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The Outlaw Presidency

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 14, 2008; 12:47 PM

Another major book chronicling the descent into lawlessness of the Bush presidency is out this week. This one is by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, and it's called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."

Reviewing the book for The Washington Post, Andrew J. Bacevich writes that Mayer's "achievement lies less in bringing new revelations to light than in weaving into a comprehensive narrative a story revealed elsewhere in bits and pieces. Recast as a series of indictments, the story Mayer tells goes like this: Since embarking upon its global war on terror, the United States has blatantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions. It has imprisoned suspects, including U.S. citizens, without charge, holding them indefinitely and denying them due process. It has created an American gulag in which thousands of detainees, including many innocent of any wrongdoing, have been subjected to ritual abuse and humiliation. It has delivered suspected terrorists into the hands of foreign torturers.

"Under the guise of 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' it has succeeded, in Mayer's words, in 'making torture the official law of the land in all but name.' Further, it has done all these things as a direct result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of government.

"To dismiss these as wild, anti-American ravings will not do. They are facts, which Mayer substantiates in persuasive detail, citing the testimony... of military officers, intelligence professionals, 'hard-line law-and-order stalwarts in the criminal justice system' and impeccably conservative Bush appointees who resisted the conspiracy from within the administration.

"Above all, the story Mayer tells is one of fear and its exploitation.....

"From Mayer, we learn that in George W. Bush's Washington, the decisions that matter are made in secret by a handful of presidential appointees committed to the proposition that nothing should inhibit the exercise of executive power. The Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the 'interagency process' -- all of these constitute impediments that threaten to constrain the president. In a national security crisis, constraint is intolerable. Much the same applies to the media and, by extension, to the American people: The public's right to know extends no further than whatever the White House wishes to make known."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "In Ms. Mayer's portrayal of the Bush White House, the president is a secondary, even passive, figure, and the motives invoked by Mr. Cheney to restore Nixon-style executive powers are theoretically selfless. Possessed by the ticking-bomb scenarios of television's '24,' all they want to do is protect America from further terrorist strikes.

"So what if they cut corners, the administration's last defenders argue. While prissy lawyers insist on habeas corpus and court-issued wiretap warrants, the rest of us are being kept safe by the Cheney posse....

"After 9/11, our government emphasized 'interrogation over due process,' Ms. Mayer writes, 'to pre-empt future attacks before they materialized.' But in reality torture may well be enabling future attacks. This is not just because Abu Ghraib snapshots have been used as recruitment tools by jihadists. No less destructive are the false confessions inevitably elicited from tortured detainees. The avalanche of misinformation since 9/11 has compromised prosecutions, allowed other culprits to escape and sent the American military on wild-goose chases....

"The biggest torture-fueled wild-goose chase, of course, is the war in Iraq. Exhibit A, revisited in 'The Dark Side,' is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an accused Qaeda commander whose torture was outsourced by the C.I.A. to Egypt. His fabricated tales of Saddam's biological and chemical W.M.D. -- and of nonexistent links between Iraq and Al Qaeda -- were cited by President Bush in his fateful Oct. 7, 2002, Cincinnati speech ginning up the war and by Mr. Powell in his subsequent United Nations presentation on Iraqi weaponry. Two F.B.I. officials told Ms. Mayer that Mr. al-Libi later explained his lies by saying: 'They were killing me. I had to tell them something.'"

The book, set for release tomorrow, is already making news.

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Red Cross investigators concluded last year in a secret report that the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation methods for high-level Qaeda prisoners constituted torture and could make the Bush administration officials who approved them guilty of war crimes, according to a new book on counterterrorism efforts since 2001.


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