For civil libertarians, the inauguration of President Barack Obama augurs not only a brighter future, but a chance to shed light on the recent past. It goes almost without saying that the Bush Administration has, with its declaration of permanent war and attendant claims of executive privilege, sought to move the balance of power in this country in the direction of monarchy. Its (unsuccessful) arguments before the Supreme Court in the Hamdi and Rasul cases amounted to: “L’etat, c’est moi.” Now, to judge by the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, those responsible for torture, for the lawless detention of American citizens, for illegal state surveillance, and for perjury may finally be brought to justice.
Such a development would not be universally acclaimed. Bush partisans, not to mention the former President himself, have suggested that once Obama gets “read in” on still-classified interrogation and wiretapping programs, he may embrace their utility in fighting terrorism. Other conservatives have argued – less tendentiously, I think – that any “truth and reconciliation” process for former White House officials would touch off a political firestorm sufficient to engulf the rest of the Obama agenda. But, in the absence of a legal reckoning, the civil libertarians wonder, how will we ever learn what went wrong?
The contours of this debate, as it currently stands, obscure an important fact: that the Bush Administration’s gravest depredations are already matters of public record. Thanks to Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command, George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, and Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth, we know, for example, that the Vice President, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Secretary of Defense signed off on the torture of “enemy combatants.” Whether or not this merits prosecution is open to discussion, but there is little need to establish a new set of institutions to expose the Bush Administration’s wrongdoing. We’ve got an institution that works well. It’s called investigative journalism.
Two of the most recent and compelling books about the outgoing administration – Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and Barton Gellman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency – argue persuasively that the Bush approach to civil liberties departed from previous presidential scandals less in degree than in kind. While Clinton and Nixon broke the law, Vice President Dick Cheney and his bureaucratic enforcers attempted to rewrite it: to place executive power on a footing other than the inalienable rights of man.
Of the two books, Gellman’s comes the closest to offering the satisfactions of good literature, and thus should probably be approached with the most caution. Still, at least one of those satisfactions – a rich and complex protagonist – lends Gellman’s reporting the ring of truth.
In its relentless detail, Angler would seem at first to bolster the leftist caricature of Cheney as merely the Machiavellian power behind the throne. Gellman uncovers several incidents with profound legal and national-security implications in which Cheney “rolled” the president. Moreover, he documents a pattern in which vast tracts of what would become the most important areas of public policy were knowingly entrusted to the judgment of the vice president. Cheney’s former counselor Mary Matalin explains that he
arrived in office with a ‘preordained policy portfolio’ that spanned ‘the economic issues, the security issues – even before 9/11, we had homeland security – and the energy issues… the iron issues, I don’t know what else to call them. The steely issues. Apart from those, ‘we had the go-to guy on the hill’ because of Cheney’s Senate duties and experience in the House.
“That was a remarkable list,” Gellman notes:
war and peace, the economy, natural resources, and negotiations with Congress. Nor was Matalin’s description complete. It omitted, among other things, a preeminent role for Cheney in nominations and appointments, which did not stop with the transition. Cheney’s brief, all in all, encompassed most of the core concerns of any president.
On the other hand, Gellman is careful to complicate his portrait. For example, he shows a connoisseur’s appreciation for Cheney’s remarkable gifts as a bureaucrat. The Vice President, a former White House Chief-of-Staff, evidently brought to his new office a mastery of personnel matters: whom to place where, and which jobs mattered. He also had an innate understanding for what to keep secret and what to leak, and created in his office what amounted to a parallel government, carrying out in duplicate the functions of the National Security Council (NSC), the Office of Management and Budget, and – crucially – the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).
Through the use of proxies (most notably the frightening David Addington, the hapless Alberto Gonzalez, and the delusional John Yoo); through discipline and secrecy; and through an acute sense of the vulnerabilities of his targets and opponents, Cheney would become not only the most powerful but, on his own terms, the most successful Vice President in history. Over eight years, he recast “the steely issues” in his own ideological image.
To be sure, Gellman’s tight focus on Cheney leaves something to be desired. A kind of foreshortening makes certain tangential objects – notably, the President – appear smaller than they likely were in real life. But Angler is no partisan hit-job; Gellman understands that Cheney is sincere in his sense of mission. The book quotes a letter Cheney wrote to his grandchildren on a day when he briefly became acting president (Bush was under anesthesia. There’s a punchline here somewhere.):
‘My principal focus as vice president has been to protect the American people in our way of life. As you grow, you will come to understand the sacrifices that each generation makes to preserve freedom and democracy for future generations.’
And were the Obama Administration rapidly to dismantle Cheney’s pet programs – and were, God forbid, a terrorist attack to occur on American soil soon after, after seven years without – we might view his instincts (if not his methods) in a different light. This may strike you as simplistic. Then again, so are the moral contours of the universe in which the Vice President believes himself to be operating.
Jane Mayer’s book, more broadly focused on “How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” revisits many of Gellman’s sources, and essentially corroborates his assertion that, under Cheney and Addington, OVP (the Office of the Vice President) sought to eradicate rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. Because The Dark Side does not center on a single character, it lacks some of the narrative propulsion of Angler, but it probably offers a more comprehensive view of the workings of the Bush White House.
That White House was not uniformly indifferent to civil liberties, Mayer shows. Her account illuminates not only the ineptitude of Gonzalez and the lawlessness of Yoo, but the supreme decency of Republican civil servants like Jack Goldsmith, head of OLC, and John Bellinger III, head counsel at NSC. Their adherence to the law – presumably a prerequisite for attorneys – comes to seem like heroism in comparison with what surrounded them. “Protect your client,” one told Gonzalez, warning that torture could lead to prosecutions. Of course in the Bush White House, it was competence that rarely went unpunished.
Through her meticulous sourcing and her dogged aggregation of the circumstantial evidence, Mayer persuades the reader that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the “black sites,” and foreign prisons were not only licensed but encouraged high up the chain of command. This helps to explain why patterns of abuse migrated so quickly from Guantánamo to Iraq – those two chains converge at the very top. The President himself – well-meaning, shrewd in his way, but hostage at some deep level to his insecurities – emerges as the efficient cause for his Administration’s human rights abuses. “We do not negotiate with ourselves,” he says at one point. As a candidate, George W. Bush was much maligned for his malapropisms, but it was these royalist flourishes – “I intend to spend [my political capital]. It is my style” – that hold the key to the Presidential personality.
Ultimately, the most valuable function of The Dark Side is to shred the Cheney camp’s justifications for torture. In meticulous detail, the book explains why the abuses are illegal; why they are immoral; why they were uncalled for after September 11; and why they have been ineffective. And unlike Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, they almost became the permanent law of the land.
Due to the heroic work of a small and shrinking cohort of investigative reporters, they will not. Ordinary Americans, their fears and longings expertly stoked by the White House, have so far seemed willing to stop there, to quit while we’re ahead. Whatever we choose to do about the Bush Administration’s misdeeds moving forward, though, we are no longer entitled to claim ignorance. And should our preference for attractive illusions over unpleasant truth allow some future president to reclaim the right to arrest without charges, to hold without habeas corpus, and to inflict on human beings “suffering ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure… or even death,'” we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Bonus link: Vanity Fair’s “Oral History of the Bush White House”