According to Jane Mayer, the United States has succeeded in creating an American gulag.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich
Sunday, July 13, 2008; BW03
THE DARK SIDE
The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals
By Jane Mayer
Doubleday. 392 pp. $27.50
With the appearance of this very fine book, Hillary Clinton can claim a belated vindication of sorts: A right-wing conspiracy does indeed exist, although she misapprehended its scope and nature. The conspiracy is not vast and does not consist of Clinton-haters. It is small, secretive and made up chiefly of lawyers contemptuous of the Constitution and the rule of law.
In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, documents some of the ugliest allegations of wrongdoing charged against the Bush administration. Her achievement lies less in bringing new revelations to light than in weaving into a comprehensive narrative a story revealed elsewhere in bits and pieces. Recast as a series of indictments, the story Mayer tells goes like this: Since embarking upon its global war on terror, the United States has blatantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions. It has imprisoned suspects, including U.S. citizens, without charge, holding them indefinitely and denying them due process. It has created an American gulag in which thousands of detainees, including many innocent of any wrongdoing, have been subjected to ritual abuse and humiliation. It has delivered suspected terrorists into the hands of foreign torturers.
Under the guise of "enhanced interrogation techniques," it has succeeded, in Mayer's words, in "making torture the official law of the land in all but name." Further, it has done all these things as a direct result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of government.
To dismiss these as wild, anti-American ravings will not do. They are facts, which Mayer substantiates in persuasive detail, citing the testimony not of noted liberals like Noam Chomsky or Keith Olbermann but of military officers, intelligence professionals, "hard-line law-and-order stalwarts in the criminal justice system" and impeccably conservative Bush appointees who resisted the conspiracy from within the administration.
Above all, the story Mayer tells is one of fear and its exploitation.
That fear should trump concern for due process and indeed justice qualifies as a recurring phenomenon in American history. In 1919, government-stoked paranoia about radicalism produced the Red Scare. After Pearl Harbor, hysteria mixed with racism led to the confinement of some 110,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. The onset of the Cold War triggered another panic, anxieties about a new communist threat giving rise to McCarthyism. In this sense, the response evoked by 9/11 looks a bit like déjà vu all over again: Frightened Americans, more worried about their own safety than someone else's civil liberties, allowed senior government officials to exploit a climate of fear.
Although Mayer does not dwell on this historical context, her account suggests implicitly that the present period differs in at least one crucial respect. Whereas the earlier departures from the rule of law represented momentary if egregious lapses in democratic practice, the abuses orchestrated from within the Bush administration suggest that democracy itself is fast becoming something of a sham. From Mayer, we learn that in George W. Bush's Washington, the decisions that matter are made in secret by a handful of presidential appointees committed to the proposition that nothing should inhibit the exercise of executive power. The Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the "interagency process" -- all of these constitute impediments that threaten to constrain the president. In a national security crisis, constraint is intolerable. Much the same applies to the media and, by extension, to the American people: The public's right to know extends no further than whatever the White House wishes to make known.
In the Bush administration, the task of sweeping aside impediments to the exercise of power fell to a small group of lawyers styling themselves the "War Council." Led by David Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and including Alberto Gonzalez, then serving as White House counsel, and John Yoo, at the time deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the War Council seized upon 9/11 as a pretext for establishing what Addington himself referred to as a "new paradigm" of vastly expanded presidential authority. As the administration embarked upon its war on terror, Mayer says, the American legal system "was instantly regarded as a burden." To shed that burden, members of the War Council issued (in secret, of course) what she describes as "error-prone legal decisions whose preordained conclusions were dictated by Addington." In the view of the War Council, Mayer writes, when it came to matters of national security, presidential authority was "not limited by any laws"; indeed, the president "had the power to override existing laws that Congress had specifically designed to curb him." The net effect was to declare the concept of checks and balances inoperable.
Mayer recognizes but does not dwell on the intimate relationship between the global war on terror and Addington's new paradigm. The entire rationale of the latter derived from the former: no war, no new paradigm. Hence, the rush to declare that after Sept. 11, 2001, everything had changed. The insistence that the gloves had to come off, that the so-called law enforcement approach to dealing with terrorism had failed definitively, that only conflict on a global scale could keep America safe: These provided the weapons that Addington's War Council wielded to mount its assault on the Constitution -- all of course justified as necessary to keep Americans safe.
Matthew Waxman, who in 2001 was serving as special assistant to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, told Mayer that the decision to frame the U.S. response to 9/11 as a war was taken with "little or no detailed deliberation about long-term consequences." Yet the decision was a momentous one, he continues, setting the United States on "a course not only for our international response, but also in our domestic constitutional relations."
Little deliberation occurred because none was deemed necessary. As Mayer makes clear, the White House seized upon the prospect of open-ended war with alacrity. And why not? In the near term at least, going to war almost invariably works to the benefit of the executive branch. War elicits deference from Congress and the courts. As a wartime commander-in-chief, the president wields greater clout. In this particular case, war also helped deflect demands for accountability: Despite what Mayer describes as "the worst intelligence failure in the nation's history," the aftermath of 9/11 saw not a single senior official fired. (Earlier this week a bipartisan commission headed by former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher proposed new legislation to govern the war-making powers of the president and Congress.)
Whether the prospect of war stretching for decades actually would serve the country's true interests received comparatively less attention. The issue was not one that troubled the War Council, obsessed as it was about ensuring that when it came to national security, nothing should encroach upon the prerogatives of the chief executive. "What was missing," Mayer says, "was a discussion of policy -- not just what was legal, but what was moral, ethical, right, and smart to do." Such matters remained on the periphery because "fundamentally, the drive for expanded presidential authority was about power."
The extremists of the last century, both on the far left and far right, would have seen much to admire in Addington and his War Council. They too had an appreciation for how war concentrates power and removes constraints on its use. For this very reason defenders of democracy once viewed war warily.
The Bush administration has rendered such thinking obsolete: In Washington, the concept of the global war on terror continuing for generations has become widely accepted. This ranks as a considerable -- if almost entirely noxious -- achievement. The Dark Side allows us a glimpse of what that achievement signifies. ·
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism."