The Dark Side

Two of my blogging colleagues have posted on this book, and urged me to read it.

So I did, and now will write my own report which I may publish in several blog sites. As a minor American Scholar since College I find thoughtful provoking analysis on the “soul” of America interesting, an “attack on American Ideals” compelling. The Author, Jane Mayer is a journalist for the New Yorker, an “insider” of sorts due to her focus on politics and, most recently, the Bush Administration. She is well educated and well connected. The power of the Fourth Estate seems to have worked to her advantage in cultivating behind the scenes relationships.  


The book is about the US treatment of suspected terrorists both by DOD and CIA but primarily by the CIA as directed by the Bush Administration. The subject matter of torture is tough to read, so the book is not for the squeamish, if you don’t like Thomas Harris (Hannibal Lecter) you won’t like The Dark Side. The thesis of the book is that Bush and Cheney and their inner circle of lawyers have violated Constitutional and International Law in their pursuit of information after 911. It postulates that as a result, America’s stature as a “standard bearer” of human rights and the Rule of Law is tarnished and that Bush has alienated many other Nations and lost their support in the “War on Terror.”  


The book is written in an expose style. Cognitive bias is the term that comes to mind about its tone. There is no doubt from the gitgo that Cheney is the bad guy as the books title is taken from remarks that Cheney makes about having to work on the dark side to extract information. The CIA in particular is framed as incompetent and evil, an extension of the dark side of the Bush Administration. The case is made, over and over again that the US tortured innocent and guilty suspects and that the results were mostly useless, providing false and misleading information; that there are better ways to get information and that it seems that the Bush insiders were more interested in hurting people in retribution and fear than in doing the smart thing and developing relationships with the suspects. It sometimes reads like a thriller depicting clandestine abductions through multinational venues. Ultimately it always comes back to the point that these guys violated the rule of law and endangered America’s soul.  I confess that I felt troubled by the role of America as the bad guy.


My conservative thinking normally takes me back to the basic questions of why are we here and talking about this? The answer is 911. This book had little advocacy for the victims of 911, their stories were not told, providing balance. The impact of 911 and its aftermath were largely glossed over and not given stature. The immediacy and uncertainty of what to do is understated considerably. Mayer offers virtually nothing in the way of proposing solutions, just indictments. All of her legalities led to the rule of law. Except that we didn’t have the rule of law, we were under attack by terrorists. Many elegant quotes are summoned to point out that a flawed short term approach to fighting a war can destroy the core values of America.


The Supreme Court had a far tougher time dealing with the proper branch of government to handle war that Mayer did i.e. regarding the Writ of Habeas Corpus:


Judge Scalia’s dissent in this case states my own thoughts, i.e. the military needs to be able to do what it takes to provide for National Defense. (The CIA serving the military by default since 911)


According to Justice Scalia, “the Court’s majority’s analysis produces a crazy result: Whereas those convicted and sentenced to death for war crimes are without judicial remedy, all enemy combatants detained during a war, at least insofar as they are confined in an area away from the battlefield over which the United States exercises ‘absolute and indefinite’ control, may seek a writ of habeas corpus in federal court”



“If we have reached the point where we cannot be bothered to think beyond rhetoric or to make moral distinctions, then we have reached the point where our own survival in an increasingly dangerous world of nuclear proliferation can no longer be taken for granted.” Thomas Sowell May 12


Mayer indicates that using anonymous sources is less than the perfect world but states that is the only way many people would talk to her. So what she offers as facts are often twice told tales, which is a risky business in establishing an evidentiary trail. I was often confused as to who she was quoting as source material and will still have to consult her end notes on a subject by subject basis. It would really have helped if she had a timeline and organizational charts at the end of the book. I found it difficult to determine who was reporting to whom. She also admits there is much she doesn’t know, much that hasn’t been revealed. Given that element, it is logical to deduce that some of what she has been given as source material is what people wanted her to have. She is not a CIA employee with top secret clearance and thus we truly don’t know what we don’t know. Why would we believe the CIA would reveal for publication how ineffective or effective they really are?


It is pointed out that we don’t really have metrics in place to measure how effective our response has been in preventing further terrorists attacks. The answers are not clear nor is the path. Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution sums it up in his book  on Bush’s  post 911 strategy, Law and the Long War, “the right way to deal with groups such as al-Qaeda is terrifyingly, dangerously, paralysingly non-obvious”.


 But it is entirely possible that Bush/Cheney did impact terrorists existing plans and thwart further immediate destruction. Certainly Bush allowed Cheney much leeway to carry out the dirty business thrust upon his administration and tried to rally the American People, while Cheney stayed on The Dark Side.


7 Responses

  1. I’m glad you read the book.
    Thoughtful commentary on your part. I would point out to Justice Scalia that “tried and convicted of war crimes” is different from “held indefinitely without charges brought”. I would say to Sowell (who is a bit overly dramatic here), that making moral distinctions and being rhetorical is exactly what the Bush administration did. They “redefined” torture.
    One interesting point was also made in the book: that prisoners of war may be held until the end of the conflict. The “war on terror” will never end, so may these people be held for life? Perhaps so–and I have no doubt that many deserve it–but they should be tried and convicted and sentenced, and not tortured in between.
    But again, I appreciate you reading the book.

  2. Nice blog PT. I can’t believe you’ve joined the Fakename/eehard book club. We are still not in agreement on this issue but the next selection is Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.

  3. > I may publish in several blog sites

    So *that’s* what you’re so busy with in retirement? Posting on multiple blog sites? A Borg blogger! lol!

    I’ll avoid adding my two cents on this issue. My approach would be completely outside the frame of reference that the three of you are taking, so I don’t want to cloud the waters….

    Quite apart from that, however, I’d raise a philosophicaI question to each of you. Since I do not believe in equivocation, which some would defend as “moderation”,
    I insist on a straight up “yes” or “no” response; “sometimes” is not an acceptable answer because that is the moral relativity approach I reject.

    Do you believe the end always justifies the means? I think two will say “no” and one will say “yes.” The “yes” will suggest that if the end does not justify the means, then what does? The two “no” will say that “morality” demands “no.”

    So this “torture” argument is a very very old one that is just another version of the question I pose.

  4. If you reject moral relativity then the answer would be that the end always justifies the means to achieve your objective. Since morality is not in play,then we must reject the concepts of good and evil. They simply do not exist.

    And if we reject the concepts of good and evil then everything is reduced to one man inflicting his will on another. Nothing more, nothing less.

    But we do not live in a world where moral relativity does not exist. The so called enemy combatants may not be signators of the Geneva Conventions but we are. And as such, we cannot participate in the behavior we claim to abhor.

    So to make a long story short, moral relativity has nothing to do with it but there is the rule of law which we freely choose to live under as you pointed out earlier. Therefore, the actions perpertrated by our government fall under the category of criminality.

  5. “Do you believe the end always justifies the means?”

    If THAT is your question my answer is no!

    If my child is captive and I must act to save it then there are no questions but one, “how can I save it?” In this case rhetoric and the rule of law don’t matter to me, saving my child is all that matters. It is my one irreversable responsibility…… one elses. For I can not live and fail.

    I refer you to Sophies Choice.

  6. Actually Nick, rejecting moral relativity does not, in my thinking, neccesarily lead to rejection of morality but that is one option. It simply means that you cannot say that you believe end justifies the means in these cases but not in those cases.

    The other option is to accept morality and say there are limits which will not be crossed NO matter what the cost.

    As to the captive child scenario… save my child regardless of what it takes is OK if you then accept that everyone else can save their child using the “anything permissible” standard.

    This what I’m getting at. I think there is a double standard, everywhere, which is not unusual. The U.S. decries torture of its citizens but then has no problem torturing others if that’s what it takes.

    The WW2 war crimes were a hypocritical travesty. We said that “following orders” is no excuse but we allow it for our soldiers. We exterminate innocent civilians through bombing of cities and then execute Japanese and Germans for their murdering civilians.

    I personally don’t care whether anyone accepts morality or no morality but then extend that exact principle to all others and do not condemn them for doing what you would do. That’s all I’m saying.

    Notice that I am silent on where I stand on that question…

  7. I really meant to chime in before Anarchist replied, and here is what I would have said: I won’t play. On several grounds. One, I have already stated my opinion on it so you don’t need an answer from me. Torture is wrong when we do it, and when they do it. Two, I won’t play because you won’t! (But you have.) Third, I suspected it was a trap….knowing your love of debate, I figured any answer would result in you refuting it. (But you didn’t.) Fourth, you stated the rules of the game were: no equivocation. I’m not always comfortable with that, although in this case I am. See above “torture is wrong”. I think you reveal more about yourself, Anarchist, than you may realize! Let’s look at it this way: not torturing is “enlightened self-interest”.
    On a final note, notice that none of us, including pt, are discussing whether it was torture or not. Only whether is was justified or not. (Not.)

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