Looking at The Dark Side

In the summer of 2006, the Republican Party still dominated Washington, but top White House officials could see the indictments written on the wall. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed the president to close the international "black sites" that the Central Intelligence Agency was clandestinely running, but Vice President Cheney and then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pushed back hard.

Gonzales was stressed. As New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer reports in her new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, he "warned the other top officials about the risk that administration officials faced of being prosecuted for war crimes."

Mayer reports that a former senior White House official involved in the black site discussions said Cheney was "worried about what would come to light." At the time, Cheney was drafting legislation that would give retroactive immunity not to telecom companies but to policy-makers such as himself.

It's a vexing question, though, what Cheney had in mind. Did he think that the United States government could disappear hundreds of people to secret prisons where they are savagely brutalized, and that the program could go on in perpetuity? What details did he worry would "come to light"?

There's surely more that could and will come out on the story of the Bush administration's embrace of "enhanced" or "alternative" interrogation techniques -- euphemisms for torture. But until then, we can rely on The Dark Side.

The book is founded on Mayer's previous reporting for The New Yorker and additional research funded by a Guggenheim grant. Mayer -- who many in the intelligence community consider to be among the best, if not the best, sourced reporter on the beat -- thankfully doesn't limit herself, however, to her own research and sources, which is one of this book's great strengths.

Mayer is a longtime Washington reporter and has been with The New Yorker since 1995. Her two previous books, Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988, co-authored with Doyle McManus, and Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, co-authored with Jill Abramson, were both bestsellers. The latter was a finalist for a National Book Award.

Mayer has been admittedly obsessed with the administration's detainee policy for years and knows how to piece together her own string and the hidden scraps that others have reported into a complete fabric.

The combination has led to perhaps the deepest and broadest chronology yet of the path from September 11 to the authorization of torture in the abstract -- including, she reports, gouging out eyeballs and "slitting an ear, nose, or lip, or in disabling a tongue or limb" -- to its implementation at black sites, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and in Afghanistan.

Mayer marshals much of her evidence against "Cheney's Cheney," David Addington, the vice president's counsel who replaced I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby as his chief of staff when he resigned amid his indictment. Addington is a sharp-elbowed right-wing ideologue vested in increasing the power of the executive over that of Congress and the courts. He was often the last person to see documents or executive orders before they went to the president and helped shape the crucial Office of Legal Counsel memos that justified torture and other executive encroachments. A longtime Cheney ally, he drafted a congressional report in the 1980s arguing that President Reagan was justified in funding the Nicaraguan Contras even though Congress had outlawed it.

Addington and Cheney's involvement in war crimes is teased throughout the book, as is, once a while, Bush's. A group of senior White House officials in 2005 put together a proposal they called the Big Bang. It would have shuttered Guantanamo and brought the United States back into conformity with international law. It died, but as Mayer writes, it "reached Bush, two sources said, proving that as of the summer of 2005, he knew there were senior officials inside his administration, including the deputy defense secretary, who thought the war on terror was being undermined by his detention policies, and that Guantanamo needed to be closed."

Mayer relates how Cheney and Addington were ultimately able to put down the rebellion within the White House, and today much remains as it was. In fending off the reformers, though, they have exposed themselves that much more to the judgment of history. The Impeach-Bush-Now crowd will not be disappointed by Mayer's research. And the administration may have exposed itself to more than just a historical verdict.

Mayer names names on both sides of the moral ledger -- those who spoke out, either inside or outside -- and those who pushed to go further. One in particular she exposes is Dave Becker, who oversaw the brutalization of Mohammed al-Qahtani. Apparently intent on become the 20th September 11 hijacker, al-Qahtani was turned away at the Orlando airport by a suspicious customs agent. At Guantanamo, he underwent some of the most extreme abuse, most if not all of which had to be approved by Becker. Mayer describes him as the "head supervisor of the military interrogation teams." Interrogators didn't believe that al-Qahtani could know as little about the plot as he claimed. He was forced to stand in place -- a stress position -- for hours on end until his ankles swelled to twice their size and his cuffs cut deeply into him. Mayer relies on sources with knowledge of the interrogation as well as al-Qahtani, and the stories roughly square up, undercutting the counterargument that the detainees are making up their claims of abuse.

Qahtani's claim of ignorance squared as well, it turned out. When 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was asked about Qahtani's role -- with no knowledge of what Qahtani had already said -- he said that Qahtani was an imbecile not to be trusted with any responsibility or knowledge of anything more than, essentially, his own flight number. In other words, Qahtani had been telling the truth, and the torture was for nothing.

Torture, as Mayer notes, can elicit false confessions and true confessions and strike fear in the hearts of enemies. But Mayer finds that often the torture seemed to have an additional purpose for those inflicting it: pure revenge and a desire to look tough. "You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got more ideas" of ways to inflict pain, Dianne Beaver, a lawyer who oversaw interrogations, says in the book.

Beaver herself wasn't innocent in the matter. Mayer discloses a novel legal solution that Beaver came up with to shield interrogators. Perhaps, Beaver reckoned, the interrogators could be given immunity for the crime before committing it. The absurdity of such a proposal testifies to the depths to which the administration had fallen.

Although Mayer catalogues that descent well, the book is missing the airtight editing that accompanies her New Yorker pieces. It unfolds well and makes smooth connections but repeats itself often enough to betray the reality that significant portions of the work -- 13 articles, according to Mayer -- have already appeared as distinct pieces elsewhere.

The Dark Side may be the most complete telling of the United States' short history of detainee torture yet, but the story's not over. The potential prosecutions aside, the bulk of the clean up will be left to the next president. Interrogation and detention issues will be unavoidable; the United States is still holding hundreds of people without charging them in U.S. courts or granting them POW status. Mayer reports the extent to which Cheney slow-rolled any effort to reform the policy, but it can't be slowed forever. These are living, breathing people who are being held. Something has to be done with them.

Mayer gives John McCain ample credit for his opposition to the Bush policy but then chides him for backsliding; McCain voted against a February amendment that would have required the CIA to use Army Field Manual guidelines, which forbid torture and abusive interrogation. Obama, too, has spoken out but recently disappointed libertarians and many on the left by helping Congress ratify a principal Addington/Cheney project, the expansion of FISA powers. ("We're one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious court," Mayer has Addington saying.)

A senior aide to Barack Obama, however, tells TAP that a President Obama would make his administration's respect for the Constitution a prominent and early issue. Beyond Obama's background in constitutional law, he said, the senator thinks the issue has political pop, too.

Whether the Constitution is restored for political gain or on principle, Mayer argues that we need it back not for the benefit of detainees but to save our own souls. "More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate," she quotes Bush saying in 2003. "Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

If Mayer's right, nothing could be farther from the truth.