500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars
American efforts to counter the threat of terrorism have spawned their own literary genre. Some of the books are little more than partisan tirades, some give credence to far-fetched conspiracy theories, but others are solidly researched and impart important lessons about fighting evil without demolishing essential national values.
500 Days belongs in this latter category. Former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald (a Dallas resident) has combined thorough reporting and crisp writing in this history of the period between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Eichenwald’s chronology moves at the pace of a movie-ready thriller. So much was happening: the CIA-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Bush administration’s pursuit of regime change in Iraq; the efforts to prevent further terrorist attacks; and the decisions about how to treat suspected al-Qaeda members. All complex stories in themselves, and all spun in numerous ways. Eichenwald notes, “I was surprised by how often the accepted version of events proved to be inaccurate.”
Several principal themes run through this book, including the tensions between the U.S. and Britain as the British tried to slow the American march toward war. Tony Blair suggested building a broad coalition to address terrorism and insisted on United Nations authorization to proceed against Iraq but made little headway with the hubristic Bush administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney.
Eichenwald devotes even more attention to the debate about defining and authorizing torture to extract information about al-Qaeda. Based on often sloppy investigations, suspects were locked up in Guantánamo or turned over to countries such as Syria that did not concern themselves with the niceties of humane interrogation techniques.
Eichenwald’s detailed accounts of the ineptitude of some U.S. government lawyers and the willingness of others to give the Executive Branch unchecked power make for frightening reading. Of one analysis written by a Pentagon attorney, Eichenwald writes, “In a mere six and a half pages, [she] had single-handedly managed to annul several hundred years of jurisprudence.”
Meanwhile, others at the Pentagon complained that the Department of Justice had sanctioned interrogation techniques that appeared “to violate international law, domestic law, or both.”
One internal Guantánamo memo, which described waterboarding and hiding abuse from the Red Cross, concluded, “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.” This led to a comment by one horrified lawyer on the scene, “Someone needs to be considering how history will look back at this.”
Throughout 500 Days, Eichenwald illustrates that political and military strategies cannot be stripped of their moral implications. It should also be noted however, that the relatively easy movement of weapons of mass destruction must be taken seriously, and countries must learn to deal with existential threats without undermining freedom.
The era of terrorism is far from over, and these issues deserve much more thoughtful attention than they have so far received. Books such as 500 Days will prove valuable in this process.
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News on September 16, 2012
‘500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars’ by Kurt Eichenwald is solidly researched
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