Bill Moyers
July 25, 2008
Journalist Jane Mayer on Torture

BILL MOYERS: And so it went. We'll post excerpts from the hearings at our site on But with me now is Jane Mayer, one of the country's top investigative reporters. Twelve years with the Wall Street Journal, covering the White House, war and foreign crises and twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, bestselling author Jane Mayer is now based in Washington as staff writer for The New Yorker. In the past several days, her new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, has created even more passionate discussion than the hearings themselves.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.

You've been attending some of these hearings. Are you certain that the witnesses who came from the government knew they were talking about torture?

JANE MAYER: Well, I think they knew they were being asked about torture. I mean, they danced around the question. They've redefined the term "torture" so that what was torture before 9/11 they say has not been torture since.


JANE MAYER: Because they wanted to interrogate people in completely brutal ways. And they wanted to avoid being accused of war crimes. So one of the witnesses there, Doug Feith in particular, who was the number three in the Pentagon, argued right after 9/11 that the Geneva Convention should no longer apply to anybody that was picked up in the war on terror, that was a terrorist suspect. And so they took away the rules of war, which were the Geneva Conventions, which America really pioneered in many ways. And they also said that the criminal laws didn't apply to the same suspects. So they were left with kind of a legal limbo. And they made up the laws as they went along on it. So —

BILL MOYERS: Can we fault them for wanting to put first the safety of the United States in the hours, days, and weeks after 9/11?

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, this isn't really so much about fault. It's a question, seven years later, if what they did in those panicky moments right after 9/11 were the right choices and whether they're still the right choices. I think that there's been a re-consideration from many quarters. And one of the things that I write about it in this book is that, unseen by the American public, there were many people really early on who had big problems with what this program required. And they were not just liberals at the ACLU. They were —

BILL MOYERS: No, they were conservatives inside the government, right?

JANE MAYER: They were. And, in particular, the first line of dissent came from the United States military leaders and particularly the military lawyers who are experts in the laws of war. And they said this is dishonorable. This is not how we fight wars. And if you do this to these people, they're, it's going to enflame them and it's going to endanger our own men and women when they get taken captive. And another very early line of dissent came from the FBI, who, when they first saw what the CIA was doing, when they started interrogating high-value detainees, a couple of the FBI agents who were there said, "These people, the CIA, should be arrested for criminal behavior. What they're doing is," the quote was, "borderline torture."

BILL MOYERS: And some FBI agents, as I read your book, refused to take part in this brutality.

JANE MAYER: They did refuse. Absolutely. They said, "We're not gonna have anything to do with this." And, in fact, it wasn't just on the low level. What it was a completely remarkable situation where it, the issue, went all the way up to the top of the FBI, where the director of the FBI took a look at this and he said, "Well, we're not gonna be involved." So you — we've had a war on terror where the FBI has pretty much taken a backseat or no seat because they don't want to have any part in this thing because they know that they think that some of it's criminal.

BILL MOYERS: Who were some of the other conservative heroes, as you call them, in your book?

JANE MAYER: A lot of them are lawyers. And they were people inside the Justice Department who, one of whom, and I can't name this one in particular, said when he looked around at some of the White House meetings — he was in where they were authorizing the president, literally, to torture people if he thought that was necessary — he said, "I can't, I could not believe these lunatics had taken over the country." And I am not talking about someone who is a liberal Democrat. I'm talking about a very conservative member of this Administration. And there was a —

BILL MOYERS: Your source?

JANE MAYER: My source.

BILL MOYERS: And, yet, when these conservatives — as you write in your book — when these conservatives spoke up, Cheney and company retaliated against their own men.

JANE MAYER: People told me, "You can't imagine what it was like inside the White House during this period. There was such an atmosphere of intimidation." And when the lawyers, some of these lawyers tried to stand up to this later, they felt so endangered in some ways that, at one point, two of the top lawyers from the Justice Department developed this system of talking in codes to each other because they thought they might be being wiretapped. And they even felt —

BILL MOYERS: By their own government.

JANE MAYER: By their own government. They felt like they might be kind of weirdly in physical danger. They were actually scared to stand up to Vice President Cheney.

BILL MOYERS: And you say that all of this was maintained by a, quote, "top-down quality control?" How did they do it?

JANE MAYER: Well, I mean, I think this is important because we'll all remember when the pictures of Abu Ghraib came out, the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, you know, these were, you know, just a few rotten apples. There wasn't a policy here. So, part of what I spent a lot of time trying to do was to figure out what was policy? What was official U.S. policy? And there's a paper trail that goes right to the top of our government. And Congress is beginning, in some of those hearings that you showed, they've begun to ask questions and subpoena documents. And —

BILL MOYERS: Are they getting to the truth? You've been watching the hearings.

JANE MAYER: They're beginning to.

BILL MOYERS: You think they're getting to the truth?

JANE MAYER: I think that they're beginning to piece it together. It's a humongous jigsaw puzzle. I mean, and there are many, many secrets we still don't know. There are legal memos that nobody's ever seen. There's a memo, for instance, that exists still that defines all the interrogation techniques that were allowed. And, for some reason, the government, the White House, won't allow even Congress to see it. Even the members of Congress with top security clearances can't see it. You have to wonder at a certain point, is this because they're afraid of hurting national security? Or are they afraid of being ashamed in public when that list comes out?

BILL MOYERS: But there is also this fact that — which is that there was a briefing in which four top members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was present, were present, and they were told what was going on. Have they been compromised by their knowledge of what was happening?

JANE MAYER: Well they've been very defensive about it, the Democrats in particular, because they've said that in private they complained about this. They felt they were not allowed to speak out because they'd be accused of violating national security. I also think that, what I've talked to some of them, that say that while the CIA explained what it was doing, it didn't explain it thoroughly. So they used a lot of euphemisms as the kind of euphemisms that we've been hearing, which are intent, enhanced interrogation, or special interrogation.

BILL MOYERS: The other side of it was raised by Representative Trent Franks, a Republican on the committee. Let me play this for you.

REP. TRENT FRANKS: CIA Director Michael Hayden has confirmed that, despite the incessant hysteria in some quarters, the waterboarding technique has only been used on three high-level captured terrorists — the very worst of the worst of our terrorist enemies. Now, what are these people like, Mr. Chairman? When the terrorist Zubaydah, a logistics chief of Al Qaeda was captured, he and two other men were caught building a bomb. A soldering gun used to make the bomb was still hot on the table, along with the building plans for a school. CIA Director Hayden has said that Mohammed and Zubaydah provided roughly 25 percent of the information CIA had on Al Qaeda from all human sources.

BILL MOYERS: What he is saying is that torture works.

JANE MAYER: Right. That's been the argument.

BILL MOYERS: What is your conclusion after these many years of reporting is?

JANE MAYER: Well, there are a couple of things I want to say about this. One is to say that there's a special exception here: "We won't torture except when we will torture," is a legal problem. The convention against torture, which the United States Senate ratified, has no exceptions. It's a major felony. There's no excuse for doing it for war. There's no excuse for national security. It doesn't have exceptions. So this is a serious legal problem. Secondly, what did they get from, let's take his case of Abu Zubaydah. There was a soldering iron, as he says, and they were building a bomb. What led them to Abu Zubaydah? Was it torture? It wasn't actually. It was a bribe that they gave to the Pakistanis that got them to Abu Zubaydah. Bribing people does work, and that's, you can see again and again in the war on terror. Then, what did they get out of Abu Zubaydah when they brutalized him? It turns out and I've talked to, for instance, Dan Coleman, who's an FBI agent who knows a lot about Abu Zubaydah and this interrogation. He questioned, he thinks they got nothing out of him. First of all, he was mentally unstable. They — you, they — he said all kinds of crazy things. He later said that he made up half of the things that he told them.

There's — the reason that people don't torture is not just because it's a moral issue. It's because when we moved to a system of law that was on the principles of the enlightenment, the effort was to get at the truth. And you don't torture because people say anything under torture. And, according to a very top CIA officer I spoke to who was very close with Tenet, he said 90 percent of what we —

BILL MOYERS: George Tenet.

JANE MAYER: George Tenet, the former director of the CIA. He said 90 percent of what we got was crap. And he said — and that was true of every method we used: Torture, non-torture.

BILL MOYERS: There have been some suggestions recently that they may have begun to torture Abu Zubaydah before the Justice Department drew up this memo justifying it. Do you think —

JANE MAYER: But the torture memo, the famous torture memo that was written in August of 2002 by, mostly by John Yoo, was written to justify these harsh interrogations, whatever you want to call them. But when John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, testified recently, he was asked, "Well, you know, when did these interrogations on Zubaydah begin?" It turns out they'd been interrogating him since March, which is several months before they had legal approval to do so. That's an area where there seems to be super legal exposure for the people involved in this program, the interrogators, the people at the CIA who authorized it. And, in particular, there were a number of psychologists who were contracted psychologists who designed that program.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, that's a fascinating part of your book. You talk about the doctors and the psychologists who participated in the government's program of torture. What — tell us about it.

JANE MAYER: They're civilians. And they hadn't, these psychologists had never actually interrogated anyone. They'd trained in this odd little program where they did mock torture on people. And they had studied how to break people down. And one of them in particular, a fellow named James Mitchell, spoke, according to my sources, about how the science behind breaking someone down psychologically is based on experiments shocking dogs, using electric shocks on dogs.

JANE MAYER: There's this theory called learned helplessness, where if you keep shocking a dog in a cage in a random way so that there's no sense to it, the dog willl just kind of give up. They won't even try to escape after a while when you open the door because they're completely despondent. And this particular psychologist, James Mitchell, what showed up near Abu Zubaydah and started talking about this theory of learned helplessness and how the science was great and you could sort of break resistance of detainees if you applied some of these same methods.

Now, just for legal reasons, I need to say that a lawyer for James Mitchell says that he never really believed this. Yet, I have people on the record in here, in this book, talking about how he talked about it all the time.

BILL MOYERS: You write movingly in here about your concern over the participation in the torture program of these civilian doctors and psychologists.

JANE MAYER: That, to me, is actually a terrible — something I still can't fathom, which is, how can doctors, who take a Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, be involved in a program that, call it torture or not, it's purposefully cruel? And they pop up again and again.

BILL MOYERS: Doing what? What were they doing there?

JANE MAYER: They measure people's blood pressure. They make sure that detainees are strong enough so that they continue to, can continue to be tormented.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, they're observing the torture or the —


BILL MOYERS: Enhanced interrogation?

JANE MAYER: They are. In one case, Mohammad al-Khatani, who was a detainee down in Guantanamo, falls apart. His, all his vital signs are, you know, cratering. And they, he gets emergency medical care, so that they can make sure that then he can be brought back and go through more of this. And I guess, you know, everybody knows in World War II that science was perverted by the Germans. And this is — I don't want to draw this parallel because what we did is not on an order of that. Anyway, doctors take an oath. There's an international oath that doctors take to do no harm. And particularly, it's particularly horrible, I think, to see people use their psychological and medical expertise to hurt people.

BILL MOYERS: Some of these doctors and psychologists who participated, where they're watching the torture, as you say, did you talk to them?

JANE MAYER: Yes, I have talked to them. I've talked to the psychologist James Mitchell. I interviewed him at one point.

BILL MOYERS: Were they —

JANE MAYER: He said he felt he had nothing to be ashamed of.


JANE MAYER: I think he feels that he was doing the right thing.


JANE MAYER: Because he thought he was protecting the country.

BILL MOYERS: Torture can become an accepted way of life for a society. I mean, you can get used to it. Or you can know it's going on and realizing that it doesn't affect you, so it doesn't matter to you. Do you is there a possibility that that's happening here?

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, there's a great book out called Torture and DemocracyBILL MOYERS: Why did you go to the dark side? I mean, you spent three or more years there.

JANE MAYER: I became, I have to admit, somewhat obsessed with the subject because when I did the first story for The New Yorker of this series of stories which was about the program called Rendition, in which American government officials working for the CIA had black hoods over their heads, no one knew who they were. And they were kidnapping people, snatching them off of streets, and throwing them basically in dungeons where they could never be heard from again. And the more I found out, the more disturbing it became. And so, and also I was told at every step, "You can't know this." And for an investigative reporter, you know, it's like someone waving a red flag at a bull.

BILL MOYERS: Where did these three years take you? Where did you spend these three years?

JANE MAYER: Well, I was just sitting at my desk in Washington really. I've been to Guantanamo. In the past, I've been in the Middle East. And to some extent, I think that made me interested in this. I was actually in Beirut on October 23, 1983, when the U.S. Marine barracks was blown up by terrorists. So, I was kind of there when America started dealing with this issue. And it was the most horrific thing I'd ever seen. I wondered, "Well, what mindset makes a terrorist like this? And how do you deal with this?"

And — but I knew enough about the Middle East when I saw, for instance, the Abu Ghraib pictures, to know if you're going to humiliate people like this, you're going to have a powerful backlash in the Middle East. And many people I interviewed said the war on terror is a war on hearts and minds. We've got to win over the next generation of young Muslims. And if you start torturing their relatives, it's gonna be pretty hard.

BILL MOYERS: What's the most horrific thing you found on the dark side?

JANE MAYER: I guess, I just think the worst thing for me is reading and finding out about innocent people who were taken by mistake and put through this program. And there's one, you know, there's one, a German citizen, Khalid el-Masri, who was locked up for months. And the CIA actually had doubts that he was a terrorist from the start, and they wouldn't do anything about it, which I think is unconscionable. They just kept him in there to the point where he lost 70 pounds. Everybody who was around him was banging their heads in, against the wall, trying to commit suicide. It's — it's really awful to see the psychic destruction of people for no reason. It just doesn't seem American to me.

BILL MOYERS: On the basis of what you report in The Dark Side, do you think that these high officials, present and former, have any fear of prosecution?

JANE MAYER: Oh, I think that, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in the Hamdan case, which was in 2006, that actually the Geneva Conventions should cover detainees, there was just a chill that went through the top ranks of the government because they suddenly realized that if you violate the standards in those conventions, it's a war crime, which is an incredibly serious situation. So, yes, I mean, and you begin to hear in some of the meetings I described, Vice President Cheney and the former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, literally start saying, "Well, we better be careful. If we move these detainees out of the black prison sites, people are gonna wonder where they've been and what have we been doing with them." I mean, they're getting sort of spooked about the whole thing. So, yes, I think they're worried. And I think they have to defend this at this point because they're up to their eyeballs in it. So they have to say it worked and it was necessary.

BILL MOYERS: Would that explain why Attorney General Mukasey has actually made a speech recently saying that Congress, not the courts, should define how the detainees can appeal their cases? Turning it into a political rather than a legal issue?

JANE MAYER: Well, I guess, I mean, the thing is the courts have, in my view anyway, have been terrific in standing up for the rule of law in this country and for American ideals, as we've known them since the founding of the country. And the congressmen tend to be a little, have a little less spine, especially as we approach an election, which we are. So, if you put this issue in Congress now as we're facing an election, it's gonna be demagogue-ed. And I think that there's some sense that a lot of people know that.

BILL MOYERS: Some observers like the lawyer Glenn Greenwald say that what Congress is doing, and this is a direct quote, is "to immunize the administration's law breaking and retroactively protect it." What would be the impact of that?

JANE MAYER: I think that, you know, there's been a lot more discussion recently about whether or not President Bush might issue blanket pardons of some sort retroactively to anybody involved in this program. And that is the program of detention and interrogation. And I, you know, I think it might happen. I — there have been blanket pardons before. I'm not sure. Again, I don't know where the American public really is on these issues. Nobody ever asked the American public, "Do you want to start torturing people?" It happened in secret. Now —

BILL MOYERS: But the American public did want to be protected from a second strike after 9/11.

JANE MAYER: I think they did. And I think they were told that this would work. And the question is, now, I think it's worth knowing a lot more about did it really work and was it necessary? And what are the long-term consequences of this?

BILL MOYERS: What do you think the country would gain or lose from pursuing war crimes?

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, I think that it could be very toxic in some ways to hold people as criminals who were doing what they thought was right for the country. But, at the same time, I have to say I think that we need accountability in this country in order to make sure that people abide by the laws. And I can tell you when I interview people at the CIA, a number of people said that they didn't want to get involved in this because they thought there'd be criminal repercussions. So, if there never are any criminal repercussions, I'm not sure where that leaves us.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and John Yoo and David Addington and all of the participants in these decisions would have done the sort of unthinkable things you describe in here before 9/11?

JANE MAYER: Well, I think the panic certainly unleashed them. And it's not that I think they were sitting there saying, "I can't wait to torture people." What I do think, though, is that there was a long festering political agenda, which was to gut international law. There's been a movement in conservative legal circles to try to push back international law and to also, to not coddle criminals, which is what, you know, they, how they see Al Qaeda in some instances, to get tough. I mean, right after 9/11, there's a speech from President Bush in which he says, you know, we've been too soft. So, they felt that they had to get tough. And this is what they thought being tough was, being macho. And I think the Bush Administration really thought, "Okay, we'll take this shortcut and it — and we got to do it." And so they did it.

BILL MOYERS: And, in the face of this, why is Congress so pliant?

JANE MAYER: Well, I think, politically, this is not a winning issue — to look like you're standing up for terrorists. And it's really not about standing up for terrorists. And that's why I have to say I admired the statement from John McCain where he said it's not about them, it's about us. And it's about our country. You know, you don't want to imitate the terrorists. We're better than that.

BILL MOYERS: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. Jane Mayer, thank you very much for the book and for being here.

JANE MAYER: Glad to be with you.

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