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Lift Every Voice: JANE MAYER

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Images Courtesy of DOUBLEDAY

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Sunday, March 01, 2009


The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Click here for more on 20 Interviews


LIFT EVERY VOICE

Reflecting on the dark side of the Bush years with author Jane Mayer

By James Hughes

After millions embraced Barack Obama on election night in Chicago, though still weeks before the record crowds that flooded the National Mall and its tributaries became flyover country for a departing president bound for Dallas dormancy, I spoke with author Jane Mayer about the range of emotions and challenges churned up in her startling account of detainee abuse under the Bush administration, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday).

“I’m glad you had the time to read all those happy chapters,” Mayer says with equal parts consolation and self-deprecation. “Was it depressing?” Though the material is not for the faint of heart, her reporting in the book contributes vital information to the national conversation about our government’s stance on torture, and provokes essential questions about how to challenge violators of the Geneva Conventions.

Released in July 2008, The Dark Side, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and was selected as one of the year’s five best nonfiction books by the New York Times Book Review, is as pertinent as ever. For those, like Mayer, who long for a renewed American commitment to the principles of international law that hold that prisoners of war are to be treated humanely, events of the past few months have provided hope for a new phase of government accountability: On January 15th, Attorney General Eric Holder stated unequivocally that waterboarding is torture and that “no one is above the law” during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee; in an interview with Bob Woodward in January, Susan Crawford became the first Pentagon official to acknowledge that the treatment of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the purported “20th hijacker” who was captured before the 9/11 attacks, “met the legal definition of torture” (more on this from Mayer later); during a brazen valedictory interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News on December 15th, Dick Cheney acknowledged that he was aware of the program to torture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and was “involved in helping get the process cleared,” potentially exposing himself to criminal prosecution in international courts; and on January 22nd, President Obama signed an executive order directing the CIA to shut down its secret prisons at Guantánamo Bay, and an order requiring all US personnel to follow the US Army Field Manual during detainee interrogations.

Mayer, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1995, has established herself as an authority on the topic of detainee abuse, from her accounts of the practice of extraordinary rendition to profiles on Alberto J. Mora, the outgoing general counsel of the United States Navy who attempted to put an end to unlawful practices at Guantánamo, and Joel Surnow, the creator of 24, the television show that brought ticking time bombs and defibrillators as torture devices into America’s living rooms. “What you want is to have something worth writing about,” Mayer says, “so it gives you complete purpose to try to tell the world about this. With The Dark Side, I really felt I had something worth saying, and you don’t always have that. So it was really a great thing to work on. The worse it is, the better it is for some kinds of reporters.”

Our conversation began with a look back at the closing pages of The Dark Side, which focus on a press conference held by George W. Bush on September 6th, 2006, in which the president admitted for the first time that America had been holding secret prisoners for years without charges, yet simultaneously defended the program. Matt Waxman, a lawyer in the Bush administration who, Mayer says, “had high hopes for somehow improving things from the inside,” was present.

Mayer writes: “As he watched the President’s address, Waxman’s hopes sank. ‘We wanted this [announcement] to be about change,’ he said. ‘We wanted it to have the President saying he was committed to closing Guantánamo. But instead of turning the page, he laminated it.’”

Stop Smiling: Picking up with Waxman’s quote at the conclusion of your book: “Change” and “turning the page” — these were terms that were on the minds of the American people throughout the 2008 election. Now that there has been a transition of power, are you concerned that people might be too quick to turn the page, whereas your book does, to borrow Waxman’s phrase, laminate our darkest moments?

Jane Mayer: Yes, I am a little worried that there will just be a mass urge to move on fast, sweep it under the rug, never come to grips with it. And the problem with that is, if there is another terrorist attack — and most people who know a lot about terrorism say it’s inevitable at this point — will we relive this whole thing again? Will we do it all over again without ever having learned from it? That’s what I worry about.

SS: On November 10th, Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar and an Obama adviser, spoke about moving detainees out of Guantánamo. He said: “I think the answer is going to be, they can be as securely guarded on US soil as anywhere else. We can’t put people in a dungeon forever without processing whether they deserve to be there.” How does it strike you that a new administration is willing to use such strong language?

JM: It’s fabulous. While I worry that they won’t do enough to really get to the bottom of it all, at the same time, I think it’s amazing. It’s gone from feeling like there were a handful of people who cared about, or even knew about, these issues to a point where it’s the national conversation. One of the dilemmas I had with the book, if we’re discussing the end of the book, is whether to end it on an optimistic or pessimistic note. The last words were turned in May 2008. At that point, it was really hard to tell. I ended the book on an optimistic note because the country has such a history of renewing itself. I was thinking change was in the air. Basically, the nominees for both parties were anti-torture, so it seemed like something was finally going to happen here. But it was really lonely, four years ago, on this subject. It’s like you can breathe again.

SS: The clearest example in your book of the consequences of America’s treatment of detainees is the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was apprehended in Orlando in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks. In that instance, there is detective work that Americans can be proud of. But can you elaborate on what you write in the afterword about how his treatment while he was in detention has jeopardized the case?

JM: Al-Qahtani was the 20th hijacker, and the government has had to drop charges against him because of the abuse that he underwent. It will be very hard to get any ordinary American jury to convict him after he was tortured. It’s a perfect example of why torture is self-defeating. Meanwhile, it is true that the FBI’s regular detective work that was done on his case taught us everything we knew about him, and all of those months of torment that they put him through [in Guantánamo] did nothing but confirm what the FBI had already learned through legal means. They knew that he came to Orlando in 2001, and they identified the rental car license plate of Mohammed Atta in one of the airport parking lots, and thus were able to see that he was planning to meet up with Atta. There was also a perceptive customs agent who took a look at al-Qahtani and thought he seemed nervous. He also noticed that he didn’t have enough money to stay in the country very long, so he wouldn’t let him in.

So the regular legal system we have worked. After they identified who he was, they sent him back and were able to pick up the pieces of the puzzle later [after the 9/11 attacks]. They also were able to interrogate him in legal means and get more details on his story. The story that they got was the truth, but they were unsatisfied with it. So they put him through this hideous, amateurish form of psychological demolition: He went day after day without sleep; they did ridiculous things like making him perform dog tricks; they filled his veins with intravenous liquids and wouldn’t allow him to go to the bathroom, so he had to urinate all over himself.

You read the logs that came out of the case and you can’t believe that these things were authorized, and yet it turns out they were authorized from the very top of the Pentagon. According to the experts I interviewed — and they’re quoted by name in the book — they got nothing out of it. It only confirmed what they already knew through legal means.

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