At some point in the future, the story of how the United States government, in a paroxysm of panic and paranoia following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, turned rogue like out-of-control authoritarians from a bad thriller, will become as well-trod an anecdote as the Cuban Missile Crisis or Watergate. Books will continue to be written and documentaries will continue to be produced over the years as new tantalizing tidbits of secretive information are brought to light.
Even now, with the broad outlines of the narrative having been well established, new bits of the puzzle continue to be slotted in, such as accusations of a forged memo to falsely establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda (as alleged in Ron Suskind’s new book, The Way of the World). But even though the story is still one in flux, there is certainly a need for a general purpose retelling of it that incorporates all the facts and suppositions that can be made now. While it won’t go down in history as one of the more thrilling reads to come out of this scandal, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side is an excellent book to occupy that position for now.
With very little preamble, Mayer—who has written extensively on the war on terror for The New Yorker—jumps into what happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As often happens with the stories of that period, President George W. Bush seems almost more of a bit player, particularly when compared to the Machiavellian plans that were almost immediately put into motion by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. As Mayer recounts, Cheney was ready for this scenario not just because of his ideological resentment against the post-Watergate Democrats who dared legislate reforms on an out-of-control executive branch and intelligence services, but because he’d also been “secretly practicing for doomsday.”
During the 1980s, while serving as a Republican congressman from Wyoming and a rising power in the conservative leadership in Congress, Cheney secretly participated in one of the most highly classified, top-secret programs of the Reagan Administration, a simulation of survival scenarios designed to ensure the smooth continuity of the U.S. government in the event of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Every year, usually during congressional recesses, Cheney would disappear in the dead of night. He left without explanation to his wife, Lynne Vincent Cheney, who was given merely a phone number where he could be reached in the even of emergency. Along with some four or five dozen federal officials, Cheney would pretend for several weeks to be chief of staff to a designated substitute “president,” bivouacked in some remote location in the United States.
Not only was Cheney well prepped for those much-mocked disappearances to “undisclosed locations,” he had had plenty of time to plan for the worst that the world could throw at the United States. Given that he’d been wargaming what to do after a nuclear assault for years, it should have come as no surprise that post-9/11, when much of Washington was panicked and flailing, Cheney maintained his cool. Compared to a shower of Russian ICBMs, he very well might have seen 9/11 as small potatoes.
That coolness, however, quickly turned hot once the administration began trying to figure out the best way to respond to such a devastating attack where traditional governments and armies could not be targeted. Almost before the dust had settled from the collapse of the towers, Mayer argues, Cheney and his like-minded confederates set about doing everything possible to sweep away the old restraints on executive power and usher in a new era of monarchical arrogance whose ultimate goal was (in practice, if not necessarily in plan) “reducing Congress to a cipher.”
Under the cold-eyed direction of Cheney and compatriots like his office’s legal counsel David Addington, the list of new powers that the “war on terror” would supposedly require were sweeping. Expansive discretion in terms of directing violent action against any group or individual anywhere in the world at any time. The ability to monitor phone conversations and correspondence of any person, anywhere, should they be considered of interest. Poorly planned no-holds-barred interrogation procedures that quickly turned into a policy of freewheeling torture. A rendition program, once used only in extreme circumstances, that became an international melee of kidnapping and yet more torture, frequently involving the innocent.
We’ve all heard this recitation of evils before. But there are a couple factors keeping Mayer’s account from turning into just another anti-Bush screed. First is Mayer’s commendably dispassionate tone, which can veer at times into the strictly anodyne. Secondly is her ability to clearly pinpoint the locus of all these drastic changes enacted after late-2001 in the tight cabal of fanatic and quasi-fascist administration lawyers (Addington and John Yoo, in particular) who churned out one spuriously-argued brief after another to give legal cover for Cheney’s imperialistic coup.
The Dark Side vividly portrays the frequently-lampooned culture of desk-bound neo-con White House warriors (hardly any of whom had ever themselves been under enemy fire) who dismissed any compunctions about the constitutionality of Cheney’s assault on American ideals of balanced government and laws of military conduct, as “squishy” liberalism. One of the most depressing tragedies contained in Mayer’s account, and there are many, is watching the likes of Addington (who comes off as a near-psychopath of Stalin-level powerlust and paranoia) continually demand that more freedoms should be overturned, harsher methods be used in interrogations, despite all evidence to the contrary of their efficacy.
(Mayer doesn’t follow this line of argument, but one has to wonder after reading her book how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and international campaign against al-Qaeda might have gone better had the administration been more focused on actually prosecuting those efforts instead of miring themselves in endless internecine power-grabbing squabbles.)
Eventually, some curbs were put on the White House’s adventure into illegality. A pair of Supreme Court rulings in 2004—Rasul v. Bush and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld—dealt serious blows to their efforts. As Mayer puts it:
The rash, secretly crafted decisions made by the knot of like-minded lawyers around Cheney in the days just after September 11, giving all power to the commander in chief to designate by himself who was an enemy combatant, what rules the military commissions would follows, and the conditions in which the detainees could be held, were all debunked by the court … For almost three years, there had been virtually no checks on the executive branch’s power. The lower courts had equivocated, and Congress had all but abdicated.
It was a victory of sorts, but clearly far too late in coming.
The desolate feeling that envelops you by the end of The Dark Side is not simply confined to the full understanding of what transpired, hidden from public view, during that dark period of American history. A contributing factor is also the realization that, just as much of Nixon’s oft-ignored “silent majority” never quite thought that he did anything that bad, after all is said and done with America’s slide into sanctioned barbarism, there will remain a truly disturbing number of citizens who will shrug when told of it and say it had to be done. Better them than us.
The damning silence emanating like a fog of forgetfulness from both camps in this election season could well be a harbinger for the future. A version of this story, condensed from Mayer and other excellent sources, will indeed be passed into the collective memory, told in reminiscent news accounts and student textbooks. But there is little to indicate that the flurry of post-Watergate Congressional activity that limited the role of a runaway executive will be repeated, in which case the revolution fomented by Cheney, Addington, et al., will have succeeded.