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Lift Every Voice: JANE MAYER


SS: In the book, you recount instances of presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt breaking laws in the name of safeguarding national security. Can you elaborate on George W. Bush’s infringements of civil liberties? You wrote, “While earlier presidents overstepped boundaries in times of emergency, neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt claimed the routine presidential right to do so.”

JM: This is an idea that came from Arthur Schlesinger, whom I got to interview before he died. His point was that there have been terrible moments in American history when civil liberties have been suspended because of some kind of national security threat — everyone thinks, for example, of Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War — but what Schlesinger was saying was these were the lowest, darkest and weakest and least honorable moments in American history. What the Bush administration did was take those aberrations and use them to turn them into a doctrine of presidential prerogative, saying that since it’s happened before, we have the right to do this routinely. And this was done without understanding the horrible blemish on American values that these moments constitute. So they took the worst moments in American history and made them routine.

When you take a look at what Lincoln did: After suspending habeas corpus, he did so when Congress was not in session, and as soon as they came back into session, Lincoln went to Congress to apologize. This has been pointed out to me by other historians: When Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus, the Confederate soldiers were literally across the river. It was a tremendous national emergency. You might think that 9/11 is that, and I think the Bush White House convinced themselves of that, but certainly it’s not like al-Qaeda was right across the Potomac River.

And in the case of FDR interning the Japanese during World War II, everybody who was familiar with that history realizes it was a terrible moment in American history. President Reagan, the icon of the conservative movement, is the one who issued a formal apology for those actions.

SS: The memos that established the legal precedent for torture were made by men bombarded with the absolute worst-case scenarios on an hourly basis. Can you talk about how their mindset led to these decisions?

JM: As I’ve talked about the book on my book tour across the country, I’ve gotten criticism from some on the left for not thinking of these men as simply monsters. I think it’s maybe because, as a reporter — I’m just a reporter, not an ideologue — it was my mission to understand how this happened. I’ve gotten to know and interview as many people who made these decisions as I could. When you do that, you understand their mindset better, which is that they were completely panicked. They thought there was going to be another attack, they thought it would happen soon, they thought it might imperil the United States in some existential way — and they also thought they would be personally blamed if they hadn’t done everything they could possibly do to protect America. They thought these things would protect America, but they were wrong. What I hope Obama has learned — or anyone who has read this book has learned — is that they were wrong to think that torture and the suspension of our legal system would make us stronger. It didn’t work. It was an amateurish thing to do. It was a shortcut that undermined the tremendous strengths that the country has. They didn’t do it because they were evil, they did it because they were desperate. And also because I think they were, in many ways, ignorant of the country’s history, and contemptuous of its values, perhaps. In the case of Cheney and David Addington [Cheney’s chief of staff], they had a predisposition, politically, to increase the power of the executive office and undercut civil liberties and the rights of the accused, I think.

SS: To what extent do you think Cheney will be fending off legal challenges when he’s out of office?

JM: This is a great mystery. I don’t sense that either the Obama administration or the American public are looking for a pound of flesh on this subject. I don’t think there’s a great bloodlust to try and bring criminal charges against any of the people involved in this program. I’m told that the place where they face the greatest legal peril is abroad, because the United States is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and any other country that has signed it has jurisdiction to bring charges against violators of it. So other countries might be more likely to take this more seriously than the US might.

SS: You write about the predominantly male culture at Alec Station, the CIA’s lone unit dedicated to tracking down Osama bin Laden, yet there was an unusually large proportion of women working there whose diligence earned them the nickname the Power Women’s Club. If you look at the cottage industry of nonfiction books critical of the Bush administration, do you feel that’s another area where it’s difficult for a woman’s voice to be heard in a male culture?

JM: Actually, that’s not true. Some of the best reporting on torture has come from women. There’s Dana Priest at the Washington Post. And one of the very best Guantánamo reporters is Carol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald. This is an area where women have cracked through. National security issues are generally male-dominated. It must have something to do with the warrior culture, being the protectors.

SS: How about your experiences interviewing military officials?

JM: There’s a tendency where, if officials are sexist, they underestimate you as a reporter, which is only a good thing, because you can usually learn more if their guard is down. That sounds awful, but it’s a good thing for a reporter to be underestimated.

 

 

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