When Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side was published a few months ago, it stunned reviewers with its revelations of torture and other abuses that government officials have committed since 9/11 in the name of the “War on Terror.” These ugly acts, painful to read about, were far more painful to the victims, but they were only part of the narrative. I do not recall reviewers telling me that the Bush administration inflicted these horrors in the context of a deliberate effort to shift the powers shared by the three branches of government into the hands of an absolutist president. The real hub of this book is the coup d’état attempted by George Bush’s minions, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, that nearly succeeded in transforming our constitutional system into a full-fledged tyranny.
Mayer, with great authority, makes the case that Cheney, a lifelong right-winger, entered the administration with a chip on his shoulder. He had concluded when he was a White House official in the Nixon administration, that the impeachment process had wiped away the inherent power of the presidential office. Cheney was convinced it was in the national interest to get them back. A few years later, as a Republican congressman from Wyoming, he engaged in studies and dry runs with other conservatives on how presidential powers could be enhanced to equal the challenge of nuclear war. Fortunately, the country has not had to endure a nuclear catastrophe. But when 9/11 took place less than a year after Cheney assumed the vice-presidency, he had only to dust off his earlier plans and begin implementing them.
We know now that Cheney, in his first days, had been granted the national-security portfolio by a president who had no confidence in his own mastery of global affairs. Had Cheney been more attentive to the intelligence crossing his desk, and a little lucky, he might have headed off the 9/11 attack; Bin Laden's operatives had left plenty of crumbs along the path to the airport. But having failed to do so, he turned his attention, with Bush's enthusiastic backing, to making sure such an attack did not happen again. The Constitution was to be no obstacle. The White House shifted the country immediately to a war footing, consulting neither Bush’s own cabinet nor Congress. Bush certainly gave no sustained thought to the plan's long-term ramifications. With Cheney in the lead, he ordered full-speed ahead, whatever the consequences.
More than a few of Mayer’s sources told her that Cheney reacted out of an obsessive sense of danger, not just to the country but also to himself. Many found the personal measures embarassing. Noisy construction equipment on the site of his official residence started rumors — given his passion for secrecy, they were never confirmed — that he was building an underground bomb shelter. In commuting to the White House, he was driven with sirens blaring in a motorcade surrounded by armed guards who varied the route daily to thwart assassins. Near him was a bag containing a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit. With a history of coronary problems dating back to 1978, Cheney rarely traveled, even to the office, without a personal physician.
Mayer also points out an anomaly in the Bush administration that I had not seen cited before. Though a government’s chief duty is to enforce the law of the land, none of its top officials were lawyers — not the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense or the national security adviser. Though lawyers, for whatever reason, may not be the most highly esteemed professionals in our society, it is fair to say that as a body they have been instilled during their education with veneration for the Constitution. Some of the lawyers who wound up at the administration’s top echelon resigned out of disapproval of the course chosen by Cheney and Bush. But Cheney had no trouble finding others who were willing to follow his orders in devising legal justifications for his designs, no matter how abusive they were of the Constitution.
Chief among these lawyers was David Addington, who had been at his side since 1989, when the first President Bush appointed Cheney secretary of defense. An austere, dedicated, private man, Addington, now Cheney’s legal counsel, yielded to no one in his unwavering authoritarian positions. Even before the smoke of 9/11 had cleared, he was ready to lay out an uncompromising agenda to combat terrorism. Oddly, under the constitution, neither Cheney nor Addington had line responsibilities, nor were there statutes that set out their powers. Yet they dominated the heads of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and the National Security Council by claiming to speak for a president who was more than content to support them. As his back-up, Addington found a Justice Department lawyer named John Yoo, who furnished opinions on the law that startled legal circles in effectively ruling out all presidential constraints. With Cheney at the core, Addington wielding the hatchet, and Yoo as the creative muse, Bush asked few questions but clearly reveled in being commander-in-chief of the war on terror.
This was the group that nullified American observance of international law, particularly the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners, arguing that the country was involved in a new kind of war. Cheney and Addington gave the United States torture, which they chose to call “enhanced interrogation,” as a matter of national policy; Yoo’s legal memos insisted torture was legal simply because the president said it was. The group also introduced terms like “waterboarding” and “rendition” into the national vocabulary, and places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo into our geographic consciousness. It set up a program of domestic spying that engaged in the unauthorized wire-tapping of American citizens. No one questions that Cheney’s program, details of which have leaked out as the months have passed, has shamed the United States in the eyes of the world, weakening our stature among both friends and foes.
But has this agenda at least brought the country closer to victory? In his State of the Union address in January 2003, Bush asserted that 3,000 suspected terrorists had been arrested, and, he added ominously, “Many others have met a different fate.” Even if the facts are true, has this course made America safer? On the issue of torture, or even protracted imprisonment in the black holes that America established, there is no data whatever that they have advanced the American cause. In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, one of Cheney’s inner circle, acknowledged that the United States had no way to measure whether it was winning the war on terror. Even today, Osama bin Laden remains at large, and a recent National Intelligence Estimate states that jihadists are still increasing in numbers and geographic distribution. If anything, the evidence suggests that Cheney’s agenda has done the country more harm than good.
Jane Mayer’s book is only one of many written since 2001 — and especially since the catastrophe that began in Iraq in 2003 — which suggest that, as horrible as the attack of 9/11 was, our ill-considered, all-out venomous response to it has only made matters worse. Mayer shines a light on how bad our culture, when it is careless, can be. Would that a new and wiser president will embark on repairing the damage, but undoing it will be a long and arduous task, at best.