THE MAGAZINE

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

By Jane Mayer; Reviewed by Col. Britt Mallow

***** The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. By Jane Mayer; published by Doubleday, www.doubleday.com (Web); 400 pages; $27.50.

Did 9-11 bring out the best in America’s character, or did it unleash the worst? Have we righteously faced down a threat to civilization, or have we abandoned our high ideals and drifted into the “dark side” of our national character?

Among the spate of books about America’s role in the War on Terror that focus on purported human rights abuses, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side stands out for its meticulous research, depth, and insight. An acclaimed investigative author and reporter for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer is well known for diving into a controversy and coming up with nuggets of truth that help explain the complex interactions and human motives that underlie these important events.

The Dark Side tells the story of how the 9-11 attacks galvanized a small group of well-known senior U.S. officials, shaping decisions that would ultimately lead to detentions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere; rendition of suspects to foreign nations for alleged torture; and hundreds of incidents of alleged abuse of detainees. Mayer describes the agendas of former Vice President Dick Cheney and his followers, fueled by long-held beliefs in how presidential power could be used to greater effect and how laws could be interpreted to enhance that power.

One lesser-known figure, Justice Department attorney John Yoo, became a central player in the aftermath of 9-11, as he and his peers from other agencies crafted a strategy to get tough on alleged terrorists, such as by authorizing CIA agents to use coercive interrogation methods and renditions to other countries to extract intelligence from captured suspects. On September 25, 2001, for example, Yoo wrote a secret memorandum in which he asserted that Congress could not interfere with the president’s response to terrorism. “These decisions,” he wrote, “under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make.” Yoo’s memo, along with input from fellow members of an informal “war council,” became the guiding forces for major legal decisions affecting detainees.

Mayer raises tough questions, such as: Did U.S. leadership conspire and direct the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammad and others with waterboarding? Did our government send detainees to foreign countries to be tortured? Did we violate longstanding Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war? Were the abuses like those documented at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison directed from the highest levels?

 Detailing the power play at the top tier of government that led to excesses, poor decisions, and abuses, Mayer lays out a strong case that as a nation the United States has, in fact, taken a trip into the dark. Her book tells a gripping story, well-documented and written, and infused with plenty of details that give real insight into decisions and the decision-makers themselves.

Clearly, The Dark Side’s “war council” did not and could not have directed every intelligence operative and soldier. The potential for neglect, abuse, and error exists in every individual human when placed under stress. While we can and should hold top leaders and policy-makers responsible, we must look within our own hearts to find the dark potential for excess and cruelty that springs from anger, frustration, and fear.

This is a great read for security professionals and all of us who want to understand crisis decision making and consequences, and who seek answers about our way ahead in the global struggle against extremism.


Reviewer: Col. Britt Mallow (U.S. Army, retired) is a Middle East and counter-terrorism specialist with MITRE Corp. Following 9-11, he commanded the Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Task Force and directed terrorism investigations for the Military Commission. He is vice chairman of the ASIS Council on Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime.

 

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