When the subject of discourse taps into such dark arenas that measured argument can feel like mere noise, how does a journalist cover such atrocities without losing credibility? By doing her job, that’s how, through careful reporting, crisp writing, and the ability to step back to let important details and documentation speak for themselves.
In “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals,” journalist and author Jane Mayer’s words describe what is perhaps the Bush administration’s bleakest and most horrifying practice of the past eight years—the creation and execution of its policy of torture. Her book fiercely reports on the history of how this policy came into being. In so doing, she doggedly points out two fundamental lessons. Above all, Mayer argues, the methods and principles used to wage the “war on terror” contradicted and essentially shredded the Constitution in a manner unprecedented in U.S. history. Secondly, she marshals overwhelming evidence that widespread torture not only fails to generate actionable or even accurate information but also that the news of such practices can only lead to greater hatred and powerful blowback to the United States.
Few of her observations will be totally new to those who’ve followed coverage of these issues. In fact, other important books have documented the administration’s policies and practices, and Mayer has reported on many aspects of this specific issue in New Yorker articles she’s written. Yet, as with many books written by journalists whose reporting steeps them in knowledge of a particular subject, “The Dark Side” is far more than a collection of previous reporting. Given the book’s expanded space and an author’s skillful guiding hand, Mayer crafts a narrative that crystallizes this issue, which one day historians might speak of as the legacy of this Bush administration.
Narrating the Path to Torture
Relying on her disciplined argument, Mayer tracks events beginning, just after the attacks of September 11, when the Bush administration appointed a small group of lawyers to design the blueprint for a surge in the government’s granting to itself the legal authority to fight terror. “As part of that process, for the first time in its history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives, making torture the official law in all but name,” Mayer writes.
Focusing her lens on the development and rollout of the torture policy enables Mayer to recapitulate what many regard as the greatest sins of the Dick Cheney “presidency”—from the rush to war to the expansion of executive power, from the imperial attitude of those in power to their demands for executive branch secrecy. Her account reminds us of how the torture policy was conceived and crafted from the office of the vice president and then put into action through coercive and supremely partisan practices. She goes on to show how the practice was conducted beneath layers of secrecy and with a lack of accountability, and she explains how it was executed with no apparent awareness that this ideological approach to warfare could (and would) lead to profound negative consequences.
Solid is her reporting about torture—describing what was allowed and how it was used—and the unlawful rendition of suspects. She also draws awareness to the consequences on those directly in the path of these torture policies and on our nation’s place in world opinion. But what makes Mayer’s book extraordinary is how deftly she makes this complex and tough-to-absorb topic so accessible and readable. Consider this passage:
… in the judgment of at least one of the country’s most distinguished presidential scholars, the legal steps taken by the Bush Administration in its war against terrorism were a quantum leap beyond earlier blots on the country’s history and traditions: more significant than John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts, than Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, than the imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Collectively, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued, the Bush Administration’s extralegal counterterrorism program presented the most dramatic, sustained, and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.
This passage reveals the historic scope of Mayer’s book, in which she provides excellent context to the administration’s torture practice by placing it within the nation’s history of torture and its repetitious cycles of ineffectiveness. She also shares a concise history of the Geneva Conventions and the actions of previous Presidents. Added to this is her willingness to carefully source the bolder claims made in her book and her ability to draw generously—and seamlessly—from other well-reported sources, such as Steve Coll’s book, “Ghost Wars,” Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower,” and Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War.” Finally, in the tradition of great books such as “All the President’s Men” and “And the Band Played On,” Mayer pushes her argument forward with a reliance on reporting, steering clear of what might have been a temptation to adopt a strident tone.
She also carefully constructs a narrative to focus on the creation of the torture policy, as she takes us back in time to show how Vice President Cheney developed his strong belief in the need to expand presidential power during his long Washington career. With this, she is poised to show how the events of 9/11 provided the perfect justification for pushing through a policy that aligned with Cheney’s view. She shares her reporting on the legally unsound and politically brutal process by which key players justified the methods that led to the prison practices at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In doing so, she draws back the curtain to reveal the key players in this policy drama—for example, David Addington, the vice president’s legal counsel, and John Yoo, a deputy chief in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Mayer lambastes the lawyers, including those who spurned the historic role of those who defended the rights of individuals who were charged and those unelected who drafted bogus legal briefs clearing the way for carefully designed actions formally barred under law. “What was missing was a discussion of policy—not just what was legal, but what was moral, ethical, right and smart to do,” Mayer writes. Later she describes some of their behavior by saying, “The White House lawyers, like criminal litigators, were using their skills to provide rationales for a path their clients had already taken.”
Since its publication, Mayer’s book has garnered admiring reviews and was nominated for a National Book Award. Yet, given the importance of its message, there’s still an odd disconnect between the issues about which she’s done such superb reporting and the lack of informed public debate about them. Torture and its consequences rarely (if ever) surfaced during the presidential campaign as an issue, and the topic has all but vanished from newspaper and TV news coverage, surfacing now only in regard to President-elect Obama’s expressed interest in closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Is it that Americans are exhausted with the topic of torture? Or do people simply lump this policy in with other Bush administration policies that have resulted in record-low approval ratings as they focus on the future and try to forget the past? Or is there something so dark and disquieting about this topic that it defies rational public debate?
Even if the ultimate reward of this book might never be broad public debate, Mayer’s words—written for the TPMCafé Book Club as she anticipated whether any of the principal players would eventually be charged for their actions—remind us why her effort to tell this story is so important for every American:
I wanted to leave you with a final thought, borrowed from Hannah Arendt, about why this business of getting the truth, and preserving it, is so important particularly in the darkest times. Before quoting her, let me also make the obligatory point that nothing the Bush Administration has done is remotely equivalent to the Nazi period. That said, though, I think her point resonates in less horrific times, too. In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” she argues that one of the goals of police states is to establish “holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear.” It is our duty, according to Arendt, to preserve history by descending into those holes, rescuing those individual deeds, and recounting them to ourselves and to our children.
Tom Ehrenfeld, formerly an editor with Inc. magazine and Harvard Business Review, is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.