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The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, by Jane Mayer (Doubleday, 2008).

Reviewed by Andrew Feffer, New York Civil Liberties Union-Capital Region board member

This review appeared in the NYCLU-CR winter 2008 newsletter, and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s question seems to be on everyone’s lips: When will we hold someone responsible for the Bush Administration’s gross violations of the Constitution? With its release on March 2 of yet one more batch of previously secret Bush-era “anti-terror” memos penned by John Yoo and other former denizens of the Office of Legal Counsel, President Obama’s Justice Department would seem to be saying “soon.”

But don’t hold your breath.

For one thing the opposition to any kind of reckoning is strong and the denial of guilt is virulent. When the Senate Armed Services Committee released a report last December tracing responsibility to the top of the Pentagon’s chain of command for prisoner abuse and torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other “black sites,” soon-to-be-former vice-president Dick Cheney proudly defended that record, boasting on ABC News that he authorized the waterboarding of prisoners. Two days later he insisted that such official action protected the moral and ethical security of the nation.

Talk-radio shock jock Michael Smerconish lent his high-volume support to Cheney on MSNBC’s Hardball that evening, shouting (no less than three times) that Al Quaida’s methods and threats to the United States justified the use of any means necessary (and any sort of torture) to protect American citizens. The next day Representative Duncan Hunter (Republican, California) repeated the plot outlines of a 24 episode as the justification for extreme interrogation measures.

The Armed Services report was hardly a revelation, and the plausibility of it would seem a no brainer, given the overwhelming evidence of what most people call “war crimes.”

In fact, much of the historical record is available for anyone to read: Yoo and Bush’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez blithely exempting the United States from the Geneva Conventions, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s signature on memos authorizing “enhanced interrogation techniques,” White House legal counsel David Addington’s crafting of justifications for waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation (all forbidden under international anti-torture conventions signed by the United States).

You can even access the torture memos on-line (at Propublic.org).

Yet the response to characters like Smerconish and Hunter is depressingly weak and confused. On Hardball, columnist Christopher Hitchens and Virginia’s Representative Jim Moran put up a muddled defense of Geneva on the grounds that violations put American soldiers at risk and that torture doesn’t work anyway.

True enough in both cases, but more needed to be said. Why are critics not in control of this issue? Why do juvenile Jack Bauer fantasies dominate the discussion?

Perhaps it’s the sheer quantity of information that must be mastered. The Armed Services Committee tome comes in at over a thousand pages. Most of us wouldn’t able to pick it up, let alone read it. The torture policies of the Bush Administration evolved over a complex chronology of events, legal decisions, covert operations, elections and wars that unfolded on three continents. It is hard to follow.

But master this history we must, as citizens forced to take responsibility when political leaders will not. And one needn’t slog through Senate reports to get up to snuff on the issue.

One of the best places to start is with Jane Mayer’s superb expose of the American decline after 9/11 into a nation that tortures. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday, 2008) walks readers carefully and lucidly through the intricacies of this history.

It is a must read. Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, based the book on sources in the CIA and the FBI, as well as interviews with former Bush officials whose consciences were offended by what their superiors asked them to do.

Among those people were FBI agents sent to Afghanistan to investigate terror suspects captured in the field who might help them track down the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. When CIA employees swept through the military prison, taking over conventional questioning (the kind exhaustively conducted across a table) and turning it into “enhanced interrogation,” the FBI filed complaints, packed up shop and had no qualms about exposing the CIA procedures for what they were. Torture.

The FBI did not merely complain about the illegality of CIA techniques. It also challenged the claim that harsher methods yield quicker and more definite results. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the FBI agents were actually getting somewhere with their suspect (al Quaeda operative Abu Zubayda) until the CIA came along. At that point, all connection with reality ceased, for the suspect and American interrogators. As one of Mayer’s FBI contacts put it, “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”

Mayer covers many disturbing cases of American abuse. Of special note are the “extraordinary renditions” of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen dragged off to be tortured for six months in Egypt, and Canadian Maher Arar, “rendered” to Syria for the same treatment.

These stories however do not dwell on the sordid and horrifying details of the military’s, the CIA’s and our “allies’” technique. Rather Mayer is primarily interested in how the practices got started in efforts to expand the war powers of the President, how they spread (from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan to Guanatnamo and from there to Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq) and how they were justified by the legal “scholars” gathered together under the tutelage and direction of Cheney and Rumsfeld.

In recounting that story, Mayer provides a detailed chronology of events and a clear chain of culpability – the sort that one could use in a trial or a “truth and reconciliation commission.” She traces the horrors of Abu Ghraib to Cheney’s relentless and ultimately successful lobbying for what he called “a strong, robust executive authority” unhindered by Geneva, Congress or the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions on search and seizure.

Mayer’s main point is one we should keep in mind as we pressure our new political leadership to do something about this mess: We are talking about real torture here; but, the acts of physical abuse committed by the Bush regime were in fact relatively limited when viewed in the context of what other torturers have done.

Instead, what we always have to keep in mind is that, in the process of waterboarding, humiliating, and physically breaking down suspects, as well as “rendering” them, Bush and his crew committed an even greater crime against the Constitution and democracy.

As President Obama has promised us, the torture is over. But, if we don’t address the crime, the damage to our Constitutional rights and our standing among nations remains in place.

The paperback edition of Mayer’s book will be out in May at $15.95, but don’t wait. Find a copy. Check it out of the library. Read it and write your congressperson. Stop holding your breath.