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Jane Mayer and panelists reflect on detention and torture -- and what happens next

April 25, 2009 |  2:14 pm

Torture1 When the planes hit the Twin Towers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jane Mayer, a reporter for the New Yorker and, most recently, author of “The Dark Side,” was at the gym.

She spent the day reporting, and that evening, she attended a service at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The minister said something that Mayer admitted took a while to fully sink in: “It becomes a question of how to defeat this enemy without becoming this enemy.”

Eight years later, it has become apparent that the methods employed by the United States to gain information from captured enemy combatants might well be considered torture. Mayer’s book, released in 2008, couldn’t be more topical, as the last few weeks have put the issues of torture and "extraordinary rendition" on the front pages. The question of an adequate response from the Justice Department (or any response at all) goes straight to the heart of Mayer’s inquiry.


Mayer’s excellent article from February, "The Hard Cases: Will Obama Institute a New Kind of Preventive Detention for Terrorist Suspects?" refers to a climate of extreme national security concern where: “Under rules established by the Bush administration, suspected terrorists such as [Ali Saleh Kalah al-Marri] were denied the legal protections traditionally afforded by the Constitution.”  At that time, there rose an unnerving sense that the rule of law was not only in jeopardy but also bypassed completely.

At today’s Festival of Books, with fellow panelists Barton Gellman, Tom Hayden and Doyle McManus, Mayer spoke about some of the sources in government she's talked to over the last eight years. “There have been tremendous people who’ve had crises of confidence.” These were people on the inside, “who felt that what they were doing was not only illegal but dishonorable.”

This is seemingly in direct contrast to the top officials who Mayer said “were told over and over that this was illegal. There was a supposition, from the start, that torture was the silver bullet we just had to shoot.”

One wonders what Mayer would make of Judge Jay Bybee, who helped draft the OLC memos that defined the methods of interrogation used under the Bush administration, and the beginnings (today!) of what some have called his “apology tour” in the pages of the Washington Post.

“Ideologically, this was a faith-based thing,” Mayer said. “I think they thought that this would be what saved America. It didn’t work, but they did it anyway.”

Sure-to-be-shocking photographs of interrogated detainees are set to be released by the Obama administration in the coming month. 

“For each photo,” Mayer noted, “there’s a voluminous amount of documents inside the CIA.” This means a voluminous amount of investigations, finger-pointing and “so many lawsuits.”

Photographs and memos are only pieces of what's shaping up to be an enormous line of inquiry that will have to be followed. “If you don’t prosecute people,” Mayer concluded at the panel’s end, “then you’re sending a message that you’re really not a country of law.”

-- George Ducker

Photos: At top left, Jared Thomas of the L.A. chapter of War Criminals Watch outside the panel discussion. Credit: George Ducker. Lower, Jane Mayer from Harpers.org