Sunday, November 2, 2008

Book Review: The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

TitleThe Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals
AuthorJane Mayer
Tagsterrorsim, torture, bush administration

I resisted reading this book for a while, but felt it was one of those books I HAD to read, as an American citizen, to know the worst about my government in order help to elect better ones. The book was hard to read, both for the occasional and in this case NOT gratuitous depictions of torture, and to see what fear did to this nation that has not ever before, as a policy, used coercive interrogations. Mayer makes that clear by giving a brief history. George Washington insisted on humane treatment of British prisoners of war, and that tradition continued with the U.S. in the forefront in creating treaties such as the Geneva Conventions.

All that was turned on its head after 9/11. After that, captured terrorists were subject to extraordinary rendition, in which some were taken to foreign countries to be tortured for information, while others were tortured in prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The story of how it happened is complex, and sickening... a combination of fear and incompetence. Policy on this, as on so many things, was mostly set by VP Dick Cheney and his legal adviser, David Addington. Both are authoritarian personality figures who do what they believe is right and don't listen to anyone advocating something different. Addington's response is usually to shout down the opposing opinion.

One interesting thing that Mayer points out is that it was a quite small circle of people setting torture policy and that only Addington was a lawyer. Of course John Yoo, who wrote the infamous torture memo while on staff in the Office of Legal Council (OLC), was a lawyer as well, but other lawyers have said that his work was badly done. Jack Goldsmith, who was head of OLC later, thought it was so deeply flawed that he withdrew it, and that was something that had not been done before (I also recommend Goldsmith's book, The Terror Presidency, on this subject). What OLC says is so important because they are the standard bearer for any administration on legal matters, and what they say goes.

The Dark Side is also frightening it its depiction of sheer incompetence. At the time of 9/11, the CIA had not done interrogations for years, and had few experts in it. At first, they used some of the FBI's interragaters, who were experienced and did not use torture because they knew that information from torture was unreliable -it might be accurate, it might be lies, and you don't know which is which. They had interragaters who were experts in Muslim culture and who were used at the beginning, but the powers that be thought that information wasn't coming fast enough and handed the interrogations over to the CIA who was told to use any means necessary to get information and get it quickly. The CIA retro-engineered the SERE program, which was used to teach soldiers and agents to withstand torture and began using those techniques to torture.

All of this was done with doubtful legal and moral justifications. Mayer uses that marvelous quote from Nietzsche "He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself. And if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare right back at you." There seems to be some indicatons that many of those who tortured developed psychological problems themselfes. There were also heroes in this battle, as Mayers is quick to acknowledge. See her summary in the afterward:

"In looking back, one of the most remarkable features of this struggle is that almost from the start, and at almost every turn along the way, the Bush administration was warned that the short-term benefits of its extralegal approach to fighting terrorism would have tragically destructive long-term consequences both for the rule of law and America's interests in the world. Those warnings came not from just political opponents, but also from experienced allies, including the British Intelligence Service, the experts in the traditionally conservative military and the FBI, and, perhaps most surprisingly, from a series of loyal Republican lawyers inside the administration itself. The number of patriotic critics inside the administration and out who threw themselves into trying to head off what they saw as a terrible departure from America's ideals, often at an enormous price to their own careers, is both humbling and reassuring." (p. 327).

This book, along with others such as Barton Gellman's Angler, will be very important to historians trying to understand an administration that went so wrong in so many ways, and to those who, as citizens, want to understand so as to elect better governments. Besides, it is a story to stand up with any epic, a story of heroes and villains, as well as people simply trying to do their best for their country in a dangerous and uncertain world. Excellent and highly recommended read.
PublicationDoubleday (2008), Hardcover, 400 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0385526393 / 9780385526395

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