One of the more infamous adages to come from the Vietnam War said that, in waging counterinsurgency in the Vietnamese brush, American policy was to "burn the village to save the village," from communism. This sentiment did not die with Vietnam, however, and has found a clear place in the Bush administration's regard to traditional civil liberties, as described by New Yorker
reporter Jane Mayer
at the New America Foundation on July 15. An MP3 audio recording can be downloaded below, while video is available at right.
Speaking with American Strategy Program director Steve Clemons
about her disturbing, impeccably-researched new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals
, Mayer detailed an administration run by the obscure office of the Vice President, one with unlimited power and little concern for the law.
Mayer told the audience that the judgment of the Vice President and lawyers advising him was tested after the September 11 attacks. According to Mayer, these officials began to actively reinterpret bedrock concepts in American law to suit what they saw as the prerogatives of presidential power and the tools needed to fight terrorism.
These men, "began to think of checks and balances…they felt that these were impediments," Mayer said. The consequences of this changing or operating outside of the law, what the Vice President called at the time "working in the dark side
" form the backbone of Mayer's book.
A particular focus of the book is David Addington
, Dick Cheney's chief of staff and one of the key legal minds behind the changes in the administration's new legal mindset after the 9/11 attacks. Mayer has been the first journalist to investigate Addington's role in shaping policy, and his role cannot be understated.
According to Mayer, Addington was responsible, with Cheney, for limiting the paper flow to President Bush, and making many decisions themselves without consulting the President. Mayer said that "all fingerprints on national security policy" thus pointed to Cheney and his office.
This policy included the other focus of Mayer's book, the CIA's interrogation and rendition program for suspected terrorists. She provided harrowing descriptions of torture, including subjects near death from dehydration, kept alive only through the mediation of shadowy doctors who healed them enough to be tortured anew.
Mayer further stated that the Red Cross had deemed the CIA interrogation program to be torture. And tapes of the CIA waterboarding suspects destroyed secretly in 2005 contained evidence of torture that would have provoked a reaction that "would have been unmanageable" for the government, she said. The tapes were destroyed to help guard administration officials against potential war crimes prosecutions, Mayer added.
This is not to say that Mayer's book is completely without heroes. Mayer focuses on Republican Department of Justice officials James Comey and Jack Goldsmith, who fought to repeal the memos justifying torture. This effort earned them the ire of the Vice President's office, and forced the officials to speak in code, since they feared their conversations were being secretly recorded.
These men were not alone in trying to turn back the standardized torture policy and the erosion of checks and balances that have been the focus of Vice President Cheney and David Addington since September 11.
Mayer said that there were many people who tried to, "win the War on Terror in an honorable way…and they were defeated at every turn."
This, then, is the legacy of the War on Terror as fought by the administration. It is the legacy of a war that has served as an excuse to degrade our most fundamental institutions, and a dark side of American policy that will serve as a stain on our history for some time.
--Andrew Lebovich, Research Intern, American Strategy Program