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Sunday, October 05, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Side

The Dark Side -- Jane Mayer, 335 pages ( 392 with notes and index)

Exactly two years ago, on October 5, 2006, I made the following comment (#1):

We cannot afford to become too fixated on any one disaster or political crisis with this administration in power. No matter how big the current problem may appear to be, you must continue watching EVERYTHING this administration does because they are ALWAYS capable of making even greater mistakes.

In the past week, Americans watched a politically crippled Bush Administration toss a horribly structured proposal for stabilization of the financial markets on the steps of the Capital for "emergency" consideration. The bill not only failed to pass but spooked the markets to the tune of about one trillion dollars and forced Congress to spend several more anxious days coming up with their own with an additional $150 billion of pork thrown in.

SURELY, that's about all we have to worry about, right? An ineffective war in Afghanistan that's failed to eliminate the Taliban who sheltered Bin Laden. A war in Iraq that has cost $559 billion and counting which hasn't improved stability in the region and has driven Iraq politically into the arms of Shi'ite aligned players in Iran. A $395 billion dollar prescription drug bill passed by lying to Congress and hiding an additional $100 billion dollars in cost from consideration. A reshuffling of domestic agencies under a new Department of Homeland Security that has neither saved money or improved homeland security for terrorist events or natural disasters. And a $850 billion sacrifice to the gods of financial wizardry as the coup de grace.

What else could the Bush Administration possibly do between now and Inauguration to make anything worse? PLENTY. After reading Jane Mayer's book The Dark Side, it would seem obvious that the President and his White House Counsel staff are likely very busy carefully reviewing their options for issuing Presidential pardons or special Executive Orders granting retroactive immunity to Administration personnel involved in America's "War on Terror" (TM) Based upon the information Mayer presents in her book, there would appear to be a large number of officials who will seek and/or require such protection.

Mayer's book is subtitled The Inside Story on How the War on Terror Became a War on American Ideals and the examples and supporting evidence provided state the case well. The chapters in the book provide details on systemic abuses involving:

* extraordinary rendition
* use of medical experts to perfect torture techniques (SERE in reverse)
* flawed legal opinions on torture rendered by the Office of Legal Counsel without consultation with career military or State Department legal experts
* an Abu Ghraib prisoner (Manadel el-Jamadi) who arrived healthy and died within 60 minutes due to mistreatment
* the rendition and torture of an innocent German citizen (Khaled el-Masri) with knowledge of Tenet and Rice
* repeated meetings of the Principals Committee in which Tenet provided explicit details of torture techniques and specific targets approved by Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft

Mayer also provides numerous details on officials in the Military, CIA and Administration who recognized these policies as inherently flawed and counterproductive who worked diligently to slow down and reverse the group think that produced them, despite overwhelming political and career pressure.

Implausible Deniability

In public, the Bush Administration went to considerable efforts to claim that while torture may have happened, it was rare, it CERTAINLY wasn't performed as a matter of policy, those that DID engage in torture did so because of local breakdowns in discipline, not because of any centralized direction. Mayer's book cites a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Most obviously, accounts of treatment from various suspects tortured in CIA black sites all over Eastern Europe and the middle east show REMARKABLE consistency, despite the fact that obviously none of the suspects ever spoke to each other after their capture. Descriptions of the techniques used are exact matches for techniques derived from the SERE manual created by the CIA to condition CIA agents for possible torture treatments they might receive. Those techniques were themselves reverse engineered from a more infamous bible of torture techniques known as the Kubark dating from the early 1960s.

Mayer also cites more potentially damming confirmation of direct knowledge and acquiescence of Cabinet officials of systemic torture. First, meetings chaired by then National Security Council head Condoleeza Rice as early as 2002 and attended by George Tenet, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and John Ashcroft covered specific interrogation techniques in detail. Mayer writes (page 143):

Knowing how the Agency had been blamed for ostensible "rogue actions in the past, Tenet was eager to spread the political risk of undertaking "enhanced interrogations." However, some members of the group became irritated with Tenet's insistence upon airing the grim details. "the CIA already had legal clearance to do these things, " a knowledgeable source said, " and so it was pointless for them to keep sharing the details. No one was going to question their decisions -- there were the CiA -- they kknw more than anyone else about each case. It's not as if any of the principals were debating the policy -- that was already set. They wanted to go to the limit that the law reuired. But Tenet would say, "We're going to do this, this, and this.'" Ashcroft in particular took offense at discussing such distasteful matters inside the White House. "History will not judge us kindly," he reportedly warned.

On December 9, 2005, Condoleeza Rice publicly stated the following during a trip to Europe: (#2)

The United States does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances. The United States does not transport and has not transported detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture. The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured. The United States has not transported anyone and will not transport anyone to a country when we believe he will be tortured.

Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.

However, roughly two years prior, sometime in December of 2003, a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri was detained in Macedonia at gunpoint for thirteen days then transported via a CIA jet to Afghanistan where he was held and tortured for 149 days. Numerous officials in the field and within CIA headquarters objected to his detainment, knowing he was innocent, but were overruled by the chief of the Al Qaeda Unit within the CIA, a female who not only personally flew to the field to attend the water boarding torture of Khalid sheik Mohammed but also provided security briefings directly to President Bush.

Lower level CIA staffers convened a meeting with CIA head Tenet some time in May of 2004 and stated an innocent German citizen with a valid German passport was being held in a CIA black site in Afghanistan. Within days, Tenet met personally with Rice an later with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and explained the situation.

All of this transpired well before Rice's public statement on December 9, 2005. As I stated at the time in December of 2005 (#3)

In short, Condi's comments are the most simple, direct statements of the policy the US should have on torture. If they were true, I would applaud the administration for its moral clarity. In reality, there is concrete evidence the United States is knowingly, repeatedly, intentionally violating these principles. That means we have leaders of our government and military who:

* developed purposely vague policy directives regarding prisoner treatment
to provide the "gray area" that might provide cover from prosecution
* are aware of numerous incidents of torture
* continue to lie to the American public about the entire issue

Now that Condi has gone on record with such simple, declarative language, I can't think of an easier starting point at which to begin prosecuting these people. I would think a first-year law student could handle the evidence and legal issues in this case.

Systemic Legal Malpractice

Mayer does a particularly good job analyzing the communication and strategies of Dick Cheney, his aide David Addington, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and their circumvention of correcting input from career staffers.

On January 18, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld sent a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that field forces no longer needed to follow the Geneva conventions in the treatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects and a day later rescinded an order issued by Tommy Franks that instituted Article 5 hearings for captured suspects to determine their status. Aiming to head off objections from Colin Powell, a legal opinion -- infamously labeling Geneva protections as "quaint" -- was prepared by David Addington supporting these decisions. That letter, which omitted references to existing guidelines and principles which COVERED detainees, resulted in a February 7 2002 policy statement by Bush which stated "As a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva." (#4)

Mayer effectively notes the language in the statement left loopholes big enough to drive a truck through. One loophole -- "as a matter of policy" means the guidelines are not deemed a requirement of LAW. Another loophole -- the policy applied to the "Armed Forces" which excludes CIA personnel.

Mayer also sheds light on the struggle between Congress and the Administration over the Detainee Treatment Act and its complete neutralization upon signing. The bill was introduced by John McCain and was intended to explicitly revert to guidelines in the Army Field Manual as the sole policy of the United States on the use of torture in all fields of operation. In the year after the abuses at Abu Ghraib became public, objections to American use of torture became widespread within Congress and McCain attached his language to a Defense spending bill in July of 2005. Congress and the Administration haggled over the proposal for months, eventually producing a veto threat by Bush which would have been his first in his Administration.

After other stories leaked out about the existence of CIA black sites throughout the world, the veto threat was removed and the legislation passed by an overwhelming vote. However, the bill did little good. Before Bush signed the law, Cheney's aide David Addington added a signing statement saying Bush would enforce the law "in a manner consistent with" his Constitutional role as Commander in Chief. That tied the rule to a legion of prior signing statements issued by Bush which consistently assert actions taken as Commander In Chief by definition are not subject to the review of Congress or the Courts since the Constitution grants control of the military solely to the President. (Parenthetically, Addington has been involved in the drafting of over 750 signing statements in Bush's tenure. The review of every one of those signing statements should reach the top of any new Administration's agenda.)

Fortunately for the players involved in our botched War on Terror (TM), the last things most Americans want to think about as their retirement money slips under the water are esoteric issues about misdeeds from seven years of anti-terrorism efforts. Unfortunately for America, one can bet that apathy is precisely what the Bush Administration will be counting on between now and January 20, 2009 as it works to keep people like Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, George Tenet, David Addington and John Yoo out of the docket. Make no mistake however. These people knowingly, actively and aggressively established a widespread program of illegal torture that not only hindered our immediate efforts at reducing terrorism but has harmed America's standing in the world for the next hundred years.


#1) http://watchingtheherd.blogspot.com/2006/10/who-needs-october-surprise_05.html

#2) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/terrorism/july-dec05/policy_12-9.html

#3) http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=23412598

#4) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Humane_Treatment_of_al_Qaeda_and_Taliban_Detainees