Charles Petzold

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.