Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side is a masterful account of the U.S. government’s “war on terror” interrogation program that followed al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001. It relates the capture and seizing of suspects from the Middle East and elsewhere, their incarceration at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other sites, and the methods employed by American officials to gain information in order to prevent another 9/11. It is a story of fools and knaves and a few heroes and constitutes one of the darkest chapters in history of the abuse of rights that are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and decades of tradition. This is history with a point of view: Mayer is not an admirer of the Bush administration’s use of extreme interrogation techniques.
On the Sunday after the attack on New York City’s Twin Towers and on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on the television program Meet the Press, stated that “[w]e’ll have to work sort of the dark side . . . . And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.” Over the years that followed, extreme measuresincluding water boarding, sleep deprivation, sexual intimidation, and other physical and psychological methodswere employed to break down detainees in order to obtain supposedly crucial information regarding past and future terrorist activities.
Like other state governors who ascended to the presidency, George W. Bush had little experience and perhaps little knowledge of foreign affairs. Conversely, Cheney had an agenda, the result of long political experience. He had been chief of staff in the Gerald Ford administration, had served in the Congress, and had been Secretary of Defense in the administration of George H. W. Bush. Cheney became convinced that the executive branch had lost its legitimate governmental authority as the result of the Watergate affair in the early 1970’s. He sought to regain for the presidency what he considered its rightful power.
If Cheney was somewhat the éminence grise of the administration’s response to the events of 9/11, the point man was David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel. Addington had served in the Ronald Reagan administration and was responsible for many of the “signing statements” that Reagan and George W. Bush used to modify and dilute the intent of congressional laws. However, Cheney and Addington were not alone in advocating suspect actions. After 9/11, elements in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) argued the necessity to execute suspected terrorists out of hand as well as to conduct espionage within the United States, which by law it was forbidden to do. Whether the origin was the CIA, Cheney and Addison, or other sources, as one individual put it, the gloves were off when it came to ferreting out dangers to the United States. As Mayer points out, both Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans went further than did the Bush administration in threatening civil liberties. The difference was that Bush and his advisers claimed that the president had the legal right to do whatever he believed necessary. A crucial figure on giving legal justification for such wide-ranging presidential powers was John Yoo, a deputy chief in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department. In a series of legal memos, Yoo claimed that the requirements of national security trumped all other constitutional or legal restrictions placed upon a president, a legal interpretation that most constitutional scholars deplored. Never had a vice president’s office been more powerful in American history, and in most matters Cheney or Addington had the last word with Bush before any major presidential decisions. Other relevant departments, such as the State Department, and persons, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, were simply bypassed or ignored.
Cheney, Addington, and Yoo, and most of the other like-minded advocates of unlimited presidential power in times of national crisis, had no direct experience with counterterrorism, with military service, with the Muslim world. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, neither the CIA nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had more than a handful of Arabic speakers. Mayer notes that the administration’s worldview was similar to that of the popular television...
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