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Torture as a matter of policy

It's no wonder many Americans suffer from Bush fatigue.

Books detailing bad news about one aspect or another of the administration's policies are a thriving industry, filling so many spaces on bestseller lists it's tough to keep up.

That said, find time for The Dark Side. Jane Mayer's new book, subtitled The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, doesn't add any new smoking guns to the arsenal. What Mayer does is take hundreds of events in (and very much out) of the news over the last seven years and connect the dots to provide a clear and appalling picture of how the Bush White House not only eagerly pursued a policy of torturing prisoners, but secretly rewrote U.S. law to protect that policy and themselves.

Mayer, a political and investigative reporter for the New Yorker and formerly a White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, crafts a lucid, readable, deeply researched account of how an initial fierce response to the Sept. 11 attacks devolved into an approach to the war on terror based on disregard for the rule of law and disdain for any opinion, no matter how expert, outside a tiny (and questionably qualified) cadre of White House loyalists.

Mayer places much of the responsibility for that approach on the shoulders of Vice President Dick Cheney and David Addington, Cheney's legal counsel and later chief of staff. Throughout their careers in government, both men have been proponents of radically increasing presidential powers, seeing Congress and the courts as subordinate, not co-equal, to executive power. The chaos and fear after Sept. 11 were a window of opportunity for them, and they used it.

Mayer carefully demonstrates how the torture of prisoners was not some accident perpetrated by a few low-ranking bad apples, nor a rare incidence born of urgent circumstances.

By early 2002, explicit guidelines for torture techniques — so-called "enhanced interrogation" — were being created based on the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program of secret military training for personnel at high risk of capture. The SERE program subjects trainees to brief periods of carefully controlled torture and abuse as a means of enabling them to resist such techniques if captured.

Mayer points out that SERE "was a strange choice for the government to pick if it was seeking to learn how to get the truth from detainees. It was founded during the Cold War in an effort to re-create, and therefore understand, the mistreatment that had led 36 captured U.S. airmen to give stunningly false confessions during the Korean War."

Nevertheless, SERE techniques soon were being used on the "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo Bay. Later, after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, then commander at Guantanamo, to "Gitmoize" Iraq, the same brutal techniques were revealed to the world at Abu Ghraib.

The Bush administration continued to build legal firewalls around torture, so secretively that many of the opinions were withheld even from attorneys in the Justice and Defense departments, and to create "golden shields" designed to protect itself from prosecution. Mayer's book does not just build a case against an administration on its way out; it raises urgent questions about how the next one will deal with this still-growing body of shadow law and its consequences.

The Dark Side is not all bad news. Mayer relates the efforts of many men and women in the government (including conservative Republicans) to reveal and argue against the torture program. Some of the most valiant efforts came from within the military and intelligence agencies, from people who, unlike the majority of the White House cadre, had experience in warfare, interrogation or military law. Many risked their careers.

At least one opponent risked his personal safety. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, intent on having an informed opinion on whether "enhanced interrogation" constituted torture, had himself subjected to waterboarding and other techniques — a fact-finding mission one might wish Cheney et al. had undertaken.

Among the most striking attitudes the book reveals is the administration's stubborn resistance to expert advice. Over and over, military and intelligence experts advise that torture produces highly unreliable results and severely undermines the morale of those who inflict it.

Meanwhile, Mayer reports, military officials at Guantanamo were basing some of their techniques on a TV show "written by a Hollywood conservative who had no military or intelligence expertise whatsoever. … On 24, torture always worked."

Until he resigned in 2003, Addington protege John Yoo crafted legal opinions on the definitions of "torture" and "pain" that make arguments about what the meaning of "is" is sound perfectly straightforward. Like Addington and others on the secretive, self-named "War Council" of five lawyers, Yoo seems fascinated with the details of torture, even suggesting new techniques like gouging out prisoners' eyes.

One of the disconcerting recurring themes in The Dark Side is how insular and uninterested in real-world experience the people at the top of the war on terror can be — they can come off like couch-potato video gamers imagining themselves real warriors. They would just seem sad if their games had not done such damage to the spirit and reputation of a great nation.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals

By Jane Mayer

Doubleday, 400 pages, $27.50

Torture as a matter of policy 08/09/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2008 4:32am]
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