The legacy of George W. Bush’s two terms as U.S. president is widely known, but not deeply. State-sponsored torture, a war waged on false pretences, the dismantling of civil liberties—all of this and more changed the image of America in the eyes of its admirers around the world. But a full, coherent account of how these policies were engineered is only now taking shape.
Several groundbreaking books published this year have begun laying the foundation on which the Bush administration’s historical record will be built. And like all examples of important writing about the past, they investigate and analyze in such finely organized detail that the resulting picture is both more harrowing and more human than what we knew before.
Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law, by London-based professor of international law Philippe Sands, focuses on former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s role in the brutal treatment of so-called enemy combatants, who were swept into prisons like Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in the months after 9/11. Sands, his tone steady despite his obvious shock at the audacity of it all, interviews a huge range of participants and witnesses. Among these are highly placed civilian and military officials who were simply bypassed or ignored in late 2002, as Rumsfeld and a tiny cadre of allies worked to junk the Geneva Conventions in favour of interrogation techniques inspired by the Soviet Union and the popular Fox-TV spy series 24.
According to Sands, the process was ramshackle, poisoned by bravado and fear, and predicated on what one prominent Navy psychologist calls a “suspension of critical thinking”. Its consequences are plain in the interrogation transcripts that appear throughout Torture Team, which show the personality of a Guantánamo detainee disintegrating after weeks of sleep deprivation, white noise, and humiliation. As a seasoned FBI counsel explains to Sands, if you use these disorienting techniques for a week—never mind for the two-month stretches sometimes in effect at Guantánamo—“you’re going to come out with a guy on the other end who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” The central message of Torture Team is therefore doubly tragic, depicting the treatment of prisoners in the “war against terror” not only as a colossal moral, legal, and constitutional failure, but also as a practical one, in the very field of intelligence-gathering with which Rumsfeld was so grimly obsessed.
This point is driven home in an essential new book by New Yorker investigative journalist Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals covers some of the same ground as Torture Team but widens the scope. It, too, pauses more than once to hear arguments that inflicting cruelty on detainees is not only repugnant but also “outmoded, amateurish, and unreliable”, as a scientific advisory group put it to U.S. intelligence agencies in 2006. Moreover, it creates an urgent narrative explaining how the Bush counterterrorism program has “presented the most dramatic, sustained, and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history”.
The evidence is not only in Mayer’s descriptions of systematic degradation in the prisons and infamous “black sites”. Just as disturbingly, it is in her comprehensive account of how the flimsy legal opinions behind this conduct were the work of the “War Council”, a secretive five-man clique of executive-branch lawyers that included Bush’s own counsel, Alberto Gonzales. Although these men had “virtually no experience in law enforcement, military service, counterterrorism, or the Muslim world”, as Mayer points out, they shared a servile respect for the powers of the presidency, viewing them as near-monarchical in wartime. And their greatest skill was in knowing precisely what their clients in the White House and Pentagon wanted to hear: that America had grown soft, that this new war must be waged without the meddling of Congress, the courts, or the media.
Easily the most unnerving member of this group was David Addington, whose bellicose, bullying presence is everywhere in Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, an excellent book by Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. Angler’s goal isn’t straightforward biography: there’s little here about the vice president’s life and career before he rigged his own selection as Bush’s running mate in 2000. Instead, we get a complex, rounded depiction of a supreme political operator at work: keenly intelligent and calm under pressure, free of scruples, and willing to sideswipe or intimidate whenever patience or persuasion doesn’t produce the desired result. At his side throughout is counsel and eventual chief of staff Addington, browbeating political opponents and censoring any unwelcome report destined for the president’s desk.
Angler is a crucial document of how this combination of aggression and intrigue was unstoppable in the two-and-a-half years following 9/11—a time when Cheney and Addington created what one former colleague calls “the legal equivalent of outer space”, where they cooked up intelligence about Iraq and launched the secret programs of rendition and domestic spying. The book is also an indelible portrait of the link between power and hubris, one of the oldest themes in literature about rulers. In Angler’s account, both Cheney and Addington are unable to tell the difference between morality and principle, a flaw that at one point proved near-fatal, according to the book’s closing chapters. As Gellman reveals publicly for the first time, their March 2004 attempt to ram through a renewal of the domestic wiretapping program set off a potentially disastrous wave of resistance inside the Department of Justice, with everyone from acting attorney general Jim Comey to FBI director Robert Mueller threatening to resign. Only Bush’s agreement to amend the program—at the last possible moment, owing to the fact that Cheney and Addington had kept him in the dark about the growing crisis—allowed the president to avoid the outright collapse of his administration before the end of his first term.
Revelations such as this one are reassuring in a couple of ways, even though Guantánamo Bay remains open and the National Security Agency’s high-tech eavesdropping capabilities continue to expand. For one thing, many of the most courageous figures in Angler, as in Torture Team and The Dark Side, are lifelong Republicans who sacrificed their careers in defence of the rule of law. The full story of this conflict-ridden era is thus neither as polarized nor as unthinkingly partisan as it has been comfortable to believe during the last eight years. On top of that, these books offer hope that spin and subterfuge, even when practised by such committed experts as Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Addington, may not be enough to stop history from having the last word.