The plot sickens
AMERICA’S reputation and image in the world, as a paradigm of justice and the rule of law, has been seriously tarnished by rendition and torture, indefinite detentions, Guantanamo and domestic spying: in short, by an erosion of civil liberties that has no precedent in US history.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; during World War II, president Franklin Roosevelt interned 100,000 Japanese- Americans. But the Bush administration has taken those aberrations and turned them into policy, going much further.
From the legion of books so far about the socalled war on terror, we know what has happened. What we haven’t known is how it came about.
How did the US abandon the Geneva Conventions, which it signed and promoted because it protected all captured soldiers, including Americans? How did the Bush administration come to embrace the torture techniques used by the North Koreans on American prisoners of war? How did the Bush administration jettison a policy, after 200 years, that had been adopted by
The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on America’s Ideals By Jane Mayer Scribe, 400pp, $ 35
George Washington for the humane treatment of captured enemy soldiers?
In The Dark Side , Jane Mayer, a staff writer on The New Yorker and one of the best investigative reporters in the US, answers these questions in the most compelling, chilling, well- written account to date of how the country went from being admired for its commitment to civil liberties to one cited by authoritarian governments to justify themselves when accused of human- rights abuses. The short answer is that it was the work of a cabal of conservative lawyers, operating in as much secrecy as any coup plotters.
By virtue of his position as aide to VicePresident Dick Cheney, David Addington was at the top of the self- described war council. A former CIA lawyer, Addington shared with Cheney the conviction that the power of the presidency had been severely weakened by the reforms that followed Watergate and Vietnam, and they set about to restore them. Intellectual might was provided by John Yoo, a brilliant KoreanAmerican who had attended Harvard and Yale law school.
The others included Yoo’s boss in the Justice Department, attorney- general Alberto Gonzales, who had been Bush’s legal adviser when he was governor of Texas, and Tim Flanagan, an antiabortion activist and father of 14 who had been part of the probe into Bill Clinton’s sex life.
They were ‘‘ like a high- school clique’’, Mayer writes, an elite clique that played squash and racquetball together and went on secret trips.
The conservative cabal seemingly would stop at nothing to carry out its will. They ignored or outmanoeuvred senior officials in the administration who did not agree with them. They destroyed documents, dissembled and demolished careers.
After John Walker Lindh, the kid from the upscale San Francisco suburb who had converted to Islam as a teenager, was captured during the fighting in Afghanistan in November 2001, the FBI wanted to interview him. It couldn’t be done without a lawyer being present, a young lawyer in the Justice Department, Jesselyn Radack, reminded the organisation in a string of emails.
The FBI questioned him anyway and when attorney- general John Ashcroft announced that Lindh had been indicted on several counts of murder and conspiracy, he asserted that Lindh had not asked for a lawyer. In fact, as Ashcroft knew, Lindh’s parents had retained a lawyer and father Frank Lindh had sent a letter to his son to that effect. US officials had blocked delivery of the letter.
Radack was appalled by Ashcroft’s statement and let it be known in more emails. She paid the
price for her ethical stand. First she was given a negative performance review that questioned her legal judgment, then urged to look for another job, which she did.
The judge in the Lindh case asked to see all relevant Justice Department documents, including emails, pertaining to the case. Radack’s emails were not turned over and hard copies were destroyed. After Newsweek obtained copies of the emails and published them, the Justice Department told the law firm that had offered Radack a job that she was the subject of a leak investigation. The firm withdrew its offer. ( No charges were filed against Radack and she was eventually cleared of any ethical misconduct.)
The erosion of civil liberties began swiftly. Fourteen days after 9/ 11, Yoo, working with Addington, concluded that the President could do virtually whatever he wanted in the war on terror. Even Congress couldn’t stop the President from ordering torture, Yoo told Mayer.
Relying on Yoo’s memos and Addington’s influence, the Bush administration abandoned treaties that the US had long supported, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Geneva Conventions. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese had refused to abide by the conventions and John McCain was among the captured Americans sadistically tortured. Still, the US forces afforded Geneva Conventions protections to the Vietnamese guerillas, even though they didn’t wear military uniforms and often disguised themselves as civilians.
The State Department’s legal adviser, William Howard Taft III, argued that Yoo’s analysis was seriously flawed and warned that if the US did not observe the conventions, American soldiers could be subject to brutal treatment if captured, which was why the country’s generals and admirals argued against abandoning it. Taft added, as if for good measure, that soldiers, and even Bush, could be prosecuted for war crimes. Taft was ignored. He sent his advice to Gonzales.
The State Department was flooded with cables from foreign governments expressing dismay and many warned that it would inhibit their ability to co- operate in the war on terror. Secretary of state Colin Powell sought a meeting with the President, but he was outflanked. Cheney sent a caustic memo to the President, written by Addington, arguing that the Geneva Conventions were obsolete and quaint.
Most countries did co- operate with the US, including, of course, Australia. Australia and the US have long shared intelligence and this cooperation did not experience a hiccup. Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib, seized in Pakistan, where Australian officials saw him, was taken by the CIA to Egypt and tortured before being taken to Guantanamo. The Australian government did virtually nothing for him for five years.
It was the same with David Hicks, who the Australian government allowed to remain in Guantanamo for more than five years before finally pushing for his release. The Labor Party never came to the defence of Habib or Hicks while it was in Opposition and even now has not launched an investigation into the cases.
It will take a reporter such as Mayer to dig out why Australia was complicit in the assault on civil liberties, even when its own citizens were victims. London- based Raymond Bonner writes about international security for The New York Times.