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Talking With Jane Mayer

As much as any other reporter, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has helped expose the post-9/11 system of detention, rendition and abuse of ‘enemy combatants.’ Her book out today, “The Dark Side,” significantly expands on her reporting. We talked to Mayer about how the move to the system started with bureaucratic bungling and the curiously passive role of President Bush, who kept “disappearing from the frame.”

Editor’s Note: Umansky’s reporting is briefly cited in the book.

Credit: The New Yorker Before you even get to torture, you suggest that the move to a more aggressive war paradigm was ill-considered. A lot of the mistakes before 9/11 weren’t about being insufficiently aggressive you suggest but were just the result of bureaucratic bungling.

One of the things that struck me in talking from interviewing lots of people involved in the war on terror is that we weren’t hit by al-Qaida on September 11, 2001 because we had been unable to torture people before. That wasn’t the problem. When you look closely at the record, it wasn’t that the laws were inadequate. In fact, the U.S. did amazingly well prosecuting terrorists as criminals. And the FBI did pretty well in keeping on top of the expanding al-Qaida’s operations.

What went wrong was both simple and complex: First, there was ordinary incompetence. Most importantly, the CIA forgot to tell the FBI that two al-Qaida suspects had entered America more than a year before 9/11. They just dropped the ball.

And complicating things was a lack of political will. At the White House, arguments went round and round about whether to use lethal force against al-Qaida. Nobody really wanted to step up to it and so nobody really did.

One thing that has always struck me—putting aside for a moment the treatment of enemy combatants—was the near-total lack of process in deciding who was one.

That was huge. Some of these things were just amateur mistakes. And it sprang from when they threw out the Geneva Conventions, which includes a process for screening POWs, so you can figure out who’s truly an enemy and who’s just an innocent bystander. When they got rid of the Geneva Conventions they threw out the screening process—Article 5 hearings. And when they stopped screening, inevitably, they made a lot of mistakes.

You pointed to the irony that the administration was focused on expanding presidential power when in fact a lot of these decisions weren’t emanating from there…

It is an irony. The big argument being made by the vice president, his lawyer, David Addington, and the Justice Department was that the commander-and-chief needed almost unfettered powers to win the war on terror. And yet when you really examine the record, it’s frequently not the president who’s making many of these calls; it’s the vice president.

The president, it’s funny, I asked a lot of questions about him when I was doing interviews, and he keeps disappearing from the frame of the picture. He is described as distracted by one of the people who briefed him. Colin Powell tells a friend who I interviewed he sees the president not as being stupid but as being too easily manipulated by Cheney, who knew how to push him around.

You write that after the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision in 2006—which said detainees were covered by portions of the Geneva Conventions —the president initially appeared to be against proposing legislation to overturn the decision.

Yes, he actually makes the call against Cheney and Addington at that point—after having been lobbied Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes.  In this case , when he did get all the facts, he decided against Cheney and Addington. And that was pretty unusual from what I could see.

And yet, then the Military Commissions Act happened—Congress did overturn the Court’s decision.

Yes, then the MCA happens. Also, when the president gives his speech about closing down the CIA’s black sites, rather than it becoming a means of criticizing those policies [as Mayer writes an initial draft reflected], the vice president finds a way to convince him to keep the black sites open at least in theory.

Talk a bit about the challenges of doing all this reporting when there have been so few prosecutions and such little congressional inquiry.

That’s true, though there are beginning to finally be stirrings in Congress. Carl Levin’s office did an 18-month investigation that released some really interesting documents recently. Without a subpoena reporters are left to beg. I’ve done a lot of begging over the last few years.

Luckily there are a number of people inside the administration, certainly within the military and FBI who were upset enough about of some of these policies that they felt it was important to get word out.

I’m not sure people realized how much of a fight it was inside the government.  I mean, we had [former administration lawyer] Jack Goldsmith’s book, and [former Deputy Attorney General] James Comey’s testimony about the NSA wiretapping—which was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. But what I tried to do was connect the dots. And tell more about the struggle—how it went from a fight over America’s security to a fight over its soul.

You write about a CIA official going down to Gitmo in 2002 and concluding that many of the prisoners were innocent; it’s been one of the things pegged as news. And yet reports of that have been bouncing around for a long time. I wonder if that’s because the detainee and torture story keeps coming out in bits and parts, and so we forget…

You’re wondering whether the same news keeps getting recycled. You know, part of the challenge to me was to take a lot of the reporting that has been out there—and there’s been some fantastic reporting on this whole area. The stories have broken out of order, so it’s hard to make sense out of the whole narrative because you learn fragments of it here and fragments of it there. What I was trying to tell in the book was the story from start to finish, as best as I could.

If you put it in order it somehow has more impact, because people begin to understand it better. I also think the country was kind of in a numb state and resistant to thinking about this for a long time. The zeitgeist has changed a bit and there’s a bit more openness toward being critical. So now I think people are thinking about it freshly again, even though some of the material has been out there before.

I’ve been covering this for three years. And I didn’t understand a lot until I put it all together. I really truly didn’t understand, for example, the relationship between things happening in Washington and for instance, the interrogation of Manadel Al-Jamadi in Iraq. That there was a fight in Washington over what standards could be used for his interrogation and whether the Geneva Conventions applied in Iraq.

When the CIA interrogated him to death, basically, it all took place within a vortex of legal confusion—with the CIA crying in Iraq for legal guidance, asking for a lawyer. Only when you put all the pieces together do you really begin to understand the story.

For instance, I hadn’t realized that Special Forces had handled the early part of the interrogation, then he was handed over to the CIA, then he dies in their hands—at Abu Ghraib. And then that picture of him—the famous “iceman” photo—that is part of the packet of shots from Abu Ghraib that come out and startle the world. There’s this whole connection between all of these events that’s really hard to see until you try to tell it as a story.

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