Journey to the dark side

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by Steve Clemens | April 28, 2009 • In the entryway to the old CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA was a quote from the Gospel of John: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. I don’t know if the same quote appears in the “new” building which the CIA moved into during the Reagan presidency. If not, I’d suggest a modification: “You might know the truth, and if you do, it will make you very uncomfortable.”

Author and journalist Jane Mayer joined Vice President Walter Mondale and Professor Larry Jacobs for a disturbing and thought-provoking panel Tuesday at noon at the U of MN’s Humphrey Institute. Their topic contained the subtitle “Learning from how the War on Terror turned into the War on American Ideals.”

Although Ms. Mayer did not go into the graphic details from her excellent book, The Dark Side, she did describe a mixture of bungling, ineptitude, and, yes, outright criminality which characterized the Bush/Cheney policies which directly led to torture and gross human rights violations.

Vice President Mondale seemed to be on the same page as Mayer. Despite his modest tone, his clear indignation of the abuse of the US Constitution and International Treaties was forthright. “Cheney didn’t trust the structures that were in place” was his remark when Jacobs asked him about his own experiences during crisis times in the White House. “If you are going to run the country, you have to be rational”, Mondale continued, responding to the picture of Cheney’s paranoia painted by Mayer after the 9-11 attacks.

Mayer had explained that instead of trusting the CIA and other intelligence agencies to filter out threats and rumors and only pass on credible reports to the Administration, the Bush Administration insisted on being able to look at all the “intelligence” [sic] that was gathered around the world and Mayer said anyone reading that unfiltered chatter would become paranoid.

Vice President Cheney felt he was a target soon after 9-11 and thought he was in mortal peril. He realized that his Administration “dropped the ball” in not acting prior to 9-11 and in his over-reaction now, finally, finds himself in moral peril. All three panelists agreed on the need to have more answers about what actually happened and who ordered what. Only after these uncomfortable truths come out would Mondale decide if prosecutions were necessary.

Jane Mayer stated that more and more information will be coming out in the near future: more graphic photos, more internal memos, more details of who did what. The only way to get ahead of this deluge of disclosure by a myriad of leaks is for the President or Congress to begin formal commissions of inquiry. Mondale’s experience on the Church Committee hearings in the post-Watergate Era about abuses by the CIA and the FBI gives him a unique perspective. When questioned about that experience and the criticisms he and other members faced, the former Senator explained that after describing the need in clearer detail, that committee’s work was approved by a 96-1 vote in the Senate. Jacobs read a brief excerpt from the Church Committee report that was unambiguous: the means are as important as the ends.

Already there is movement in the international community for exploring who is responsible for what during these years “on the dark side”. A Spanish judge is looking into the matter. But Mayer reminded her audience that the provisions of the Torture Convention treaty call first for a nation to police its own violations if it signed the treaty. Mondale agreed – it would be much better politically for the American public to face this shameful part of our history if our own government brought out the facts and the charges rather than leaving it in foreign hands.

The irony of all of this is that the “fear and anxiety exploited by zealots and fools” (the description recorded by Mayer made by Condoleezza Rice’s former counselor Phillip Zelikow) actually has made us less safe. Because of the torture and other abuses visited upon some of the detainees at Gitmo or other “black sites”, some genuine “bad guys” may never be brought to trial, including a man described by Mayer as “the 20th hijacker”. What are we to do with them now if we can’t even give them a fair trial? Even though Cheney mistakenly thought he was poisoned in 2001 after overly sensitive sensors went off in the White House Situation Room, he, in fact, is one of those responsible for poisoning both our domestic and global relationships.

It was Cheney who said during those days of crisis that “we might have to travel to the dark side”. Little did he know that his political epitaph would read “The Prince of Darkness”. We must all call for accountability. Locally, we need to look no farther than the campus of the Law School of the University of St. Thomas who hired Robert Delahunty, one of the collaborators along with John Yoo and now Federal Judge Jay Bybee of legal “justifications” for “enhanced interrogations”. Will local pressure and public shaming finally strip him of his veneer of respectability?

We don’t need recrimination and revenge; we do need accountability and a clear record of what happened so we don’t repeat this again unknowingly.

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