By Steve Downs, a retired New York State attorney.

THE DARK SIDE by Jane Mayer, Doubleday, 2008, is a well researched and accessible account of how Dick Cheney took over a part of the US government and ran it as a virtual dictatorship for some 7 years entirely outside the rule of law. Surely you might say, this is an overstatement, and yet this is apparently what happened. When Bush was elected president, Cheney inserted his protégés into different departments ready to do his bidding when the time came. And these protégés, especially his Deputy David Addington, were able to establish a choke hold on the presidency, deciding with whom Bush would meet, and what he read. Cheney usually had the final word with the president before any important decisions were made. Written documents had to pass through Addington one last time before they went to Bush, and Addington often rewrote entire documents that had been cleared though the normal channels before the documents were presented to Bush. In this way Addington and Cheney were able to dominate all decisions that had to be approved by Bush and so Cheney was able to put his policies into effect without the public really being aware of it.

After 9/11, Cheney was given primary control of National Security. Through his Deputy Addington, Cheney created a special 5 member “War Council” of his conservative supporters, and had measures adopted that made its decisions secret and outside review by other departments. Again through Addington, Cheney reached out to John Yoo a lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel,(OLC) whose legal opinions were binding on the US government, and had him write a legal opinion that said in war time a president’s powers were unlimited even by the Constitution. Cheney, through his war council, had this opinion classified as secret so that nobody could criticize its flawed legal reasoning, and then proceeded to exercise the power of the unlimited presidency, setting up secret concentration camps and interrogation centers, holding people illegally, engaging in torture, murder and kidnapping, all without the slightest legal basis other than the flawed legal opinions of John Yoo that nobody was allowed to see. Cheney was able to get away with this power grab because so much of what he did was secret, and because he limited the affect of his illegal activities to a group of people — Muslims — that were vulnerable and had little political support within America.

Cheney, again through Addington and Yoo, wrote other secret memos to declare that certain procedures which for centuries had been considered torture were in fact not torture within the meaning of legal treaties. In a remarkably rapid fashion he was able to establish an essentially lawless state — not part of the US and not part of any other country – where no laws applied and where people could be brutalized, tortured and killed without any legal consequences. All of the experts in international law, the armed services, the Department of State, and other key departments were cut out of the decision making process so that there could be no opposition to War Council’s total power and authority. Bush and other government officials were apparently aware of what Cheney and his associates were doing, but either supported it, or believed that they had no way to oppose it.

The book concentrates primarily on the war abroad — renditions, Guantanimo, CIA interrogations, trial by military commission and the Supreme Court’s repeated attempts to bring Cheney’s lawless empire back under the constitution. The book does not consider the corruption of the Justice Department in bringing criminal charges against “suspicious” domestic Muslims who had committed no crimes, which is the topic perhaps for a future book.

The Dark Side is especially effective when it follows particular cases like John Walker Lindh, Al-Libi, Mamdouh Habib, Maher Arar, Abu Zubayada, Kalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al-Qahtrani, and Al-Jamadi (who died under torture) through the bureaucratic jungle that Cheney and his deputies used to increase their power, suppress the truth and keep their illegal conduct from coming to light. It examined the overwhelming evidence that torture does not produce truthful information, and followed the consequences of using false confessions from torture victims like Al-Libi to set policy and justify the war in Iraq.

Some of the best parts of the book detail the battles of unlikely heroes who came to believe that they had to oppose the insane world that Cheney had created at the risk of their own careers. My favorite story is about Dan Levin, a lawyer who was brought into the Department of Legal Counsel (DLC) by Cheney to rewrite a memo authorizing torture, after Jack Goldsmith, another DLC lawyer, decided that John Yoo’s opinion authorizing torture was unsupportable and withdrew it. Levin obviously was given only one choice by Cheney — write a memo authorizing torture or finding that certain interrogation methods that had always been regarded as torture were not. (If Levin did not do this then Cheney and others would be guilty of serious crimes, and so Levin would have to be replaced by some lawyer who would absolve Cheney of criminal liability by writing the opinion that Cheney wanted.) Yet Levin had come to the same conclusion as Goldsmith — torture was illegal even in war time. Searching for a way to reconcile two opposite imperatives, Levin hit upon a brilliant solution. He would do independent research and have himself tortured. Then he could say with some empirical evidence what torture was and what it was not. (The best part of the idea was that Cheney could not disagree with Levin’s empirical findings unless he was willing to have himself tortured — something apparently few of the conservatives running the government were willing to do).

This book will not be the last word on the subject. There are still too many secret memos, and legal opinions and too many people who are not yet willing to talk about what happened. Often the best Meyer can say about certain actions by Addington or Yoo or other surrogates, is that the office of the Vice President was involved — without specifically saying that it was directed by Cheney. Yet given the personalities involved it would be very hard to believe that these actions were not directed by Cheney. Despite these inherent limitations, the book is riveting and compelling, both in its broad outlines and in its remarkably well developed details, as it describes people trying to operate in or oppose an insane lawless state created primarily by the Vice President and his associates. Meyer’s book is particularly readable because it is written in a factual, understated manner and is so well documented. It should be mandatory reading for everyone.


FIVE YEARS OF MY LIFE (An Innocent Man in Guantanamo) by Murat Kurnaz, (Palgrave McMillian 2007), is the astonishing story of a German born Turk who happened to be traveling in Pakistan around the time of 9/11 and was sold by Pakistani police to the Americans as a terrorist for about $5,000. Kurnaz was tortured almost to death in Afghanistan by the Americans, and was then flow to Cuba and imprisoned at Guantanamo for 5 years. His descriptions of the conditions at Guantanamo are probably the clearest and most reliable of any published reports so far, and they are shocking.

One reason Kurnaz is so credible is that a year or so after he was arrested, the US concluded that he was not a terrorist and tried to send him back to either Turkey or Germany but neither country wanted him back. Since the US had no place else to send him, they sent him to Guantanamo. Kurnaz attorney, Baher Azmy, who wrote an epilogue in the book (and who recently spoke at Albany Law School about the case), confirms Kurnaz innocence, and the treachery of the US, German and Turkish governments in allowing a known innocent man to be incarcerated and tortured for 5 years. Kurnaz has since been released without charges (and without any apology from the US).

Kurnaz describes a world at Guantanamo which was designed to break people physically and mentally. All of the normal methods of torture were used — stress positions, beatings, sensory depravations, freezing, heat, loud noise, sleep depravation, and electrodes… Rules were made up and then arbitrarily changed without ever telling the inmates. Guards would suddenly run in and beat inmates for violations of rules they had never heard of. Kurnaz describes all of this in the flat, almost unemotional tone that many survivors of abuse adopt when describing what happened to them.

The point of all the torture was to force the inmates to talk and to tell the interrogators whatever the interrogators wanted to know. What is so extraordinary about Kurnaz story is that before he arrived at Guantanamo, the US had already concluded that Kurnaz did not know anything. Since Kurnaz knew nothing, why was the US torturing him to make him talk? There seems to be no rational explanation except the banality of evil. It appears that the interrogators treated Kurnaz just like all the others, and assume that there must be something the prisoner could say — just one little morsel — if only he was tortured long and hard enough.

The book is a remarkable survival story. Fellow inmates died under torture as Kurnaz watched. Prisoners banded together to humiliate the Commanding General of Guantanimo Geoffrey Miller, by dumping a bucket of shit on him and calling him General Toilet. There is hilarity and shock mixed together. This book is especially powerful when read together with “The Dark Side” by Jane Mayer. The Dark Side explores how Vice President Cheney and others created the insane world of Guantanimo and other similar places where laws and the constitution did not apply. Five Years Of My Life describes what life was like in such lawless and insane places. The two reinforce each other and are dramatic if sobering reading.