DATE July 15, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Investigative journalist Jane Mayer on how the war on
terrorism may have done as much political and social damage to
the US as terrorism itself
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Remember when Vice President Cheney said on the first Sunday after the 9/11
attacks, `We'll have to work the dark side'? Well, that's what Jane Mayer is
referring to in the title of her new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story
of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals." She writes,
quote, "As part of the war on terror, for the first time in its history the
United States has sanctioned government officials to physically and
psychologically torment American-held captives making torture the official law
of the land in all but name," unquote.
According to her book the International Committee of the Red Cross has used
the word torture to describe some of the US interrogation techniques. Mayer
writes about those techniques and about how the vice president made sure that
the White House and Justice Department lawyers came up with legal
justification for them, and justification for the overall expansion of
government powers in the war on terror. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The
Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of the news-making parts of your
book is that the International Committee of the Red Cross shared a report last
year with the CIA concluding that its treatment of at least one of the quote
"high value detainees" was torture. The Red Cross warned that the abuse
constituted war crimes, placing the highest officials in the government in
jeopardy of being prosecuted. And the Red Cross was the first and the only
outside group to get access to the CIA's 14, quote, "high valued detainees."
So let's start with the treatment that the Red Cross said constituted torture.
Can you give us a description of some of the things the Red Cross found?
Ms. JANE MAYER: Well, what the Red Cross, of course, report is based on is
what the detainees told them. So these are allegations made by the CIA's
prisoners. But what the prisoners described were just unending months of
torment, really. In particular, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed described having been
waterboarded multiple times. He was stripped down in front of like his female
handlers. He described a particular number of females involved in his
interrogation, which was for sexual humiliation. He described being hung
naked by his arms and kept alternately roasting hot and freezing cold and
deprived of sleep. And he also described being put on a dog leash, on a
collar and propelled into the walls of his cells.
The other things that some of the others described, Abu Zubaydah particularly
described being locked up in something like a dog cage where it was covered in
towels so it was pitch black and he could barely breathe, and he described it
as being put in a tiny coffin. And it was particularly bad for--Zubaydah was
one of the detainees who was injured in a gunfight when he was captured. So
he said that his injuries sort of popped open while he was in there.
There was another detainee named Nashiri who had lost a leg along the way in
his various terrorist activities. And he described having his prosthesis
taken away by American officials who made him stand in this forced standing
kind of way for hours on end on one leg or foot. So it was just a variety of
kind of awful sounding things. And the Red Cross, which is really the
foremost authority on the subject of torture and treatment of war prisoners,
said that this wasn't even a close call. It was categorically torture and a
GROSS: So what did the CIA do with this report?
Ms. MAYER: Well, these reports are very secret, and the whole subject is
surrounded in confidentiality. And I must say I have not seen the report
myself. I've had it described to me by multiple sources. So again, this
whole subject is a matter of kind of piecing together little pieces of the
puzzle. But from what I can tell, the United States government has rejected
the report and said it's false, inaccurate. And it also rejects the legal
analysis that suggests that top officials in the administration have committed
GROSS: So the Red Cross does warn that the CIA's interrogation techniques do
constitute torture and that the highest officials in the Bush administration
are in jeopardy of being prosecuted for war crimes. So from what you know,
who might be held accountable for war crimes?
Ms. MAYER: Well, it's unclear whether anybody will ever be held accountable
for war crimes in this administration. You may remember that, I think it was
just a week or two ago, Anthony Taguba who--General Taguba who did the report
on Abu Ghraib stated outright, `People have committed war crimes and we need
to have trials. Are there going to be some?' And it's unclear. At this point
we're kind of at a turning point in this subject about how to handle these
revelations as they start coming out.
GROSS: You write that CIA officials have never denied that the treatment of
the high value detainees was approved by Bush. So if President Bush did, in
fact, approve what the Red Cross refers to as the torture of the high value
detainees, does that mean that President Bush might be prosecuted for war
crimes sometime in the future?
Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, this is really more of a political question than a
legal question. The question is whether there's any appetite in the country
for prosecutions. In Congress there're beginning to be hearings about these
things. There've been some people who've suggested that the International
Court of Justice might take a look at this. Again, I think that this is
really a political question and probably a question for the next
administration. It depends on who's president, who the attorney general is,
and what the Democrats and opponents of these policies want to see happen.
GROSS: Now, the Red Cross report that you describe in your new book "The Dark
Side" is a secret report, and the Red Cross declined to you, confirm or deny
any details of the report to you. They preferred to keep these kinds of
reports kind of secret, just something to communicate to the government in
question and not to make public. They think this kind of back channel
approach is more effective. So why did you want to make it public?
Ms. MAYER: I thought it was very important because the US government has
kept the treatment of the detainees so secret that this is the first outside
authoritative independent study that I know of that re-examines their
treatment. And I think that the United States needs to evaluate whether these
programs have been worth the cost to the moral authority of the country. I
think that after 9/11 the Bush administration rushed to embrace torture and
lesser forms of coercion as kind of a quick fix. There was panic, and people
felt we've got to get the information fast. It's been seven years, and I
think by now we can see there's been all kinds of collateral damage from this
treatment which went outside all the laws that we had before 9/11, and in many
ways violated some of our most cherished values in this country and the values
on which it was founded.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and
has been doing investigative pieces on the war on terror. Her new book is
called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into
a War on American Ideals."
The Bush administration worked very hard on making a legal case that would
justify their interrogation techniques and the secret detention of prisoners.
Now, one of the ways of justifying it was by claiming all of the prisoners in
Gitmo were enemy combatants. You cite a report from a CIA analyst who went to
Gitmo and said not everybody in Gitmo is really an enemy combatant. What do
you know about that report?
Ms. MAYER: Well, this was actually very early on. This was in the summer of
2002, and by that point there was already a lot of frustration in the high
levels of the government because they weren't getting good information out of
the detainees in Guantanamo. And the Pentagon was concerned. The White House
was concerned. And the CIA was concerned. They were wondering, you know,
`Why aren't we getting better stuff?'
And so among other things they did was they sent down to Guantanamo an expert.
He was somebody who had spent several decades on the subject of Islamic
terrorism. He also was a native speaker in Arabic. And he went down and he
interviewed several dozen detainees to try to get their stories and see what
was really blocking the interrogation process. And he came back with some
very bad news for the White House, which was that, in his opinion, after
interviewing people down there, as many as a third of them were mistakes; they
were the wrong people. The reason they weren't getting good information, he
thought, was in part because they had a lot of people who absolutely didn't
know anything. They were just people picked up by accident.
So his report, which was very secret and circulated to the top levels in the
White House, created alarm among some of the people in the White House, in
particular the top lawyer with the National Security Council, John Bellinger.
And Bellinger went and tried to see if they couldn't do something about this
problem. I mean, they felt that it was un-American to be possibly imprisoning
innocent people for an indeterminate amount of time down in Guantanamo. And
he, in particular, had a meeting with Alberto Gonzales, who was then the White
House counsel, and also with David Addington, who was then the counsel to Vice
President Cheney. And he thought that they would naturally want to try to fix
this situation and correct it.
But they didn't want to do anything about it. In fact, they were irate to be
confronted with it. And the vice president's lawyer, in particular, David
Addington, who emerges in this book as a central character in the war on
terror, said `We're not re-visiting this. The president has declared them all
enemy combatants. We're not going to change his point of view on this.' So it
seemed impossible to get most of these people out. I think over time they did
manage to spring a few of them. And obviously the numbers have fallen down in
But adding some interesting corroboration to this situation was that when the
CIA analyst who was down in Guantanamo brought up this problem to Major
Dunlevy, who was then running Guantanamo, and said, you know, `I think a third
of them might be innocent,' Dunlevy's reaction was, `Well, I think actually it
might be more like a half of them are innocent.' And belatedly there was a
major study done by Seton Hall, the law school, where they went very carefully
through the transcripts of the detainees and their stories. And they actually
concluded that 55 percent of them were probably innocent, and only 8 percent
had a connection to al-Qaeda.
GROSS: Well, what you're saying is, when given new information about the real
status of detainees at Gitmo, the Bush administration declined to add the new
information, to take the new information into account and re-visit the
decision. `The decision was made so we're not entertaining the new
Ms. MAYER: Well, in many ways it parallels other things we've seen about how
the Bush administration worked. You know, famously when Bush was asked in a
press conference whether he'd many any mistakes, he couldn't think of any.
And there seems to be an imperviousness to new empirical information that
might contradict sort of doctrinal positions that they've taken on issues.
And to me it was one of the most interesting things in trying to put together
the inside story of the war on terror, because I think certainly that it's
understandable how the country may have overreacted in the beginning. There
was panic. There was real fear. There was a sense that we've got to do
everything we possibly can to safeguard the country. And I think we all
understand that, and in many ways support it. But what was interesting was
when it began to become clear that there were a lot of problems and they had
some of the wrong people, they were getting bad intelligence because of the
methods they were using. All kinds of things started to happen. There were a
lot of very serious legal problems. There were people who were killed in this
program who were in US custody. Instead of fixing it, they sort of stuck to
their guns, and it became a very sort of ideologically rigid fight that was
pretty much led by Vice President Cheney and his underlings in his part of the
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff
writer for The New Yorker who has been doing investigative pieces on the war
on terror. Her new book is called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How
the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals." Let's take a short
break here and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff
writer for The New Yorker. Her new book is called "The Dark Side: The Inside
Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."
A lot has been written about the so-called torture memos that were written to
justify the interrogation techniques that the CIA was using in Gitmo. You
include a memo here I certainly was not familiar with, that was a memo from
Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, who was the top legal adviser in Gitmo and
helped compile the list of techniques that were acceptable in interrogation.
And she wrote a memo arguing that these approaches were necessary and that
they were potentially legal if done in certain ways. What were her
recommendations for, as you put it, circumventing the criminal codes?
Ms. MAYER: Well, she came up with a very unusual recommendation, which was
that, for the first time in the United States history, they could have
immunity against criminal prosecution that they would offer in advance so that
if they could get it from the top, from the president on down, anybody who
participated in this program would not have to face criminal charges. I mean,
I'm not a lawyer myself, but I've interviewed a lot of lawyers who thought
this was an unusual theory. And I also have talked to people in the top of
the Pentagon who gave her points for creativity.
GROSS: Unusual in the sense that immunity is usually something you get after
the crime has been committed, not before you even commit it.
Ms. MAYER: Yeah. I mean, stepping back, it was as if it was a green light
to commit crimes. And, you know, we are now facing a point where the question
is, should these people who were given a green light to commit crimes be held
accountable for the actions that they took? And it's creating a giant
political and legal problem, an ethical problem for the country.
GROSS: Are there other ways in which the Bush administration tried to protect
itself against war crimes prosecution, either in the United States or abroad?
Ms. MAYER: Perhaps the most fateful decision made by the Bush administration
in terms of legal decisions in the war on terror was made very early on, which
was to say that none of the detainees picked up in the war on terror were
covered by the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions are the rules that,
if you violate them in a grave and serious way, it's considered war crimes.
And so by throwing out the Geneva Conventions, the Bush administration thought
that it was insulating itself against war crimes prosecutions. But by
throwing out the Geneva Conventions, they threw out the rules of war, the laws
of war that have really guarded the United States and other countries from
becoming uncivilized in the way that they conduct wars. And they took away
the rules and left soldiers in the field kind of up to their own devices,
which would put them in a very unfair position.
Which brings me to something I want to say that I think is really interesting
about this entire subject, which is that the opponents of torture in these
years have not necessarily just been people who were at the American Civil
Liberties Union. It's not just liberals. It's not just Democrats. It's not
a partisan issue. The strongest and most principled opponents of many of
these tactics are military leaders. And they are also people who are law and
order enthusiasts in the FBI, who basically looked at this when they took away
the rule books and said, you know, `You're opening us up to chaos and to
criminality.' And they really believed strongly in the United States
Constitution and the United States laws, and they were appalled.
GROSS: You know, you say that the Bush administration knew better when it
said that the interrogation techniques being used at Gitmo were not torture.
You write, you know, America helped draft and ratify the 1984 convention
against torture and other cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment, which provided the international law's first explicit definition
of torture, which is there are no circumstances whatsoever--whether a state of
war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public
emergency--that could be invoked as a justification of torture or other acts
of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment used to get prisoners to divulge
information. And this convention defines torture as `severe pain or
suffering, whether physical or mental.' So is that an airtight case that,
according to the convention that our country helped write, what happened in
Gitmo is torture?
Ms. MAYER: Well, I think that, you know, obviously this is a subject that's
been debated and will be debated. But if you ask a number of the people, even
in the Bush administration when they're honest about it, whether they think
something like waterboarding is torture, which the entire world has said is
torture and which was torture and prosecutable in the United States until
9/11, they--put it this way, growing numbers of people even in the
administration have been acknowledging that it is. Richard Armitage, for
instance, the deputy secretary of state until recently, who is himself a
combat veteran from Vietnam and a very tough guy, said, `I'm embarrassed we're
even having this conversation about waterboarding. It's obviously torture.'
John McCain, who was himself tortured and is obviously the Republican nominee
for president said, you know, `It's not complicated.' He said about
waterboarding, `it's torture.' Or John Kiriakou, who is a very young former
CIA agent who was actually involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, one
of the first al-Qaeda suspects that we caught, he at the time said he was
really caught up in the frenzy and he really believed that we should
waterboard the guy and he had been waterboarded himself so he knew exactly how
painful and terrible it is. But afterwards he said to ABC News, where he gave
an interview, that he felt it was torture and he felt it was wrong, and he
thinks that America is better than that.
GROSS: Jane Mayer will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book
is called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned
into a War on American Ideals." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jane Mayer, author of
the new book "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned
into a War on American Ideals." It's about how the Bush administration, led by
Vice President Dick Cheney, called on its lawyers to come up with legal
justifications for extreme interrogation techniques and the expansion of
executive power. When we left off, we were talking about how the CIA ended up
running the programs detaining and interrogating American-held captives who
were categorized as enemy combatants.
One of the amazing things about the interrogation program is that the
techniques that the CIA used were largely based on a program called SEREs,
survival, evasion, resistance, escape. This was a Cold War program that was
initiated during the Korean War. It was used to subject American soldiers to
the kinds of harsh interrogation techniques that they might be subjected to if
captured so that they'd learn how to resist them. And one of the reasons why
this program was put into effect was that 36 American soldiers who were
tortured by the Koreans during the Korean War gave false confessions. And so
our program is based on techniques that were used and ended up getting false
confessions from American soldiers.
Ms. MAYER: It's an incredible irony. This, to me, was one of the most
interesting parts of doing the research. I looked around as a reporter and
thought, why is it that we're seeing the same strange techniques being used on
detainees in all the places where the US is holding them? I mean, it was true
in Guantanamo, it was true in Iraq, and it was true in Afghanistan. You'd see
people hooded and shackled in a certain way, deprived of sleep, bombarded with
really loud, horrible sounds. And there seemed to be a program--I didn't
think it was possible that US soldiers could have just kind of freelanced this
and come up with it in exactly the same way all around the world. And so I
was looking to see, is there a curriculum for this?
And what I found was, in fact, there was a rule book for it. And the rule
book was an arcane program, a secret program that's run for the special forces
down in Fort Bragg. And actually the other services also have it. Fort Bragg
is the Army. The Navy has a version, and the Air Force has a version, too.
And what this program was for was to recreate torture as it had existed during
the Cold War, Communist torture, in order to prepare soldiers in case they
were ever taken captive so that they could survive and resist it.
And these programs became sort of like--I thought of them as like little petri
dishes where they kept the virus alive in order to inoculate soldiers against
it. But what happened in the war on terror was that the people who ran those
programs wound up being turned to as experts on how to interrogate people.
And that little virus in the petri dish got out and spread through the United
States military and through the CIA. So it became actually the curriculum for
how we were going to interrogate people ourselves. And it was something that
had been used originally to get false confessions out of people by Communists.
So that we wound up emulating the tactics of what we called the evil empire.
And it had never been designed to get the truth. It had always been used to
get false confessions. And inevitably, of course, what happened was we wound
up getting a lot of false intelligence out of people.
GROSS: So the premise was, if you subject somebody to enough pain they'll
tell you whatever you want to hear?
Ms. MAYER: Well, that's the idea. And it's not just pain, actually. The
program that they emulated is also one of psychological destruction. It's as
much psychological as it is physical, really.
GROSS: Such as?
Ms. MAYER: They did a lot of psychological research during the Cold War
years in the CIA to try to figure out what made people give false confessions
and whether there was some kind of brainwashing. And what they found out was
that if you subject people to severe isolation, where you really cut them off
from all stimuli--you give them goggles. You give them--cover up their hands
so they can't feel anything. Keep them in the dark. They don't know what
time it is. They can't talk to anybody. They even tried suspending people in
water tanks. You give them white noise. Before long people go crazy. And
they also become very dependent upon their captors and bond with them. And
the idea was that we can manipulate them psychologically in order to get them
to talk to their interrogators because they're going to be so desperate to
have some kind of human bond. And so that kind of research went into our Cold
War CIA science experiments, and it wound up being taken back off the shelf.
The reason that we turned to these arcane and exotic programs was that, in
truth, the CIA had not had a lot of experience interrogating people. The CIA,
before 9/11, didn't hold prisoners. That was the province of the criminal
justice system in this country and the military. And the military and the
criminal justice system had very strict rules for what you could do. But
suddenly after 9/11 the CIA had its own prisoners and didn't really know how
to interrogate them. And they turned to the wrong people.
GROSS: So, you know, like, you can understand why certain communist
governments wanted false confessions. They want you to say basically `I have
sinned, and the communist government is great,' you know, to say that on the
Ms. MAYER: Right. It's very useful for propaganda purposes.
GROSS: Exactly. But theoretically that's not what the Bush administration
wanted. It wanted real information about real terrorists. Is there any
evidence that we've gotten any real information about real terrorists and
terrorist plots through these interrogation techniques?
Ms. MAYER: The record of what the Bush administration got out of the terror
suspects who they tortured or coerced or used enhanced interrogation
techniques--call it whatever you want--is secret still. We have not been able
to examine the record. We don't have the interrogation transcripts. But
those who have seen them have raised a lot of really disturbing problems about
what they've produced.
For instance, Jay Rockefeller, who is the senator who is the chairman of the
Senate Intelligence Committee, put out a statement not so long ago saying,
from everything he knows--and he knows as much as almost anyone about this
program--there's never been a reason to torture anyone. There's no reason
that they needed to move to these techniques.
You know, I think that it would be very useful if we could have more
information to make these evaluations because what we're left is going on what
the CIA has said about how valuable it is and what President Bush himself has
said about how valuable it is. But they've got such a vested interest in this
at this point. They haven't even launched, for instance, a team B to go in
and try to figure out whether or not this was necessary. So it's very hard to
get to the bottom of what they got from this program. They claim it worked.
I think there were all kinds of counterclaims that have started to surface.
GROSS: Did the Bush administration think it would have more control over the
detention and interrogations, and that it could keep those detentions and
interrogations more secret if the CIA oversaw it as opposed to the US
Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, yes. In a word, yes. I mean, the thing is that
the US military is governed by strict rules. The uniform code of military
justice pretty much controls what the military can do in the way of
interrogating people. They can't do the inhumane things. And so if you
really want to rough somebody up, you're going to have to turn someplace else.
And the CIA doesn't have those laws governing it, especially after 9/11, when
the administration came up with legal rulings that said that if you hold a
foreigner outside of US territory, you're not governed by US laws.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, and she is a reporter, a staff writer for The
New Yorker who's been doing investigative pieces on the war on terror. Her
new book is called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror
Turned into a War on American Ideals." Let's take a short break here and then
we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker.
She's been writing investigative pieces about the war on terror. Her new book
is called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned
into a War on American Ideals."
Part of your book is about how dissent within the Bush administration about
how we were dealing with secret detention facilities and interrogation that
many people have described as torture, how dissent about that within the Bush
administration was squashed. Give us some of the more extreme examples of how
that was stopped.
Ms. MAYER: Well, almost from the start, there were people who said, when
these extreme ways of treating prisoners were proposed, they said, you know,
this is outside of America's traditions. Since George Washington we have been
leading the cause of human rights, and particularly in the treatment of
prisoners of war we've always tried to be the most humane country in the
world. When lawyers in the administration tried to stand up for what they
thought was the law and it was a different interpretation from that from
Cheney's office in particular, they often found themselves ostracized, and
careers came to an end. Some of the lawyers felt themselves to be in such
danger, really, they feared retribution from the vice president's office to
the point where two of them actually resorted to having to talk in codes, and
they thought they might be in physical danger. And those two were Jack
Goldsmith, who was the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, and James Comey,
who was the number two guy in the Justice Department, the deputy attorney
general. And both of them were busy trying to withdraw the torture statute
and fix the law on this area. But they really just became, you know, almost
paranoid about whether they could do this without facing danger.
GROSS: Now, you write that there was a group of Bush administration lawyers
who wanted to challenge the SERE program, and that's the Cold War program of
interrogations that the Gitmo model was based on that we were talking about a
little earlier. And the radical plan of action that this group of Bush
administration lawyers drew up to oppose the SERE program is called the big
bang. So they wanted to shut down the secret detention centers and shut down
the interrogation program. What was the plan and why did it fizzle?
Ms. MAYER: The big bang was--I mean, the reason they called it that was they
thought it was going to take the bureaucratic equivalent of dynamite to blow
up this program. They had tried to work through the channels in the White
House, and every time they tried to get anywhere they got squelched
by--mostly, again, by the--quite incredible, but Vice President Cheney and his
office really seemed to kind of control these issues. And so they decided
they were going to have to try to go behind the vice president's back, and
they met in secret in the Pentagon one weekend and drew up a plan that was
going to be a potential speech for Bush to give, closing down the CIA's black
prison sites, transferring their prisoners to Guantanamo and calling for an
end to Guantanamo eventually, and putting everybody on trial so that they
finally had some kind of due process.
And what they--they drafted a very eloquent plan and speech, and they were
going to give one copy to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and the
other copy was going to go to Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. And
they hoped then that those Cabinet secretaries would be able to give it to the
president, going around the vice president.
So what happened was, the first part of the plan worked well. Condoleezza
Rice really liked it and she was ready to try to get onboard and give it to
President Bush. But Rumsfeld was absolutely furious that they had done this
without consulting him. And, in fact, they felt really in truth that he just
opposed the plan but used this sort of bureaucratic anger to try to shut it
down. And so when a meeting was scheduled to discuss the big bang plan in the
National Security Council, and Rice was going to try to discuss it, Rumsfeld
said he absolutely refused to participate unless they would not discuss that
subject. They could talk about Guantanamo, but they couldn't talk about the
big bang. So it died on the vine.
And, you know, many people wondered how much of the information that was
critical of these programs really reached President Bush. They felt often
that the vice president kind of strangled the paper flow so that the president
really didn't learn about a lot of the problems in these programs.
GROSS: Why? Was it giving the president deniability?
Ms. MAYER: It could be a question of deniability. It could also be a
question of just grabbing the power and taking control. One of the things
that I learned that I thought was very interesting was that the vice
president's lawyer, and now chief of staff, David Addington, had the last
box--paper went through his office last before it went to President Bush on
these national security issues. So whoever got the last dibs on the paperwork
before it went to the president pretty much got to decide what options he was
given and what he saw. And that is always--I've covered a number of White
Houses--that is always an incredibly key position to be in because as we know,
President Bush calls himself the decider. But if you're only deciding among
options that are predetermined, you're, you know, sometimes you don't have the
full range of information.
GROSS: In the story, the way you tell it, Vice President Cheney really
emerges as the kind of commander of the war on terror. Not of the troops, but
just of the overall strategy. And his chief counsel, David Addington, is the
legal mind expanding executive authority to make all this happen. And
although it's expanding executive authority, presidential authority, it's
really Vice President Cheney who's doing all of the analytical work to make it
happen rather than the president himself. The president himself is just
signing off on it. An accurate representation of the picture the way you're
Ms. MAYER: Yeah. It was an irony to me that, basically the argument made by
Cheney and his lawyer is always, `We need to expand the power of the
president, the president gets to decide these issues.' But as one of the top
White House officials said to me who was an opponent of some of this program,
that, you know, he wondered how often did the president really make these
decisions and how many of these decisions were made by Cheney. Frequently
they were made by Cheney. I mean, I did my best to document it, and I think,
you know, there's plenty more for historians and other reporters to try to dig
up. But you can really see the fingerprints of the vice president and his
office are all over the national security policy.
GROSS: You know, in discussing the Bush administration and al-Qaeda, you
describe how the Bush administration kind of swung from one extreme to
another, that before September 11th, the Bush administration was either
ignoring or downplaying all the information it was getting about the threats
of al-Qaeda, and it got a lot of information. But then after September 11th,
the Bush administration became obsessed with al-Qaeda and doing absolutely
anything to stop them, including what many people believe is the torture of
detainees. And you write about Vice President Cheney in particular here,
about how a lot of people close to him felt that he became paranoid, in part
because he insisted on reading the intelligence firsthand. You say he
distrusted the CIA and he wanted to see the information firsthand. But he was
getting that information unfiltered, unscreened. Why was that a problem?
Ms. MAYER: I'm so glad you asked about this because I actually think it's a
really interesting dynamic that took place in the Bush White House right after
9/11, which was that both Cheney and Bush, but Cheney in particular, wanted to
see what's known as raw intelligence. They didn't want it analyzed by the
CIA, and they wanted to see everything. And what this meant was that they
were just completely bombarded with all kinds of horrible possible threats
from all around the world, everything the United States government was able to
sort of vacuum up of enemy actions against the United States.
And what experts said to me, intelligence experts said to me--I quote Roger
Cressey as one of them in this book, who was at the National Security
Council--that they thought it was a big mistake because what the vice
president and president were getting was a lot of bad information. You get a
lot of bad information with the good, a lot of unreliable reports that would
be everything from people plotting nuclear attacks on the US to anthrax
attacks, all kinds of awful things. But the president and the vice president
started every day looking at this stuff, and a number of people who saw these
reports, they were called the threat matrix report, felt that it really
tainted their outlook in a way that might have almost thrown off their
GROSS: Because they were taking all of the false information mixed in with
the real information and considering everything a threat even it was just
Ms. MAYER: Right. I mean, and ordinarily, in the past what the CIA has done
is had morning briefings, of course, with presidents. But they only present
what they feel is reliable and really worrisome. In this case, they just
threw the whole kitchen sink in, and it was full of stuff that, you know, came
from, you know, people phoning it in because they imagined they saw something
awful when, you know, who knows whether it was or not. There was not work
done to try to evaluate the intelligence. It was all just thrown at the
president and vice president.
And people who knew Cheney for a long time--I talked to one man who was a
longtime family friend of the Cheney's and really likes Cheney a lot, but he
said that after 9/11 he changed. He just seemed steely, and he's known for
having a really good sense of humor, actually. But it was as if he had seen
something terrible, this man said to me. I think also that it's very hard for
anybody outside of the government to be able to understand the amount of
responsibility and worry that they felt, that if they didn't do everything
they possibly could America was going to be hit by a terrorist attack again,
maybe a worse one, maybe even a nuclear attack. I mean, they had to live with
this responsibility. And I've tried in the book to at least understand them
and give them credit for trying to protect the country. It's not that they
were a gang of criminals who were doing something wanton for fun. These are
people who felt they were doing what was required and necessary to protect the
country. And so they just went to extraordinary lengths, and I think that
what happened was, as it became more clear that many people felt they'd gone
too far, they couldn't turn back.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, author of the new book "The Dark Side: The
Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."
She's been writing investigative pieces about the war on terror for The New
Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff
writer for The New Yorker who's been writing investigative pieces about the
war on terror. Her new book is called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of
How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."
At the end of your book you write, "What began on 9/11 as a battle for
America's security became and continues to be a battle for the country's
soul." I'm going to ask you to elaborate on that.
Ms. MAYER: Well, this is really very much why I wanted to write this book,
was I felt that while I was writing stories about torture and rendition and
some of the extreme practices in the war on terror that just seemed so
depressing, people would say to me, `How can you write about this stuff? It's
so depressing.' And in truth what I knew was that all along the way there were
people who were standing up against it who were, in my view, very patriotic
and who felt that there was another front in the war on terror. It wasn't
just the US vs. the terrorists, there was also a kind of civil war inside
America which was this battle for America's soul. And there were a lot of
people who just felt in the military that this wasn't right and that we've
faced worse enemies and not descended to their level like this. There were a
lot of people in the FBI who stood up and said, `We're not doing this. We
don't torture people; that's what our enemies do,' and spoke out internally.
There were a number of lawyers in the Bush White House who did so, too.
And I guess I felt that there was a real life battle, an incredibly
interesting struggle going on to define, how do we keep the country safe
without mortgaging our ideals? And what I wanted to tell partly in this book
was the story of that fight. It's a fight that's really a moral fight, an
ethical fight, a historic fight, and I think something that I've really wanted
the country to think about, know about. So that's what I meant about the
struggle for America's soul.
GROSS: When it comes to the presidential campaign, what are the issues
pertaining to the war on terror that you'd like to hear McCain and Obama
Ms. MAYER: Well, these are very politically fraught issues. So so far I
feel like the debate has not been very sophisticated on these areas. But
among the questions are, what are we going to do with the people in
Guantanamo? And what are we going to do with future terror suspects? Are we
going to bring them back inside the criminal justice system and treat
terrorism as a crime, as we did before 9/11? Are we going to give them the
rights of prisoners of war and treat them as--treated as a war? What is the
overlay of those two things? Do we need to try to create a system of
preventive detention, as Britain has been doing now in order to hold terror
suspects until you can see whether they're criminals? These are really
complicated and very important subjects.
I think that a lot of what people have not dealt with is an honest discussion
of whether the old paradigm, the criminal laws, whether they were really
inadequate. In fact, if you compare the two things, take a look at the Bush
administration's approach and the approach before 9/11. Before 9/11 the
Justice Department prosecuted terrorists as criminals, and many of them are
serving life sentences. They were convicted and kept off the streets. Since
9/11 we've prosecuted them as illegal enemy combatants. Not a single one of
them has stood trial. There's been one plea by David Hicks. The rest of them
are just in limbo. It's been seven years. This process, there are plenty of
reasons to think what we are doing is not working. And I really think--I'd
like to hear the candidates talk about what would work better.
GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. MAYER: I'm so glad to be here with you. Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Jane Mayer's new book about the war on terror is called "The Dark
Side." She's a staff writer for The New Yorker.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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