Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'The Dark Side,' Or How The War On Terror Became A War On American Ideals

Cheney only pretended to be sleeping; Mayer was wide awake
While it had been widely assumed that the decision to torture enemy combatants and other detainees in the War on Terror began at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Bush administration long hid behind that "trickle up" explanation, it is now apparent that the origins of this dark chapter in American history -- and the single most defining and insidious aspect of the Age of Bush -- can be traced to Vice President Cheney.

Nevertheless, there has not been a satisfactory answer to the question of why in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the vice president and his cronies did not want to work within existing laws and systems with Congress and the courts, stubbornly objected to the creation of the 9/11 Commission and created an American gulag and rump court system that ignored constitutionally mandated niceties like habeas corpus.

Now comes Jane Mayer, a New Yorker staff writer, who answers that question in a hugely important new book being published today -- The Dark Side: The Inside Story on How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.

Like the Watergate scandal of four decades earlier, the answer is that it was all about covering up, in this instance Cheney spearheading a not vast right-wing conspiracy that was predicated on scaring the crap out of Americans, hence the oft repeated mantra that "everything has changed" because of 9/11, and the use of that rationale for a descent into morally repugnant methods and actions unprecedented in modern American history.

The purpose was to cover up the administration's failure to act on repeated warnings that Al Qaeda planned a major attack on the homeland, an attack that it now appears could have been prevented had the White House not been so caught up in its own arrogant sense of infallibility. (In Cheney's case, this hubris is all the more amazing because he was obsessed with doomsday scenarios and had participated in many drills in previous years that simulated attacks that might destabilize the government.)

The descent included extracting false confessions through torture that became an underpinning of the bogus Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection and WMD threat that led directly to a war now in its sixth year, and even to satisfy grievances that Mayer says the vice president had been harboring for decades.

Some highlights from The Dark Side:

* The administration was well aware, as the International Committee of the Red Cross was to conclude, that it was torturing and not merely using techniques that were "tantamount to torture."

Repeated waterboardings killed one alleged terrorist, prisoners were placed in closed coffins and doubled up in tiny cages for long periods of time, the below-the-knee prosthesis was taken from an amputee who was forced to stand for hours on one foot while hanging from a rail, and suspects were routinely handed over to foreign governments for whom torture was their stock in trade.

* Internal government reports critical of the use of torture were sidetracked or rewritten at the behest of Cheney, who personally chewed out offending parties or had them fired, while insiders like John Yoo, Michael Chertoff and Alice Fisher signed off on specific techniques that they knew clear amounted to torture but were told to lie to Congress.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez repeatedly told Deputy AG James Comey that he was fully aware that the CIA's interrogation program included the use of torture and he feared being charged with being a war criminal, but wouldn't object because "Cheney wants it."

* The same kind of paranoia that gripped the Nixon administration during Watergate infected the Bush White House. Comey and Assistant AG Jack Goldsmith were so fearful of being wiretapped by their peers that they spoke in code and believed their lives might be in danger.

Their fears grew out of their challenge of Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, over the administration's willingness to throw the Geneva Conventions overboard, including instances involving U.S. citizens, in their pursuit of torture techniques that Comey, Goldsmith and a few other officials understood would embolden and now cow terrorists.

* The 1919 Red Scare, anti-Japanese hysteria after Pearl Harbor and McCarthyism were passing lapses in protecting civil liberties, while the Bush administration views maintaining the constitutionally-mandated balance of powers with Congress and the judiciary as obstacles. It saw from the outset that hewing to the rule of law would be an impediment to an imperial presidency.

The result was that Cheney and his coterie made sure that no potential roadblocks be allowed to constraint the president, and that the people's right to know should be limited to what the White House wanted them to know.

The Dark Side is based on interviews with military officers, intelligence professionals and Bush administration insiders, some perhaps wanting to assuage their guilt, which effectively counters the inevitable charges that the book is a compilation of the whinging of bleeding-heart liberals.

So awful has been the administration's conduct that officials have been warned to avoid traveling outside the U.S. -- except perhaps to a country like Israel -- if they do not want to run the risk of being arrested as war criminals, and Mayer notes in an interview that while there is considerable interest in going after these perpetrators abroad there is sentiment for doing so at home.

The great lesson of Mayer's book is that the United States, long a vibrant democracy, if always a little rough around the edges, has repeatedly adapted to wars, depressions and other challenges without resorting to the dark side. That is until now -- and the repercussions will be felt for many, many years to come.

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