A Connoisseur of Doom


By Jane Mayer
Doubleday, 392 pages, $27.50

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In the autumn of 2000, I was visiting the United States and watched the televised debates with keen interest. Of the four men—two presidential candidates and two running mates—the one I really took to was Dick Cheney. Maybe the competition wasn’t so strong, what with the inarticulate George W. Bush, the well-meaning but wooden Al Gore and the smirking Joe Lieberman. By contrast, Mr. Cheney seemed relaxed, bien dans sa peau, with a faraway smile playing on his lips as if to say, You mean you’ve just discovered that America is a plutocracy? Tell me about it!

What a long time eight years can seem: We have since been disabused of many illusions. It’s easy (and quite right) to mock those who actually believed the transparently specious things Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and—please don’t forget—Tony Blair said to justify their needless and illegal invasion of Iraq. But how many of us honestly foresaw the moral as well as political disasters that would befall the American republic in consequence of the "war on terror" and the Iraq war?

Who really envisaged another war, on the Constitution, due process and the rule of law? When Mr. Bush said on Oct. 11, 2000, in one of those debates, "I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, ‘We do it this way, so should you.’ … I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations," were we really supposed to guess that "our values" would come to mean torture and murder?

We know now, and we know more about Mr. Cheney. He’s the central figure in The Dark Side, Jane Mayer’s riveting and shocking new book, and not the least of the themes to emerge from it is that we’ve witnessed something new in American history: the imperial vice presidency. Bush sycophants have given up trying to persuade us that W.’s folksy manner conceals a sharp mind and forceful personality. To borrow a line a Tory politician once used of a colleague, behind that bumbling buffoonish exterior there lurks a bumbling buffoonish interior.

But Mr. Cheney is a very different matter: hard, smart, ruthless, driven, a man who for decades, as Ms. Mayer says, has been "secretly practicing for doomsday." Once upon a time, this was to take the form of nuclear war, but his zealotry adapted itself to the "war on terror," with the help of such colleagues as David Addington, a formidable ultraconservative lawyer. ("No one stood to his right.") He shares the obsession of Mr. Cheney and his fellow "Vulcans," or conservative nationalists, about the "erosion of presidential power and authority" since the disasters of Watergate and Vietnam—an erosion they were determined to undo.

At other times, that might have been almost a matter for academic legal debate; in the circumstances following Sept. 11, restoring presidential power meant that "we’ll have to work sort of the dark side," in Mr. Cheney’s words that give Ms. Mayer her title. Legality, custom and even humanity were discarded, while Congress, the media and the public were all for the moment silent, in what might be called a state of shock and awe.

To begin with, Ms. Mayer shows, not for the first time but in dismaying detail, what a catastrophic failure Sept. 11 was on the part of the intelligence services. There may have been an element of overcompensation in the way that the C.I.A. subsequently adopted what not long before would have been unthinkable means. Criticism of the C.I.A. and those means was brushed aside by the White House, with Mr. Bush saying, "We need to encourage Congress to frankly leave the man [George Tenet] alone," and Mr. Cheney brutally threatening to portray Congressional Democrats as weaklings or cowards if they stood in his way.

Within weeks of Sept. 11, Cofer Black of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center had proposed the use of death squads for deliberate assassination, something Congress had specifically outlawed years earlier. But now Congress was inert and punch-drunk, as would be shown by the dismal manner in which it authorized the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force," thereby abdicating its fundamental constitutional right to declare war.

Even the most cringingly flag-waving congressmen would maybe have thought twice if they’d known just what was happening. Administration lawyers were privately arguing that statutes prohibiting torture, secret detention and surveillance without warrant could be set aside.

Before long, in a fine display of task-sharing and globalization, interrogation was being outsourced: The Egyptians and Syrians could be relied on to use methods from which even the much admired Jack Bauer might have shrunk. Forgetting namby-pamby ethical questions (and they surely did), what the vice president and his cabal forgot was the old and well-established principle, known to so many intelligence services, that information extracted under duress is of dubious or no value. As grim cases described here show, men will say anything just to stop the pain.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and at the same time The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post published an earlier secret memo from senior administration officials authorizing the use of any torture short of "near-death," Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were outraged, although one feels they might have concentrated a little harder a little earlier on what was afoot. Even then, "neither had the temerity to confront Cheney, who clearly was the true source of these policies." Mr. Addington for his part was also incensed—because the scandal might mean the "torture memo" would have to be withdrawn.


A CRUCIAL DISTINCTION NEEDS to be made. In war, people are murdered and atrocities are committed on all sides. During World War II, Allied soldiers sometimes killed prisoners. Norman Lewis, the great English travel writer, described in his enthralling book Naples ’44 how he’d seen a British army officer savagely beat an Italian civilian he was questioning before telling his sergeant to take the man out and shoot him; and in that same campaign, French colonial troops regularly practiced gang rape (an untold story of the war until recently).

But these things did not in themselves mean that the war was wrong—and they were certainly not winked at by the Allied governments of the time, still less formally approved. What’s truly unprecedented is that Bush-era criminality—what Americans would without doubt call war crimes if they were the work of any other country—was institutionalized, and at the highest level: "Bush also knew about, and approved of, White House meetings in which his top cabinet members were briefed by the C.I.A. on its plans to use specific ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques." Don’t forget that Verschärfte Vernehmung ("sharpened or enhanced interrogation") was the exact phrase the Gestapo used for its own methods.

Back in October 2000, Mr. Bush said of his opponent, Mr. Gore, "I’m not exactly sure where the vice president’s coming from, but I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, ‘We do it this way, so should you.’" We have since learned where Mr. Bush’s own vice president was coming from. Have Americans fully realized the extent
of the damage done to their values, how ugly their country has come to seem and how immensely difficult it will be for the next president to make good that damage?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Controversy of Zion (Perseus), The Strange Death of Tory England (Allen Lane) and, most recently, Yo, Blair! (Politico’s). He can be reached at books@observer.com.

A Connoisseur of Doom