August 3, 2008
By ALAN BRINKLEY
THE DARK SIDE
The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.
By Jane Mayer.
Illustrated. 392 pp. Doubleday. $27.50.
Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Dick Cheney in effect took command of the national security operations of the federal government. Quickly and instinctively, he began to act in response to two longstanding beliefs: that the great dangers facing the United States justified almost any response, whether or not legal; and that the presidency needed vastly to enhance its authority, which had been unjustifiably and dangerously weakened in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate years. George Bush was an eager enabler, but not often an active architect, of the government’s response to terror. His instinct was to be tough and aggressive in response to challenges, and Cheney’s belligerence fit comfortably with the president’s own inclinations.
In fairness, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax scare that followed, who could not have imagined the worst and contemplated extraordinary efforts to prevent it? But as Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes clear in “The Dark Side,” a powerful, brilliantly researched and deeply unsettling book, what almost immediately came to be called the “war on terror” led quickly and inexorably to some of the most harrowing tactics ever contemplated by the United States government. The war in Iraq is the most obvious and familiar result of the heedless “toughness” of the new administration. But Mayer recounts a different, if at least equally chilling, story: the emergence of the widespread use of torture as a central tool in the battle against terrorism; and the fierce, stubborn defense of torture against powerful opposition from within the administration and beyond. It is the story of how a small group of determined men and women thwarted international and American law; fought off powerful challenges from colleagues within the Justice Department, the State Department, the National Security Council and the C.I.A.; ignored or circumvented Supreme Court rulings and Congressional resolutions; and blithely dismissed a growing clamor of outrage and contempt from much of the world — all in the service of preserving their ability to use extreme forms of torture in the search for usable intelligence.
Occasional lurid revelations of abuse — most prominent among them the appalling photographs of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, made public in 2004 — have been widely denounced throughout the world. The president has expressed outrage and has insisted that the degradation was the work of a few bad apples who would be appropriately punished. But it was only the pictures that made Abu Ghraib an aberration. The tactics the president denounced were precisely those he had authorized and encouraged in the growing network of secret prisons around the world. The detainees in these scattered sites — many of them innocent — have been held for months and years without charges, without lawyers, without notification to their families and often without respite from torture for weeks and months at a time. The Bush administration’s response to the Abu Ghraib scandal was not to stop the behavior, but to try to hide it more effectively.