Writer talks torture

With a series of executive orders earlier this week, President Barack Obama set in motion the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, reversed seven years of legal wrangling by the administration of George W. Bush ’68, and left reporter Jane Mayer ’77 looking for a new story to write.

Speaking to a packed room in the Branford master’s house Monday afternoon, Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker and author of the bestselling book “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” expressed relief that the chapter in history she has covered so thoroughly may be over.

“This was an incredible story to tell,” said Mayer. “It had a beginning, and a middle, and an end, to some extent — the end being now.”

The Obama administration has announced that it will review each case at Guantanamo Bay and decide whether or not there is enough evidence to prosecute individual detainees. The legal situation is complicated by the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed in many cases by military and Central Intelligence Agency interrogators as part of a program originating in the office of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Mayer said.

Mayer’s book, “The Dark Side,” takes its name from comments made by Cheney about the need for such techniques in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the need, in his words, “to work the dark side.”

In her book, Mayer details the way these interrogation techniques were “reverse-engineered” from the training given to elite United States troops to help resist interrogations by the likes of the Nazis and the Vietcong.

“It was modeled on torture, and it was torture,” said Mayer.

Until recently, however, no one in the Bush administration had publicly used the term, with Bush himself maintaining that “the United States doesn’t torture.”

“They weren’t honest about it being torture until about two weeks ago,” said Mayer, referring to the announcement by Susan Crawford, the top Bush administration official in charge of military commissions at Guantanamo, that she would not refer the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani for prosecution because he had been tortured during repeated interrogations.

Mayer said she feels “torn” over whether the officials and administration lawyers who wrote opinions advocating more forceful interrogations should face prosecution.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Jan. 21, a slim majority of Americans (50 in favor to 47 percent opposed) believe the Obama administration should investigate whether the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees was indeed illegal.

Gathered students echoed this mixture of ambivalence and condemnation. Jesse Marks ’11 said Mayer’s talk changed his mind about U.S. policy on torture.

“I think the costs to America’s image outweigh any benefits,” he said.

Mayer occasionally solicited student opinion herself, turning one question back to the audience.

“What do you think?” she asked, turning a student’s question back to the audience. “Do you want there to be war crimes trials?”

There was silence, and a few slow nods.

The question is a difficult one for Mayer herself, who said she feels “torn” over the best way to proceed.

“I see myself as a reporter more than an advocate,” said Mayer. “But as somebody who’s been poring over these records for the last few years, sweeping it under the rug doesn’t do the trick. We understand only part of the story at this point.”

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