Journal des Alternatives

Review: A Look into the Inner-workings of the Machine

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer (New York: Doubleday, 2008)

Emrah Sahin, 14 March 2009

The September 11 2001 Al-Qaeda
terrorist attacks shook the White
House into a state of controlled
panic and the nation into exhaustive
asymmetric warfare. Worse, no
one really knew if graver threats yet
loomed. Led by George W. Bush’s
itchy trigger finger and Dick Cheney’s
nightmarish scenarios, this ignorance
turned the ensuing counterterrorist
war into a battle for the country’s
soul. Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side
is a well-documented and lucidly
written testimony of how the Bush
administration sacrificed the sacred
habeas corpus. It will fascinate
readers who were frustrated by the
Administration’s reticence and want to
know what happened from the inside.

According to Mayer, the Bush
administration first got obsessed with
national security concerns; Bush’s
hands-on policy caused the pilingup
on his desk of all raw intelligence
reports concerning possible threats
to America, but most of them were
noise, that is, neither properly
corroborated nor screened. That is
when Mayer shows that mistakes
were made. The cumulative effect of
the reports was that the White House
interpreted the terrorist threat as
being so catastrophic that all means
became justifiable to save America
from terrorists. Lawrence Wilkerson,
Colin Powell’s Former Chief of Staff,
regrets that an apocalyptic scenario
enabled Cheney et al. to strive for
perfect security, allowing government
officials to torture captives. Lawyers,
security advisors, and many in the
administration were involved in
obsessive and oppressing means,
making torture “the official law of the
land.” Finally, the Geneva Conventions
were violated and American ideals
were mothballed.

Mayer reports that the CIA leadership
was staggering in its ineptitude;
mistakes and deficiencies were the
norm. Bush wanted “whatever it takes”
and approved the Black Sites proposal
to give the CIA “extralegal authority”
to capture any suspect.

American ideals crumbled when the
collecting of evidence was essentially
forfeited and suspects were stripped
of their liberties with no solid legal
basis. Mayer frets over the little
amount of thought that was given to
the implications of such a tectonic
shift in core values. Democrats,
British Intelligence, FBI, and some
loyal Republican lawyers within the
administration warned the Bush White
House not to buy into an extralegal
approach, as it would endanger the
rule of law. But the Bush administration
was too stubborn to step back and
determinedly silenced all dissent, no
matter how well-intentioned.

Mayer laments that the Justice
Department failed to temper the
Bush administration’s discourse— let
alone their policies. The department
had become politicized; those
who challenged the administration
were marginalized, penalized, or
dismissed altogether. Although
Mayer understands, to a degree, the
extreme measures taken in the context
of the panic-filled days and weeks
following the September 11 attacks,
she cannot understand why the Bush
administration’s counterterrorism
policies remained largely frozen
in place seven years after and
despite their evident flaws— read
contradictions. Guantanamo remained
open and the military commission
process was as ineffective as it was
legally dubious. Add to these the
human rights violations of Abu Ghraib
and the CIA’s once-secret prisons,
and the American creed of justice-forall
seemed less a lofty promise than a
menacing threat.

The war on American idealism was
not the work of a few rotten apples
at the bottom, but rather the result
of irresponsible leadership. Akin to
Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-
Americans during World War II, the
Bush administration’s descent into
torture is Mayer’s showcase of how
fear and anxiety were exploited by
zealots and fools. Despite all the
gloom, she remains hopeful that the
recent presidential election will prove
a turning point in the years to come
and that the US can return, once
again, from the dark side.