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Report: Frank Rich, Jane Mayer at the 92nd St. Y

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

To see New York Times columnist Frank Rich interview New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer about the Bush administration's torture policies at the 92nd Street Y, as I did last Tuesday in the delightful company of Emily and Jonathan, is to experience (in the audience) a certain kind of informed liberal orthodoxy in its most undiluted form. At times I felt that if we were to concentrate any more intently, we might inadvertently summon the corporeal form of Keith Olbermann, if not I.F. Stone himself.

As it happened, it was that degree of obvious advocacy and affection in the audience that permitted the conversation to be as focused, and yet as unfussy, as it was. In other words, Mayer and Rich scarcely had to adjust their dialogue to the audience—we were all on the same page. Rich wanted Mayer to explain what was happening with the torture story, and that's exactly what she did. We were along for the ride.

Mayer's latest book, The Dark Side, is now out in paperback. She is certainly one of the best-informed people in the country (not on a government payroll) when it comes to our government's recent rendition and torture practices. She confessed a desire to investigate some new story, but as the facts of this one are not yet out, she keeps getting drawn back in.

On Obama, Mayer ventured a familiar combination of hope and incipient disappointment. Rhetorically Obama has been so good on the subject that it's difficult to assess the obvious backsliding. The Bush administration left behind an intractable legal problem—how to prosecute dangerous members of Al Qaeda (almost certainly) whose rights have egregiously been violated and whose cases would surely be thrown out of court under any normal circumstances. As one CIA employee told her, "The problem was always the disposal plan." The Obama administration clearly regards the matter of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the subject of Mayer's February 2009 article in The New Yorker, as a test case to see how this will play out, so keep your eye on that. On the subject of disposal, the Bush administration apparently contemplated with some seriousness a plan of putting the prisoners on a ship that would then circumnavigate the globe in perpetuity, an idea Rich instantly dubbed "Halliburton cruises."

One interesting revelation was that journalists are not permitted to interview convicted terrorists—and they are also not permitted to interview people who for legal reason have had access to them, this "two degrees of separation" prophylactic approach bearing the bland appellation "special administrative measures."

Mayer noted that there are detailed reports produced by the likes of the CIA's inspector general and the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility that have yet to be released, an eventuality that is likely, in her view. So brace yourself for more shocking revelations. One of the tiny number of people permitted to see the interrogation transcripts called them the "the most disgusting thing he had ever seen." Like any good reporter, Mayer takes the view that disclosure of these practices is essential to the maintenance of an open society.

Simplistic as it sounds, that process will yield heroes and villains. Doug Feith, David Addington, John Yoo, and their ilk are apparently "very nervous," while others, like Alberto J. Mora, once general counsel of the United States Navy (as Mayer reported in 2006), distinguished themselves with their courage in opposing these reprehensible practices. Addington et al. prompt the question, were they imparting sound legal advice or did they have their collective thumb on the scale? The absence of an important 1983 waterboarding precedent in Yoo's internal memoranda prompts the latter interpretation, an inauspicious sign.

One of the most interesting questions that remains is the degree to which the torture regime was a sincere effort to obtain valid intelligence or a cynical attempt to manufacture a justification for the war in Iraq. In my opinion, the available facts aren't encouraging. If that manufacturing is exposed, it's going to take a very long time for our country to come to terms with the official, costly duplicity in which our governmental representatives engaged.

The first question of the audience Q&A section demanded an impossible degree of information, albeit one close to the concerns of this blog: "Can you describe the process of writing a New Yorker piece from start to finish?" Mayer's comments were appreciative yet betrayed a glimpse of the pressure that such high standards bring: "The process is endless, no one would believe it. . . . We have an in-house grammarian who will mark up your copy to the point that you want to cry—or change professions. . . . I have a hunch that it's the typeface that makes us look so good." She also singled out editor Daniel Zalewski for his unerring instincts.

There was more, but my hand can furtively scribble only so much, and the remainder of my markings are unintelligible, even to me.


Nicely done, Martin. And, not to focus too much on the comparatively trivial when the bulk of your post is on such a weighty topic, but I loved your final paragraph. Elegantly amusing.

Great piece, Martin. I’d love to hear more about these proposed “Halliburton cruises”. I see a Hollywood scenario play out in which a Halliburton cruise transporting alleged terrorists is attacked by Somalian pirates. Who fights whom? Who double-crosses whom?

Mayer’s comments on the writing process at The New Yorker are also fascinating.

Thank you, gents. How would you calculate the ransom for such an acquisition? What would we be buying with it? The perpetuation of a legal fiction vital to our national security?

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