Book World: 'The Dark Side'

Jane Mayer
Jane Mayer "The Dark Side"
Jane Mayer
Journalist and Author
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; 3:00 PM

"In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, documents some of the ugliest allegations of wrongdoing charged against the Bush administration. Her 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."

Journalist Jane Mayer was online Tuesday, July 15 to discuss her new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, which was reviewed in Book World.

Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She is the co-author of two other books: Landslide: The Unmaking of The President 1984-1988 and Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.

A transcript follows.

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Jane Mayer: Hi-

This is Jane Mayer, and I am happy to answer your questions about my new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals"...


Needham, Mass.: You address the participation of psychologists and physicians as agents of abuse, torture or their facilitation. Were nurses also involved? If so, in what capacity, when and where?

Jane Mayer: Thanks for your question- I don't know specifically about the role of nurses, but the medical personnel described by detainees were involved in such nursing functions as taking blood, doing saliva swabs, and measuring other vital bodily statistics. There are also numerous accounts of cavity searches. It's hard to know exactly what level of training and licensing these medical personnel had, but I think it would be a useful subject for further investigation.


San Francisco, Calif.: Much of the information your book apparently presents (I haven't yet read it, but have read your New Yorker pieces and many reviews of The Dark Side) has been presented in bits and pieces, and has been publicly available, for years. This is NOT to denigrate your excellent work, but my question is: Why are such shocking revelations of American torture, arbitrary imprisonment of innocent people in gulags, and imperial secrecy about these being met with great yawns by many Americans? It seems that many people just don't care, and would rather be watching sports or American Idol. Why is there such a disconnect? It truly reminds me of Nazi Germany, and "Good Germans." Any thoughts on this?

Jane Mayer: One hope I had in pulling all of the reporting I have done on this together, into one flowing narrative, was to make it clearer to readers. It's been hard even for someone paying close attention, like myself, to follow these developments. We have learned about them out of order - first perhaps with the pictures of Abu Ghraib- and only piece by piece later - did we get to read the legal memos that justified a whole new system of law and detention. By putting it all back together in proper order, I think the narrative becomes incredibly powerful. That's what people are reacting to when they read this book.


Silver Spring, Md.: What will the next president, if so inclined, need to do to reverse the damage the Bush administration has done to constitutional democracy? Is any of the damage too institutionalized to be reversible?

Jane Mayer: There needs to be an open, democratic (small "d") debate about how to win the war on terror without sacrificing America's most cherished ideals. Small steps were taken towards this in the presidential campaign, in which both of the party nominees denounced torture. But there needs to be a much more sophisticated debate on whether terror suspects really should be regarded as "warriors," or instead, as criminals - as they are elsewhere in the world, and were before 9/11. Personally, I think we are flattering terrorists by calling them "warriors."


Indianapolis, Ind.: Be honest, if I read this book, am I just going to end up depressed and angry? I'm already at the point where I sometimes cannot believe what is happening to the ideals and morals of our country.

Jane Mayer: You may not believe me, but I actually think the book is kind of uplifting - at least it was to me. And I'm not a masochist. The reason is that it tells the stories of a lot of amazingly courageous people inside the administration and out, who stood up against the pressure to go along with a program they thought either illegal or unethical. Some were Republicans, some Democrats, many military officers and FBI agents - but each in their own way were truly admirable. As I reported these stories, these people's examples kept me going.


Washington, D.C.: I've read in some books about the intent of Vice President Cheney and others in the Bush administration to increase executive power dramatically - much further than our founders ever envisioned. Do you think therefore that the "...War on American Ideals" was almost pre-ordained once 9/11 occurred?

Jane Mayer: To some extent I think that the program implemented after 9/11 represented a wish list that had long been compiled by Cheney and other conservatives nostalgic for the power that Nixon had, before Democratic reformers came in and put on curbs. So yes, there was a political agenda preceding 9/11. Once America was attacked, the White House had the public support to do almost anything, in the name of national security, and these ideas were dusted off and presented as "a new paradigm."


Olympia, Wash.: I'm surprised the new Democratic majority in Congress hasn't pursued investigation of this entire mess more actively. Do you think we'll see more concerted investigation by Congress after we have a new Administration in January?

Jane Mayer: It depends who wins - and with what size majority.

It also depends if we continue to have no more attacks.


San Jose, Calif.: The Pentagon has admitted to 21,000 prisoners in Iraq, the ICRC records 10,171 in Afghanistan, and the PHR report detailed abuses up to and including rape with gun barrels and shoulder dislocations. Doesn't the narrowing we see in most media portrayals, focusing on waterboarding of a handful of "high-value detainees" protect the administration, and do you think if the full magnitude were better portrayed in the media, they would find themselves in genuine risk of prosecution? If so, what's behind the narrow focus?

Jane Mayer: I think the focus on waterboarding is too narrow, for sure. One reason the media focuses on it however is because it is so clearly a torture technique to everyone but a handful of Bush Administration officials. It's also clearly a technique that was authorized from the very top of the government - unlike the form of sodomy you mention. But people who really know about the CIA's program in particular say that the focus on waterboarding has deflected attention from what was truly the worst part of the program - the combination of many forms of physical and psychological pain together over time - which is again, hard to convey for reporters.


Tampa, Fla.: Just how much actionable intelligence has been gathered as a result of torture? I've read that the FBI, which has the most experience in interrogating people of all federal agencies, including the CIA and the military, says it has yielded no actionable intelligence. Indeed, it appears the Administration is using brainwashing techniques, not interrogation techniques.

Given their proven track record of lying, I cannot believe anything Bush, Cheney, Addington et al say. So what evidence do we have that the Administration actually knows what it's doing? If torture doesn't work, the issue of whether it's legal is moot. The issue then becomes one of competence.

Jane Mayer: FBI agents who are expert in Islamic terrorism have told me that the CIA's program of "enhanced" techniques yielded little to nothing - but then - there is some institutional rivalry to consider here. A former top CIA officer who worked closely with George Tenet, however, told me very candidly that, "Ninety percent of what we got was crap."


San Mateo, Calif.: Why are the media not digging more into this, so we are informed of the backroom decisions affecting our rights?

Jane Mayer: My book digs into this as far as I could given the time I had - and I'm part of the media. I have enormously talented colleagues who have spent years doing the same - Dana Priest, James Risen, Scott Shane, Tim Golden, Bart Gellman, Charlie Savage, Don Van Natta, Jeff Gerth and Jo Becker to name just a few just at the New York Times and Washington Post - and there are many more just in those two papers. It's just a very, very hard story to get traction on because there is such excessive use of national secrecy, and such an atmosphere of risk for sources. But I disagree that the press hasn't been on this - they've been more alert than much of the public.


Washington, D.C.: Please recap your reporting on the International Red Cross finding that the Bush administration was committing war crimes with its interrogation techniques. Is there any likelihood of prosecution?

Jane Mayer: I am told by sources familiar with the content of the International Red Cross report on the CIA's high-value detainees, that their allegations crossed the line into torture. Torture of course violates the Geneva Conventions, which means that these practices, if proven, could be war crimes. prove that would take a political movement bent on punishing the most powerful members of the Bush administration for taking steps it thought necessary to protect the country. Right now, I have trouble imagining there will be the political appetite for this.


Rockville, Md.: Would you comment on the video of Omar Khadr's interrogation that was released today? What does this tell the world about America's stance on human rights, when a 15 year old boy is held and tortured in Guantanamo Bay by our people? How can we not be outraged and call ourselves civilized? Video: Interrogation of Detainee Released (, July 15)

Jane Mayer: Since its founding, America has tried to set a higher example to the world on human rights. General George Washington wrote eloquently about it. Lincoln's administration developed the first penal codes for war prisoners, requiring that they not be treated cruelly. America's embrace of state-sanctioned torment is a break with the country's history. But, historically in times of fear, the country has lowered its standards in many ways it later comes to regret. I believe that's what we've been living through, again.


New York, N.Y.: In your interview with Harper's yesterday, you said that this about why war crimes prosecutions are unlikely: "An additional complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned this program, so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised."

What did you mean by that? Who specifically is compromised " who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised" -- Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Jay Rockefeller? -- and how are they "compromised"? Six Questions for Jane Mayer, Author of The Dark Side (

Jane Mayer: The ranking members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees were briefed dozens of times about the CIA's interrogation and detention program over the past seven years - so any member who has held one of those posts has arguably been complicit. Some say they tried to object, internally. But either because of the threat of violating national security, or, because of the fear of the political price of dissent, these figures in both parties would find it very hard at this point to point the finger at the White House, without also implicating themselves.


Albany New York: I've already ordered your book from Amazon, but am very interested in your take on why there's been no little effective political opposition to any of this Administration's initiatives. Is it a question of limited public awareness or interest, or a more political calculation that one shouldn't appear to be soft on terrorism?

Jane Mayer: Since you're in New York, let me tell you about a conversation I had with one of your senators, Chuck Schumer. When I asked him why, given his safe seat, and ostensible concern for civil liberties, he didn't speak out more against the Bush Administration's detention and interrogation programs, he said in essence that voters don't care about these issues. So, he said, he wasn't going to talk about them.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: The U.S. has a history of government abuses, from police torture in the early 1900's (as detailed in the 1931 "Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement" by the Wichersham Commission) to the imprisonment of anti-war activists during WWI, the Palmer Raids of the 1920's, the surveillance abuses of Hoover's FBI, and U.S. sponsorship of torture regimes in the 3rd World throughout the Cold War - to name but a few.

One is inclined to agree with King Solomon when he said, "There is nothing new under the sun!"

Do you think the current administration's lawless is anything new or more dangerous than past government lawlessness? How so?

Thank you.

Jane Mayer: I agree that there is a long pattern of here, but at the same time, I do see this as different in one important way. America has never before embraced torture. The country was founded on the idea of inalienable rights for all mankind - not just Americans. When the Bush Administration sanctioned a program of torment for US-held suspects, it didn't merely violate civil liberties, it violated the whole spirit of The Enlightenment on which the country was founded. It's a very deep break with the founders' values.


Needham, Mass.: In response to your answer citing Senator Schumer's statement that he doesn't believe there is public interest and therefore, public will for Congress to act, I would posit that the lack of corporate media attention to this - especially via television and radio - is why the public isn't clamoring at their representatives' doors.

I understand that several investigative reporters in print media have done outstanding work, but none of these stories and series ever gains traction in the 24 hour network and cable coverage, nor is it presented in an in-depth analytical format (as opposed to punditry and editorializing).

Is your book an effort to get this in front of the public and Congress so that the legislative branch wakes up and takes action? What is your ultimate aim of the book?

Jane Mayer: The aim of my book is to set the record straight to the fullest extent possible, so that we can have an informed democracy.


Seattle, Wash.: What exactly does Cheney tell these people (e.g. Helgerson) that makes them stop their investigations and go away? Does he convince them that their efforts are hampering anti-terrorist programs or does he pull some kind of Jason Bourne move on them? Whatever it is it seems to work. Did they (Cheney or his proxies) contact you? and if so, what did they say?

thanks. keep up the good work.

Jane Mayer: I have been told that Cheney frequently reminds those who oppose him that by doing so, they may be putting the lives of millions of Americans at risk. Addington too makes this argument often - when he testified  in Congress recently he mentioned that the country was still facing a terrible threat. I describe meetings in the book where opponents find this very intimidating.


Washington, D.C.: Jane, I have followed your work for years in The New Yorker and elsewhere. I am interested in the evolution of your story topics... it seems to me you used to write much more about "politics," but in the last few years you are writing much more about intelligence, national security, etc. Is that a fair observation? Had you written about these topics in the past? Is it difficult to switch into writing on these topics (I imagine it's not an easy field to find sources, etc. in)? Do you miss writing about what seem in comparison to be "lighter" subjects?

Jane Mayer: Yes - I miss writing about things that make people - including myself- laugh. But, there was something so compelling about this story- it was such a challenge to dig out - and it was so important historically, morally, and strategically - I just felt I had to do everything I could to tell it. The book is my effort to wrap up everything I could about it. Now, maybe I can write something about "The Light Side," instead.


Jane Mayer: Thank you all for your questions - I wish I had more time but I have to go. Please read "The Dark Side" if you can, and feel free to let me know what you think. Best wishes, Jane Mayer.


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