Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Looking Into the Abyss

I finished Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side about a month ago, but had to take a while to process my thoughts about it.

When I checked the book out of the library, I asked the reference librarian, who told me she had read the book, what she thought about it. Her reply: “Depressing.”

And it is. The primary architects of the Bush administration’s torture regime were, of course, Dick Cheney, David Addington (Cheney’s chief of staff, who replaced Scooter Libby), and George W. Bush himself. The first two embodied a paradox: both extremely intelligent, accomplished, and psychologically complex men who shared an unshakeable belief that the president of the United States had constitutionally mandated power to take any action, implement any policy, and disregard any law if the president believed doing so was necessary in the interest of national security. As whip-smart as these two men were, they never for one moment questioned this notion.

“If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” Nixon famously said — and Cheney has never made a secret of his displeasure with the actions taken by the legislative and judicial branches in the wake of Watergate to reign in Nixon’s imperial presidency. It’s been widely noted by journalists and other political observers that 9/11 gave Cheney and like-minded others such as Addington the opportunity to put their ideology into practice.

But in another sense it’s more complicated than that. Colleagues who knew Cheney well suspected that the constant sense of imminent danger in the weeks after the terrorist attacks, joined to Cheney’s innate pessimism and the strain of his recurring heart problems, became a toxic brew:

A sense of constant danger followed Cheney everywhere. When he commuted to his White House office from the vice presidential residence, he was chauffeured in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers. On the backseat behind Cheney rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical surival suit. Rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow.

Cheney managed to make light of these macabre arrangements, joking about evading “The Jackal” by varying his routines, and teasing an old friend that, alas, he had too little survival equipment to be able to share his. Some of those around Cheney wondered if the attacks, perhaps in combination with his medical problems, had exacerbated his natural pessimism. An old family friend found him changed after September 11, “more steely, as if he was preoccupied by terrible things he couldn’t talk about.” Brent Scowcroft, a lifelong acquaintance, told The New Yorker, “I don’t know him anymore.” In the view of some detractors, such as Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Cheney was traumatized by 9/11. The poor guy became paranoid.”

In Addington, Cheney found a kindred spirit: a far-right ideologue whose zealotry and absolute certainty about the correctness of his views matched Cheney’s own. In the Bush administration, Addington’s sole duty, as he conceived it, was to protect the president’s power and the inviolability of his policies and decisions — and he did so with a ferocity that few colleagues could withstand:

Indeed, Addington is in a class of his own. Before the fires at the World Trade Center and Pentagon had even been extinguished, Addington asserted himself as the indispensable man even though his legal, political and military bona fides were overshadowed by his far right-wing views, as well as a paranoia that extended to keeping his office locked at all times and a ruthless mastery of the art of confronting outright or backstabbing anyone who got in his way.

There were career lawyers in the Justice Department who had substantial experience with terrorism, but few in or out of the White House were conversant in presidential powers. Neither was Addington, but he was quick to fill this vacuum with his extreme opinions as the chief lawyer for another paranoiac, the vice president.
From the outset, Addington pushed what came to be known as “The New Paradigm,” a absolutist doctrine at the fringes of even conservative legal thinking that the president had the authority to disregard virtually all legal boundaries, including the Constitution, if national security required it.

It has been widely reported after the fact that this paradigm was predicated on two beliefs:

* That the fight against Al Qaeda should be based on their actions being war-like and not merely criminal, and that interrogation should be stressed over due process. The legal system that the Global War on Terror was ostensibly being fought to protect was viewed from 9/12 on not as one of America’s greatest strengths but as something that would get in the way.

* That even though terrorists’ actions were considered war-like, terror suspects would have neither the rights of criminal defendants nor the rights of prisoners of war. As so-called “enemy combatants,” they would be in a no man’s land outside all laws and treaties.

The president determined who was an enemy combatant, and his verdicts were both unilateral and final. Mayer describes Addington’s response when a CIA assessment concluded that up to a third of Guantanamo detainees had been wrongfully imprisoned (as reported in a Washington Post article dated July 12, 2008):

The CIA assessment directly challenged the administration’s claim that the detainees were all hardened terrorists — the “worst of the worst,” as then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time. But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees’ cases, author Jane Mayer writes in “The Dark Side.” […]

“There will be no review,” the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. “The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

The interrogation practices that the Bush legal team — Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury in the White House and the Office of Legal Counsel; Michael Chertoff, director of the Department of Homeland Security; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld’s attorney at the Pentagon — authorized are straight out of the Stalinist playbook. Some are centuries-old tortures going back to the Spanish Inquisition. Scott Horton described some of them in a column about Philippe Sands’ book, The Torture Team, which was published a few months before Mayer’s book:

Enforced nudity. This technique is adopted for purposes of degrading and humiliating the prisoner, heightening his senses of vulnerability, weakness and shame. Enforced nudity also enhances other techniques, particularly hypothermia.

Starvation. As Davis notes, when the prisoner is entitled to an MRE, he would be given one component only of the MRE. The entire MRE constitutes a reasonable food ration which is properly balanced. Giving only one part of it reflects a decision to starve the prisoner.

Stress Positions. Perhaps the oldest and best established torture technique, widely used by the Inquisition in Europe, was the strapado. Hands would be fastened behind the back and the victim would be hoisted, causing severe stress to joints, frequent dislocation, and severe and sustained pain. The strapado would invariably get its victim to confess to anything, very quickly. During World War II, this same technique was widely adopted and used by the Germans, who called it Pfahlbinden. In the English of the Bush Administration, this technique is called a “stress position,” and it was widely used at Abu Ghraib.

Hypothermia. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet secret police pioneered a very simple technique that had the advantage of leaving the victim’s body unbruised or bloodied, but whose physiological effects were equally if not more effective than direct beatings. In its mildest form, the victim was left with thin clothing in a cell with temperatures hovering just above freezing. A day of such treatment was generally enough to produce physical collapse. The Bush Administration, of course, not having the benefits of a Siberian winter, turns to far cruder and more brutal techniques, which Davis describes. The prisoner is stripped naked, dunked in a bath of ice water, and a window is left open to insure exposure.

For President Bush, these techniques are a part of the “Program.” More generally in the American media, you’ll hear these things referred to as “highly coercive techniques.” But they have a proper name, which is “torture.” Their use is a serious crime under international law, and under U.S. law. And that stubborn fact has driven much of the Bush Administration’s bizarre machinations relating to the Convention.

Torture was introduced as a result of conscious decisions taken at the pinnacle of power in Washington. Vice President Cheney was a principal instigator; President Bush was certainly fully informed, and consciously lied about it in dozens of public appearances. Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, was the principal legal architect of the torture system, and he was aided and abetted in the process by a number of senior figures in the Justice Department. John Yoo and Jay Bybee are two of the more central figures in the opening phase, but Alice Fisher, Michael Chertoff and Steven Bradbury each also played an essential role. Jim Haynes, now general counsel to Chevron, and then Rumsfeld’s lawyer in the Pentagon, was another. …

It needs to be said that there were decent figures in this cesspool — among them some conservative administration lawyers, like Jack Goldsmith, James Comey, and even John Ashcroft. These were men fully on board with Bush’s war on terror who put the law and traditional American values and ideals above the dictatorial demands of officials like Addington and Cheney. Such men did not last long in the Bush White House, but they did exist.


3 comments on “Looking Into the Abyss

  1. Pingback: The Torture Regime | Comments from Left Field

  2. Chief
    November 22, 2008

    I can only hope that someday, sometime one (or more) of these violators will be on a plane to some foreign country and due to ad weather or perhaps mechanical problems, will have to divert to another country and s/he will be arrested, charged with being a war criminal.

    I can hope.

  3. Pingback: Bush Calls It A War On Terror « Liberty Street

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2008 by in Book Reviews.
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