Book Review

In the shadows of the war on terror

By Michael Kenney
August 19, 2008
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As Vice President Dick Cheney put it, shortly after 9/11, "We'll have to work sort of on the dark side, if you will," spending time "in the shadows of the intelligence world," working "quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies."

Cheney did not talk about the consequences, but those are the weighty matters of "The Dark Side," Jane Mayer's disquieting chronicle of the politically enabled seven-year war on terror. While virtually everything in her chronicle has been reported before, even readers who have followed the news reports and have read the insider accounts by former military officers and administration lawyers will welcome Mayer's narrative, a story that becomes the darker and more troubling in her retelling.

And with the recent action of a military jury in sentencing Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama Bin Laden's onetime driver, to 5 1/2 years - a surprisingly light sentence that calls into question the justification for the conducting a war "on the dark side" - it is an appropriate time for a comprehensive recounting.

Drawing on her own reporting for The New Yorker, and that of former Boston Globe and current New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, among others, Mayer details in chapter after chapter what went on in the shadows.

There were the "renditions" of men loosely defined as "illegal combatants" and the "enhanced interrogations" that those men endured when they were carried off to the "black sites" secretly established by the CIA in East Europe and the Middle East.

It comes as a note of welcome, almost comic, relief to read of the "reverse rendition" of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent who decided to take "a breather from family life" with a quick trip to Macedonia in December 2003.

When Masri was stopped at a border crossing, his brand-new German passport looked suspicious. Turned over to a CIA "takedown" team, he was flown to Afghanistan, where, despite growing concerns that he was just a small-time car dealer with family problems, he was held incommunicado for some 149 days.

Finally, an elaborate scheme was devised to fly Masri back to Europe. He was driven to a border crossing and told to start walking and not look back. "At the end of a path, three waiting men handed him a picnic lunch and drove him to the Tirana [Albania] Airport, from which he flew home" - only to find that his wife, believing he had deserted her, had gone to Lebanon with their three children.

As Mayer writes, "Without any procedure for independent judicial review, or any accountability for imprisoning an innocent victim, once a mistake was made there was little incentive to correct it."

Perhaps the greatest service that Mayer performs in "The Dark Side" is to document the heroic, often-thwarted efforts of the administration lawyers and other insiders to overturn what they saw as illegal and unconstitutional policies. They include Jack Goldsmith, author of "The Terror Presidency" (and now at Harvard Law School), one of the insider accounts on which Mayer draws. He resigned a key legal position in the Justice Department after failing to reconcile the administration's policy on torture with international treaties and military codes of conduct.

Behind it all were those "military commissions," set up, as Mayer puts it, because "[the] evidence against the terror suspects might be too slight" or too secret to be presented in an open court, even a traditional military court-martial - or, as Mayer chillingly suggests, Cheney and the administration's War Council believed that "they had no time to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

And it is here that the contradictions of the dark side become apparent.

It took years of legal challenges, up to the Supreme Court and back, before the first of these cases, that of Bin Laden's hapless driver, finally came to trial.

And then, despite all the secret witnesses and their testimony, and the claims of government prosecutors that Hamdan was too dangerous to ever be set free, the jury of military officers sentenced him to the five years he had already served, plus another six months - which would roughly correspond with the end of the Bush administration and, perhaps, of the war on terror.

As Mayer puts it, "With change in the air, there is a sense that history might be on [the] side" of those who "had abandoned the government with the conviction that in waging the war against terrorism. America had lost its way."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

Jane Mayer (Photo by Random House via Bloomberg News) In "The Dark Side," author Jane Mayer chronicles the seven-year war on terror after 9/11.

The Dark Side: The Inside
Story of How the War on
Terror Turned Into a War
on American Ideals
By Jane Mayer
Doubleday, 392 pp., illustrated, $27.50

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