms of police stations, but for the use of torture as a matter of official public policy, we really need to go back to the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century.

Jane Mayer documents a great deal of torture — in U.S. run prisons outside the United States, in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and the prison at Abu Ghraib. Most Americans still believe that the shocking photographs taken at Abu Ghraib were just a few guards messing around. But what they were doing was part of official American policy. Mayer demonstrates how Rumsfeld wanted Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander in Guantánamo, to “Gitmoize” Iraq, and

I’m not sure he intended for the guards to take photographs of the process, however.

It is not only the immorality of these activities that is so shocking. From a legal viewpoint, torture is incredibly stupid. Once the Bush Administration began torturing prisoners, and shipping them to other countries to be tortured some more, they essentially gave up on due process. A prisoner whose rights have been violated cannot be successfully prosecuted, even in a military tribunal, and evidence obtained through torture cannot be used to prosecute someone else. The vast majority of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay will never be prosecuted.

Torture would be wrong even if it sometimes yielded good information. But even that’s in doubt, because when people are tortured, they will say just about anything. After the CIA rendered Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi to Egypt where he was tortured, he described a fictitious relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda — information that was then used by the Bush Administration in building the case for the war against Iraq. “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses.” (p. 135-6) said President Bush in a speech on October 7, 2002. What they learned was simply wrong, and the major justification for invading Iraq was completely bogus.

What’s most astonishing is that the members of the Bush Administration deepest into the torture culture knew that they were doing something illegal, and they often tried to protect themselves from being prosecuted for war crimes.

Yet, they just can’t stop. Even when Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act (introduced to the Senate by John McCain), President Bush signed it on December 30, 2005 only with an Addington-drafted “presidential ‘signing statement’ suggesting that Bush would only enforce the new law ‘in a manner consistent with’ his constitutional role as commander in chief,” which in Addington’s view allowed unlimited powers.

In presenting a torture-loving America to the rest of the world, the Bush Administration has caused an incalculable amount of harm. Mayer quotes Eric Haseltine, the former top adviser on science and technology to the Director of National Intelligence:

The Dark Side is a gripping history of a very un-American chapter in American history. One is left wondering just how the United States can begin the long climb out of the moral cesspool that was the Bush Administration.

I have come to the conclusion that it’s necessary for us to demonstrate to the world (and to ourselves) that the past seven years have been an aberration, and that rogue regimes in this country will not be tolerated.

In other words, the “community of law-abiding citizens [should join] in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment” as George W. Bush said on June 26, 2003, in a statement on the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. (p. 238)

I think the new Justice Department has an obligation to begin a full investigation into war crimes committed during the Bush Administration, and to bring criminal charges if necessary. I’m not talking about prosecuting the grunts on the ground who committed the actual acts. I’m talking about the people who gave them permission to violate international law and the laws of the United States.

Everybody knows at whose desk the buck stops.


Less than an hour after blogging about this anti-torture book by Jane Mayer, I was startled to see the first episode of the new season of 24 beginning with Jack Bauer being questioned by an anti-torture Senator named Blaine Mayer! I suspect it's not a coincidence. — Charles

I'll be surprised if Bush DOESN'T pardon Rumsfeld and Yoo. I would LOVE to see Rumsfeld prosecuted.

Larry O'Brien, Sun, 11 Jan 2009 21:45:07 -0500 (EST)

Interesting, I just read the wikipedia entry on extraordinary rendition and President Clinton is mentioned. It looks like Jane Mayer is one of the sources for the entry. How can this be?

— David, Mon, 12 Jan 2009 00:05:25 -0500 (EST)

Well, I disagree. The World knows the US is under new leadership and Obama can show a difference through diplomacy. Prosecuting Bush will only serve for vengeance. It will make conservatives and republicans mortal enemies of the new administration. We can't afford to have government paralysis with the precarious state the world and the US are in. Obama has the right idea in focusing on healing divisions and good government.

— Me, Mon, 12 Jan 2009 00:12:04 -0500 (EST)

Prohibiting torture under all circumstances with no exceptions is just as close-minded and extreme as any other absolutist view. Is murder always wrong? Is abortion always right? Is owning a gun always wrong? Is lab-testing animals always right? Is war always wrong? And so on.

A case can be made for torture to be the right thing to do in some circumstances.

— Big Maybe, Mon, 12 Jan 2009 10:30:55 -0500 (EST)

> A case can be made for torture to be the right thing to do in some circumstances.

Interestingly enough, you have not attempted to make such a case. So let me do it for you:

The use of torture is usually justified with a "ticking timebomb" scenario: A terrorist act is about to occur and one man in custody has the information needed to stop it. That man must be made to talk, and fast.

But how often do such scenarios occur? According to 24: Approximately every hour. In real life: Not at all. Moreover, in such a hypothetical case, the terrorist in custody has an incentive to hold out just long enough for the act to occur.

Moreover, this is such a slippery slope that before long you'd be torturing everyone just in case they knew something you thought they should tell you. Remember, the torture-happy people we're talking about here are the same ones who justified the invasion of Iraq as an act of self defence.

If members of the Bush Administration truly believe that the law is wrong — if they believe they are justified in violating the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which the United States has ratified) — then they should do so openly and in a spirit of civil disobedience, and turn themselves in for punishment and make their case during the subsequent trial.

That's how a person who wasn't a total coward would do it. — Charles

Law enforcement routinely apply a measure of discomfort to encourage an apprehendee to cooperate. For example, tight handcuffs, hours in an uncomfortable cell, subjection to "bad cop" interrogation, psychological harassment, extended withholding of food/water/bathroom.

Any of these tactics could be termed torture, and forbidden on the grounds that we're liable to slide down into waterboarding before long. But why not have a chat with a few friendly police officers and ask them if they could do their job without resorting to some of the above on occasion.

Some countries consider much lesser pain to be prosecutable torture, other countries permit far worse treatment. It is wrong to categorically forbid torture under all circumstances. Humans are flawed, but there's no substitute for good judgment.

— Mon, 12 Jan 2009 16:37:33 -0500 (EST)

Excellent review, thank you Charles.

It's good for those of us on the "outside" to see Americans such as yourself and, obviously, Mayer openly discussing the shameful things that happened during G.W. Bush's administration.

I think discussions such as this go a long way towards re-kindling the hope that most weaker nations' citizens once had, and have recently lost, in America as a force for good in the world.

— Philip the Duck, Mon, 12 Jan 2009 17:03:50 -0500 (EST)

Here is a real-life ticking timebomb:

Here is how the European Court of Human Rights handled the matter:

Any thoughts, Charles?

— David, Mon, 12 Jan 2009 19:56:39 -0500 (EST)

Of course I have a few thoughts!

1. This isn't exactly a ticking timebomb scenario. Unfortunately the "bomb" had already "gone off," so to speak. But the police didn't know that, so I'll grant that they thought they could save a life by threatening violence.

2. If the police threaten to use violence in an interrogation, they must be ready to follow through. That's obvious!

3. Suppose the police actually tortured the guy, and he told them where the boy was, and the police were able to save the boy with minutes to spare. That might have been good for the boy in this particular case, but a tragedy for the future of police work in Germany, for they would have believed that they could now justify the use of torture in many other cases in the future.

4. I like very much that the German people had a debate about this incident with reference to a time in their history over 60 years ago. Americans don't seem to have memories quite that long. When reminded of the shameful history of internment camps in the US during WWII, most American respond with "Huh?"

Now I have a couple questions: Have the people commenting on this blog entry actually read the book I'm discussing? Isn't it a little tacky to comment on this blog entry without first reading the book? — Charles

Doesn't the European Court of Human Rights decision allow torture in the "right" cases?

I don't see the equivalence between Japanese internment camps and Guantánamo. I think most people can make a distinction between US citizens of Japanese descent and people captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

I haven't read the book; hopefully it contains a balanced analysis of the terrorist threats faced verses the Bush's administration policies.

My disagreement is with your conclusions.

Have the last 8 years been more "morally reprehensible" than slavery?

You claim that Bush started the torture policy, but Mayer's book states(pg 112-114) that rendition was started by President Clinton. Are you in favor of Clinton, Gore, Clark, etc being prosecuted?

I think Mayer's book is a first draft of history. The Bush administration may be judged differently depending on how things unfold in Iraq.

— David, Tue, 13 Jan 2009 04:23:50 -0500 (EST)

> I haven't read the book...
> I think Mayer's book is a first draft of history.

Interesting conclusion based on your knowledge of the book.

As you note, there have been Presidents before Bush who have implemented policies contrary to the Constitution and the principles of the United States: One recalls the Alien and Sedition Act during the first Adams administration; Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War; Nixon's use of private domestic spies to perform illegal acts.

But it's quite amusing to see people try to distract from the horrors of the Bush administration by focusing instead on the use of extraordinary rendition by the Clinton administration (and why hasn't Reagan been mentioned in connection with this?). It ain't gonna work. — Charles

My conclusion is that history will not judge the Bush administration as harshly as you have. This is based on my study of history and my own personal biases. My mentioning of extraordinary rendition by Clinton was to point out an error of fact. These policies were not originated by Bush as you stated. I assume one of the purposes of your post is to convince people of your viewpoint. It doesn't help your case to misstate facts.

That being said, this discussion has raised my interest in the Mayer book.


— David, Wed, 14 Jan 2009 03:32:58 -0500 (EST)

@David: the OP did not mention "rendition." It did discuss torture by US personnel, which is not the same thing.

From my perspective as a former Republican, the only way the GOP will regain credibility is if it leads the prosecution of the Bush 43 administration. Short of that, the party will collapse, as the torture policies of Bush 43 fail to conserve and conform to historical US values, such as the rule of law.

— Dave, Wed, 11 Feb 2009 02:56:34 -0500 (EST)

Through out the years of the Bush administration I felt the attempts to instill fear as a way of justifying the erosion of Constitutional Rights. Until I read Mayer's book I did not have a real feel for the most serious attacks on the Constitution.

The Administration used fear of a "dark people", an alien race, to create an atmosphere not seen since the worst days of the Second World War. While claiming that the war was on Terrorism and not Islam, Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney did everything they could to create an image of a subhuman race which could be subjected to any treatment at all for the benefit and protection of the American people. Relying on native xenophobia they created a political atmosphere in which the worst violations of our Constitution could be perpetrated. What is lost on most is that once the idea of a real threat from dark, incomprehensible forces could be made evident any action could then be justified in defense against it. The fact that these actions were only being committed against "them" gave a sense of security to "us." What is lost to most is that we can become "them" very easily. At Waco we saw our governments guns turned on men, women and children who were "us."

Mayer's work reminds us that if one of us is not safe, then none of us is safe. What they can do to "them" they can do to "us."

— Gene, Sun, 31 May 2009 10:55:31 -0400 (EDT)

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