by Jerome | 2/17/2014
" The title made me think this would be just another political rant, but this book is admirably balanced and never gets polemic. Eichenwald shows how the Bush administration struggled to find a proper balance between national security and legal rights. While it is all too easy to portray the Bush team as evil dictators hellbent on breaking laws, it is important to consider the context of the time period. After 9/11 NOBODY wanted to see another such terrorist attack happen without having done something about it. All this talk of conspiracies and curbing of civil liberties has nothing to do with some evil conspiracy. Rather, it has everything to do with preventing another catastrophe like 9/11 from happening again. We as citizens can, and should, debate whether these methods' benefits outweighed their drawbacks. But portraying it as some evil conspiracy completely misses the point. In an ideal, perfect world, the Bush team would never have considered the things they considered after 9/11. But after 9/11, it was a different world, and the Bush team, or anyone in their position, for that matter, did what they felt was necessary. If the typical pundit who criticizes the Bush team's decisions was in their place during and after 9/11, I find it hard to imagine how THEY would have steered policy into some sort of perfect, rosy, fantasyland where there is no human cost,no paranoia, no hard decisions and an abundance of perfect solutions.
Eichenwald's book moves along at a crisp, smooth pace and never bogs down. However, a big limitation of the fast-paced style is that it precludes analysis and insights into why something happened. For example, an extended analysis of the misconceptions about the "Manchester Manual" is consigned to the "Notes and Sources" appendix (pp 545-552). Advice: Read it -- it is a critical part of the story. One of my biggest frustrations with the accounts -- this and others -- is that I haven't seen a remotely satisfying explanation of why the CIA didn't have qualified, experienced interrogators as part of its normal course-of-business. Or why the military did not use experienced interrogators from the Reserves -- predominantly from civilian law enforcement -- despite the Reserves being explicitly structured to preserve and provide that capability.
There are several themes that are developed in 500 Days. One of the most important themes is how United States conducted the War on Terror. The War on Terror was multifaceted. It involves the military, the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department, the border patrol and the Department of the Treasury just to name a few of the departments that were involved. This book discusses the decisions that were made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in order to try to prevent a second attack. George Tenet, director of central intelligence, was convinced the 9/11 was the first in a series of attacks. The FBI and the CIA were convinced that there were sleeper cells here in the United States and abroad. These cells were ready to act. Because of this, the Bush administration always felt like they were behind the eight ball. The Bush administration felt that they needed to catch up in order to prevent the next attack.
One of the sub themes in 500 Days was what to do with detainees and how to interrogate detainees. An outsider, like me or you, would probably figure that there was a big meeting in the White House with the president, vice president and other principles sitting around then discussing how to take care of detainees and how to interrogate detainees, that never happened. Instead, a series of lower-level meetings occurred on the fly. The complexity of this issue is well demonstrated in this book. The central role of John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, Dr. Jim Mitchell, psychologist for the SERE program, David Addington and William "Jim" Haynes is painstakingly described. The amount of detail on who did what, in my mind, is unprecedented. And enhanced interrogation techniques were not "illegal." They were approved all the way up the line at the Justice Department. The problem was no their legality but their ineffectiveness. FBI rapport-building techniques had been successful time and time again. Harsh tactics simply caused weaker detainees to fabricate lies in order to get the torture to stop and tougher detainees (who came from countries that employed torture on a regular basis) to harden up. As if this isn't stupid enough, when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, he had already spilled the beans on what he knew. Before he was waterboarded. How odd.
One of the simplistic arguments that has been perpetuated in the mainstream media was the decision to torture or not torture a particular detainee. The mainstream media has told us that "no actionable intelligence" has come from torturing detainees. Kurt Eichenwald was thrown a wrench in this simplistic view of the world. He has shown us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was tortured under US custody gave us a ton of actionable intelligence. (Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia was almost completely wrapped up, disabled, because of the information that came from KSM.) On the other hand, Abu Zubaydah who was initially interviewed by the FBI, gave them excellent intelligence before he was subjected to harsh interrogation (torture). The issue is not black or white. The problem is extremely complex. I tip my hat to Kurt Eichenwald for letting us see that these decisions aren't so black and white.
The most glaring error is stating that each plane had four hijackers, except United 93, which had three. Since there were 19 hijackers the math doesn't add up. Of course there were five on the three; four on United 93 to get to 19.
Other than that,a great read. "