Review- Mayer, “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals” (2008) – This is a respectably thorough and relatively early accounting of how the Bush administration embraced torture and indefinite detention after 9/11. Journalist Jane Mayer gets a lot of access and it’s pretty much all damning. The Bush people jumped to torture at the first chance they got, didn’t seem to care whether it worked or not, and did a lot of covering up.

Mayer does a good job weaving the story into a narrative, with a mixture of interviews from natsec people and from detainees. The contrast between the anodyne bureaucratic wrangling — the Bush people (well, Cheney mostly) handing over the war on terror and its associated interrogations almost entirely to tough-talking CIA and Defense people and cuffing out State and Justice almost entirely — and the depictions of what goes on in black sites are appropriately unsettling. She illuminates the complicity of doctors and psychologists, the whole massive underground infrastructure of the rendition program, the sheer micromanaged sadism based on third-rate psych research and bad orientalist cultural analysis.

Reading it at almost a decade remove, long after most of the stories in it are well-known, a few things stand out. One is what Corey Robin and others have noted about the prominence of lawyers in the story. Executive branch lawyers like John Yoo and especially the loathsome David Addington are the animating figures in the story, more than any politician or general. Lawyers oversaw much of the actual torture in Guantanamo and elsewhere, playing this weird dungeonmaster role, telling the interrogators exactly how hard they could hit, how long to do stress positions or water-boarding.

You have to wonder why- why the pretense of legality when they were just going to cover it up anyway? The answer is probably something boring like “insurance.” But I can’t help but connect it to the faith — against evidence and against testimony of veteran interrogators — that torture doesn’t produce good information for their purposes. Addington and his patron Dick Cheney were only two of the more powerful votaries of the cult of the executive that gathered around the Bush Jr administration. They believed in the exaltation of the leaders prerogative to do what he thought best in an almost religious sense; complete with gethsemane moment post-Watergate, when for a minute the American people looked sick of overreaching federal power. In this tableau, the lawyers look less like functional cogs in the torture machine, and more like officiants at a ceremony hailing the return of the power that should rightfully have been theirs all along- and which, for all the coverups, could only fully actualize if public. People needed to feel and see the executive’s sovereign power. They did this stuff because they wanted to do it.

The major flaw in this book is Mayer’s inability to connect this story to America’s political culture and role in the world. She doesn’t lean too hard on the bit from the subtitle about “American ideals” but it’s clashingly wrong when she does. It’s true the US law codes have generally made fulsome statements about disallowing torture. But American authority did it all the time anyway, especially to people seen as outside of the national community: Native Americans, slaves, people in occupied countries like the Philippines, etc.

Mayer has that annoying liberal habit of trying to find the “good” natsec guys, especially in the FBI, including our friends from the news James Comey and Robert Mueller. The FBI may be less torture and rendition happy than the CIA, but they’re perfectly happy to surveil, entrap, occasionally assassinate, etc. Where these habits most interfere with the story is ultimately making torture in the Bush years seem like a pervasive but exorciseable instance of “bad apples.” We’ve seen where that logic gets us without thinking critically about the structures from which these practices emerge. ****

Review- Mayer, “The Dark Side”

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