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'Dark Side' Details A War On American Ideals

In summer 1914, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Indeed, Sir Edward died in 1933, a dozen years short of Europe's re-illumination after economic collapse, genocide and two world wars.

In the 21st century version of the story, after al-Qaida extinguished our own lamps on 9/11, Bush administration lawyers arranged — secretly — to ensure that this new nighttime would be very long and very, very dark. The first clue came with Dick Cheney's announcement, on Meet the Press on Sept. 16, 2001, that henceforth, "We'll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.... A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly...." In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer switches skillfully between two parallel narratives to jarring effect, alternating starchy scenes of suited lawyers seated in Washington offices with brutal scenes of detainee interrogation at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. As attorneys upended logic, responsible leadership and the Constitution, interrogators whipped their political prisoners with electrical cords. In painfully blunt prose, Mayer documents it all.

The Dark Side is horrifying, all the more so for Mayer's decision to avoid politicking and let details speak for themselves. Though her liberal use of unnamed sources can be frustrating for readers in search of a true, Ellsberg-esque whistleblower, the damning confessions and reflections she elicits are impressive nonetheless.

The observation that, "No one [in the White House] knew the Constitution — certainly not Cheney," is only slightly less damaging coming from a "former high-ranking lawyer" than it would be had Mayer gotten her source to identify himself. Mayer's particularly privileged access to, as she recently told Harper's, "hundreds of sources in and around the Bush White House," and to multiple sources surrounding a hitherto unpublicized 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross report, lets her dig with a sharp spade that sets her book apart from the dozens of post-9/11 histories.

Finally, her unnamed sources are bolstered by on-the-record testimony, such as military police Sgt. Jeffery Frost's statement that, after a CIA interrogation of a detainee at Abu Ghraib, "Blood came gushing out of [the prisoner's] nose and mouth, as if a faucet had been turned on." Then it becomes clear that whatever journalistic liberties Mayer may have taken, they match neither in scope nor zeal the "liberties" taken by a state working the dark side.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.