Mark Danner

Mark Danner: Writing about Politics and War

Author: Kelly Knaub


On a sunny, brisk afternoon in November, I trekked up to the Upper West Side to meet veteran journalist Mark Danner, who has written extensively about international conflict and foreign affairs. His first book, “The Massacre at El Mozote,” which he published in 1994, is a compelling, vivid account of the massacre committed by U.S.-funded Salvadoran troops during the Cold War.

Since then, he has published four other books: “The Road to Illegitimacy: One Reporter’s Travels Through the 2000 Florida Vote Re-Count,” “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror,” “The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History” and most recently, “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War.”

Mark was born in Utica, a small town in upstate New York, and was raised in Utica and the Adirondack mountains. He attended Harvard University, where he studied philosophy, comparative literature, religion and politics, and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Modern Literature and Aesthetics in 1981. Since then, Danner has worked as a journalist for Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.

Mark has won numerous journalism awards, he is a fellow of the Institute of the Humanities at New York University, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pacific Council on International Policy, and the Century Association. He teaches courses on political violence, crisis management in international affairs and writing about wars and politics at the University of California at Berkeley. Mark teaches courses on literature, intellectual history, foreign affairs and politics at Bard College. He divides his time between New York and San Francisco.

Mark suggested we meet at Artie’s Deli, a cozy diner nestled between shops on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets. I found him waiting in the glassed-in area at the front of the establishment wearing a blue scarf draped around his neck, glasses hung on his green polo shirt, and a brown leather coat. He stood to greet me when I arrived and made friendly small talk until we began the interview. Mark wasn’t pretentious at all, as one might expect from such an authoritative writer. He ordered split pea soup and a diet cream soda, and laughed at the small child at the table next to us. It was his 52nd birthday.

What newspapers, magazines and Web sites do you read regularly?

Mark Danner: I read and have forever read The New York Times. I try to read it every day, usually the paper version. I look at the Washington Post online. I tend to look at a few political sites, like Real Clear Politics, which is simply a gathering of various political pieces of that day — a kind of database or a portal; I guess you would call it. I occasionally look at Talking Points Memo and a few other political blogs. I don’t look at a lot of blogs. I just don’t have time, I guess. I don’t know how people do it. I occasionally look at Slate. That’s about it. I’m on various lists — torture, some politics stuff. There’s a kind of torture list from all the lawyers who delve into it…

You grew up in Utica in the Adirondack Mountains. What was that like?

Well, Utica’s at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains. Utica’s a relatively flat place, in the Mohawk Valley; it’s not actually in the mountains. But it’s the so-called “Gateway to the Adirondacks.” Utica’s population is now about 60,000, but when I was born it was more than 100,000. I was there until I was 17, I guess. It was a fine place to grow up — a lot of parks, a ski slope in town with a chairlift and T-bar and everything. I did a fair amount of skiing. My parents had a house in the Adirondacks, built by my grandfather on a lake — in the Adirondacks they call them “camps” — so there was a lot of swimming in the summer, hiking, canoeing, and a lot of outdoor stuff.

Your father was a dentist and your mother was a high school Spanish teacher. How did they feel about your chosen career path as a journalist?

Well, I know they like seeing books with my name on them. I think my father was somewhat, well, I was going to say bewildered but that’s maybe a bit strong. He simply hadn’t had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. I think both my parents thought, growing up, that the path to success was in some way in the professions: lawyer, doctor, etc. So I think perhaps there was a little bit of surprise, but nothing dramatic. But you’d have to ask them. They seem fairly all right with it. I think my mother’s never liked it when I go to places that she perceives to be dangerous. I dedicated the last book to her, saying: “To my mother, in partial answer to her persistent question: Why can’t you go somewhere nice for a change?” That’s what my mother always says. “You’re going to Iraq? Why can’t you go somewhere nice for a change?”

Who are your favorite writers?

That’s a hard question. There are a lot of writers I love and admire. I taught a seminar a little while ago at Berkeley with my old friend Robert Hass, the great writer and poet. We did one seminar on Dostoyevsky and then afterwards followed up with one on Chekhov. Both of those certainly are in the top. This spring we’ll teach one on Tolstoy, who is certainly one of the writers I love.  I love Cervantes. I’m an enormous fan of Homer. The Iliad, which I taught in a seminar at Bard once again this year, I love. I love The Aeneid as well. I suppose I’m kind of a sucker for the classics, a love my father instilled in me when I was very young: he would tell me the story of Hector and Achilles in the car as we drove to the Adirondacks.

But I like a lot of contemporaries too. I always loved Albert Camus, the clarity of his work. Later this week I’m doing a seminar in part on “The Hunters”, the first novel of James Salter, whose work I’ve always loved. Wonderful novelist. And still with us, thank heaven. Ford Madox Ford, I’ve always loved a lot. My tutor Frank Kermode — another wonderful writer — introduced me to Ford.  His great work is called “The Good Soldier.” Brilliant, jewel-like construction. Just brilliantly made. A very interesting guy who was a habitual liar, among other things. A great editor, who brought a lot of great writers to public attention: Pound, for example, D.H. Lawrence, Joyce. He was, in many cases, their first publisher. Man of letters all his life, edited various journals. Also published perhaps fifty books of his own, of which “The Good Soldier” is the best. But he also wrote a wonderful a trilogy of novels called “The Fifth Queen,” which is the story of Katharine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII. Great, great book. In any list of favorites I would certainly have to include Ford’s great friend and collaborator, Joseph Conrad, too. Anyway, so… hard question.

There were so many rich details in The Massacre at El Mozote, like when Rufina, the survivor of the massacre, was hiding from the soldiers and her breasts were filling with milk for her dead child. How did you get all of those details?

Those details came from her story, from my interview with Rufina Amaya. I think we talked for five hours. It was a painful interview. And difficult, because it’s hard to interview somebody who has told the same story again and again. The story itself tends to get homogenized and what you’re getting is a telling of a story, rather than a memory back to the time.  You’re hearing a repeated version, a re-enactment. And you have to punch through it somehow.

The difficult thing about interviewing Rufina was trying to bring her back, so she was actually remembering rather than telling a story she’d told before. It was hard work, and not pleasant for either of us. Especially not for her. She spoke a mixture of Spanish and Nauhatl, so I had a translator, and he became angry with me because he thought I was abusing her, essentially. But the way some of those things came out, she clearly hadn’t thought of them since it had happened.  As I said, she had a set story that she told, and it didn’t include any of that. So, I knew ahead of time that one of the things I had to do was try somehow to get her to see. And I did it by asking her very minute questions about that day that nobody had asked before.

But on the general question of getting details, I think a lot of that comes through pushing people to remember things that, in the telling of their story, they normally would not include. You are trying to be a better storyteller, in a sense, than they are. You have to get from them things that they wouldn’t have thought of including, and that they probably haven’t thought of since the events. And the question is how to do that. And I try to spend a lot of time talking to people, usually for a prolonged period. Convince them I know as much as or more about it than they do. Obviously it depends on the subject; it depends on the person you’re talking to. But I think to come up with surprising details; you have to bring people back to what they did. Try to take them back to that time.

Do you consider yourself a human rights activist, given that you write about human rights issues?

No, I just consider myself a writer. People have these phrases like “human rights journalism” and all of that, and I just think I write about what interests me. And it often has to do with violence or war.

Can you describe your writing process?

I don’t have a process. Or if I do, I suppose you could say it has to do with weeks or months of lying on the couch, obsessing about not getting writing done and then a couple of weeks or days spent in a furious swirl of anxiety, self-loathing and productivity. Yes, that would be my writing process. I’m very attached to it.

Have you ever struggled emotionally from reporting on war, violence and torture? If so, how did you deal with it?

I don’t know how to answer that question. To me, it’s difficult to separate the emotions you feel as a part of leading a certain life and trying to do certain things, from specific emotional reactions to stories. So I have never been conscious of directly having psychological after-effects of covering certain stories. I’ve been writing, for example, about torture since 2004 — many people have — and it is somewhat disheartening that the story has kind of sat in front of the public for a half dozen years and not one, but two administrations in both parties have tended not to — well, the first administration did it and the second is not really confronting it or coping with it. So I think that’s troubling and stultifying and difficult in a lot of ways, but as I said, I don’t know how to separate that from just the normal emotional effort of doing certain things. I’m sorry. I’ve gotten this question a lot. I’m never quite sure how to answer it.

In your New York Times Op-ed piece, “To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature,” you wrote that America should make permanent a “promising trade bill negotiated in 2008.” Were you referring to the Farm Bill of 2008, which included the extended Hope Bill (Hope II) for Haiti? If so, do you think it has helped Haiti economically since you wrote the article?

Haiti is in very bad shape. I first went there in 1986. In fact, it was the first foreign story I covered. I think the subtitle of that first piece, eventually published in the New York Times Magazine, was “Haiti’s Transition to Democracy” (laughs). That transition’s been going on ever since. It was an amazing place to go right after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Port-au-Prince at that moment was kind of this Black Athens. It felt like this explosion, this big bang of democracy. People arguing on street corners. Newspapers being formed everywhere. Television, radio stations, everybody declaring that they were running for president. This enormous, political fertility. For anyone who loves Haiti, the consequences of that promising time — the recent history — have been bitter. A lot of that is manmade. Some of it is made courtesy of the natural world and its lack of sympathy for Haiti, between floods and of course the earthquake itself. But the real point of that piece was to say that most of what is wrong with Haiti is manmade, and that it results from politics, not from nature — that there’s no “metaphysical burden of suffering.”

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, I was somewhat disturbed by the attitude people were taking about Haiti — that it became this place, this kind of Christ of nations nailed to the cross. I think I use that image in the Times piece. And together with that attitude, which I think is unrealistic, goes an unrealistic attitude about what to do for Haiti and what can be done. And that was really the point of my piece. People are always talking about rebuilding it and making it an example for the world and it seemed very clear to me at the time, and it’s clear now, that that was really a lot of self-indulgent crap.

People taking Haiti and seeing in it their own image of a kind of process of destruction, suffering and redemption, this classic narrative. But they were imposing it on the place. And I think that piece was a plea for realism and a kind of realistic ambition for Haiti. To achieve things that would help Haiti — but actually by way of small real improvements, rather than these transformational aspirations which everyone was talking about, and which have not happened and weren’t going to happen. It was obvious. It didn’t take a genius to see this. So, that’s what the piece was about.

That stuff, the bill and the various little suggestions, those were really concessions to the Op-ed form, which is to describe all the problems and then offer the reader three or four solutions. That’s really the format of an OpEd essay. I actually even think the Times editor asked me for those, so I put them in. It was the Hope Bill, which was, I think, the second version of an original Hope Bill. But, the piece was really a plea for modesty and realism and strong effort that would actually make a few things better. And as I say, I don’t think it was particularly insightful, that point — or, as we have seen, particularly influential (laughing). And the earthquake population, most of those who were made homeless, are going to still be in tent camps on the one year anniversary and that’s a disgrace. But it’s absolutely predictable. I’m not anywhere close to being surprised by that.

Earlier this year, Bill Clinton apologized for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on cheap U.S. subsidized rice. How responsible do you think U.S. rice subsidies are in contributing to Haiti’s poverty?

American agricultural policy has been damaging to Haiti, there’s no question about it. The United States Agency for International Development had a particular vision of what Haiti should become. The United States became deeply involved in the late seventies and early eighties and the policy was essentially centered on making Haiti the “Taiwan of the Caribbean” — that was the phrase everyone used.

The director of USAID used those words in Congressional testimony, that’s where it comes from. But the point is, “Taiwan of the Caribbean” means that you soak up all this unemployment through assembly industries.  You ship the parts of baseballs, electronic parts, brassieres; all these different things are shipped down to Haiti in planes. The planes bring their cargo to Haiti and there it’s taken to a free-trade zone next to the airport — essentially all these big hangers. In the hangers you have these very poor Haitian women sitting at sewing machines. It’s the maquiladoras, which you see over the border in Mexico, too.

Under this conception of development, Haiti’s main resource, what it has to offer the world, is its own poverty — the fact that it can give you very, very cheap labor. At the same time, as you do that, you stop trying to keep on life support the agricultural economy because you can grow the same products elsewhere, notably in the United States, so cheaply. So you start shipping in rice. A bag of American rice costs half what a bag of Haitian rice does. Partly, of course, because the U.S. taxpayers subsidize it, as they do most agricultural staple crops. So, the whole idea that this is free trade is pretty much a fallacy. Although if you were sitting here with an economist from the U.N. or the World Bank, they would tell you with a straight face how this is the free trade solution, free market, blah blah blah. It’s complete nonsense.

So, you have all this cheap, agricultural produce coming from outside. It destroys Haiti’s agricultural economy and sends a lot more of the rural people heading for the slums of the city, where their labor can presumably be sopped up by all these assembly industries. That’s the economic model. That’s what Clinton was referring to. So, it isn’t just rice. It’s the whole economic development plan.  Of course, to criticize it is easy. The real question is, what do you put in its place? Clinton, of course, has made a practice of apologizing for things (laughing). I’m not sure if that’s admirable or not. I don’t know what it means to apologize for what you did to the Haitian rice economy. It’s like going to Kigali and apologizing for the genocide in Rwanda. What are we to make of this? On the other hand, it should be said that, Clinton has longstanding ties to Haiti. He’s a good friend of Haiti, and God bless him for that.

Now it is true that Haiti is a kind of ward of the international system. It’s on life support. It is this source of unending pain to me, just looking at the place, and thinking, you know, in a year, they should have been able to replace and build a lot of permanent housing. And half the country is sitting around doing nothing. That’s overstating the matter, of course — people work hard in Haiti for very little — but the fact is there’s enormously widespread unemployment.

My view of the matter was that there should have been a massive jobs program for Haitians to build houses. That’s it. You destroyed the housing stock; you ought to be revitalizing the Haitian construction industry with a major focus toward Haitian jobs. So that what you’re doing is not only building things, you’re putting a pool of money into the hands of the lower middle class and the poor. I don’t think this, again, is a matter of genius, but it hasn’t happened. You have most of the earthquake debris still there in the streets, you’ve got more than a million people living in tents, and now you’ve got cholera. And it’s tremendously sad because Haiti is an amazing country, it really is. It’s an astonishing place. It’s one of these places people fall in love with. Amazing people, a lot of brilliance, genius, beauty. The people are gorgeous. You find so much talent and brilliance there.

What can journalists do to help create social justice in the areas of free trade and globalization?

I have to confess, as my answer to your question about human rights implied, I don’t really think of writing, of being a writer or a journalist, in that way. I think the obligation of the writer is to tell what happened and what happens, and to try to do it as clearly as possible and to hope people listen or read, and understand. So the matter we were just discussing — how various forces in the world, including foreign countries and those who are trying to improve things, how they’ve affected Haiti, for example, and helped make it worse — I think the best thing you can do in a situation like that is try to explain it clearly, and try to untangle it, so that people understand more deeply when they hear the phrase “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” or when they hear Clinton apologizing for the agricultural policies he applied toward Haiti, they have an account that will clearly explain what these matters are and why things happened the way they did.

I tried to do that in my writing on Haiti. I wrote about USAID and I wrote about all this. So I think that’s really your job. I think if you insert in your job description what the consequences of your writing will be— that is, “Have I changed policy toward Haiti?” or “Have I contributed to the struggle for equality in some way?” — If you do that, then you’re destined to be disappointed. Journalism is journalism, writing is writing. Investigating, understanding, and explaining. I don’t much care for the phrase “investigative journalist” for it has always seemed to me a bit redundant. That’s the heart of it, investigating. Perhaps my thoughts on this are kind of an artifact of the late 1960s, early 1970s, and the Watergate era. Watergate really was when I grew up, when I attained a consciousness of politics. I remember watching those televised Watergate hearings in the early 1970s. For me, I suppose the whole Watergate scandal became a kind of model, of how journalists and writers of my generation think public scandals and wrongdoings should be dealt with by the society, and the part they should naturally play.

You have a first stage — I’ve written about this — which you can call the revelation stage, and journalists and writers take part in the revealing. Sometimes they’re at the root of it, sometimes they simply print the leaks that come from those in the institutions. In any event they expose it. But that’s not the end. After the exposure has to come some kind of investigation. I don’t mean a journalistic one, or not solely that. I mean Congress, the courts — Watergate, of course, had both — the Senate Select Committee and Judge Sirica, among others. The society produces a commonly accepted story of what happened: it produces a truth that it can accept. Then — the third stage — come expiation. People get fired, they go to jail, and a president resigns. You have all of these consequences, which purge the society and bring you back, eventually, to a status quo ante — or to a state of grace if you’re religiously inclined.

I think one of the distinctive characteristics of our era, and one of the things that have marked my particular life in trying to do this work during the last decade or so, is that we as a society are stuck between stages one and two.  We have had a great many revelations. Torture is a good example. On torture we have had our revelations, and I’ve taken part in that. We now know a huge amount about how torture was ordered and planned and practiced during the months after the 9/11 attacks. What there hasn’t been is a societal-sanctioned, universally credible investigation like the 9/11 Commission or the Watergate Senate Select Committee. And we’re far, far away from expiation.

So if I was to  calculate whether or not I was doing a good job, or doing what I should, by how far along that road we’d come, I’d be inclined to shoot myself. So it would be a little bit self-destructive (laughing) — or counter-productive, put it that way. That doesn’t mean that a lot of other people don’t think of journalism and writing that way. They do, and God bless them. It’s just that I don’t think of it that way. I think you try to tell a clear story and you hope people will read it. You can’t judge the worth of your work by the political consequences because you don’t control them. Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t judge your society, as a citizen must. That’s a different matter.

I have a great liking for the original documents. There are a hundred pages of them reprinted there (pointing to the copy of “The Massacre of El Mozote” on the table). I published a book called “Torture and Truth” in 2004 and two-thirds of it is documents. I guess I always believe that, if you can get people to read the documents, you can really make them understand. Of course, people don’t, really.

Last year I published the Red Cross Report, which to me is an absolutely dramatic, appalling document, giving these astonishing first-hand accounts of how the so-called “high-value detainees” were tortured at the “black sites” the Bush Administration established after 9/11. I had this hope that people would read that Red Cross report. Because to me, if you could get most Americans to read it, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about torture. People would be appalled. But it’s been up on the New York Review of Books web site and I’ve written about it repeatedly but people don’t want to read it. I guess I can’t really blame them. I wouldn’t, probably, if I was in their place.

In “The Massacre at El Mozote”, you wrote that the massacre “came to be known, was exposed to the light and then allowed to fall back into the dark.” Do you think this is what will happen with the torture scandal? Will it just fall back into the dark?

That’s a good question. For all practical purposes, it has. The question is whether it will stay there. I think not. I think that one way or another it will emerge again. There are various paths through which it could emerge, or re-emerge. There’s universal jurisdiction — that is, the possibility that a judge or a prosecutor in another country will bring a case, as happened in Spain, for example, with Pinochet. Various legislatures are now making it more difficult for their judges to do that, including in Spain. There’s the possibility that you will have cases brought elsewhere — not under universal jurisdiction but because their nationals have suffered at the hands of these US programs of rendition or torture in some way. As I say, that’s different from universal jurisdiction but it would in a sense accomplish the same thing, or could. There is still a wisp of an investigation going on in the United States now, conducted by John Durham, who is the U.S. attorney in Hartford, Connecticut, and who originally was given the task of investigating the tapes of interrogations that the CIA destroyed. So, I think there are various avenues. I mentioned Durham, who has already concluded that there won’t be indictments when it comes to the destroyed videotapes, but who still has a brief to investigate some of the interrogation techniques that were used that went beyond what was identified as legal by the Department of Justice under President Bush.

So there’s still a wisp of an investigation there. God knows whether it will produce anything. But it could. In any event, I just tend to think that these things don’t go away. And this is a good example of something that I don’t think will go away. Our court system has been affected by it in various ways already. We’re already in a situation where somebody who had only a fairly tangential connection to the 9/11 plot, Zaccarias Moussaoui, was prosecuted in a federal court in Virginia, with a great deal of public attention, and the people who actually planned it, who we have had in custody for eight years, have not been prosecuted, which I think is a great indication of the disfigurement of our system of justice over the last decade.

Again, I think that doesn’t go away. Those people are still there. The issues themselves — and this is another avenue of its return — will again come prominently into public view after the next successful attack. It seems to me that if organizations like the Pakistani Taliban continue to try to bring off low-level attacks here, like the Times Square bombing attempt last May, if they continue to make those attempts, they will eventually be successful.

That was pure luck that that didn’t kill people. Pure luck. So, if they have lowered the bar to the extent that they’re happy with a simple car bomb, eventually one will go off. The reason there hasn’t been a large-scale attack in this country since 9/11 is not because we’ve grown so brilliant at stopping them, but because the al Qaeda people have insisted that the U.S. is the main stage, that if there is an attack here it has to be a spectacular one like 9/11. So the ones that they have tried — I’m talking about Al-Qaeda — have been ambitious and complicated and they have been thwarted. But if you lower the bar so that all you need is a Grand Cherokee packed with explosives blowing up somewhere in New York, if that’s what you want to achieve, you will eventually succeed.  There’s just no way to consistently and perpetually prevent that. It’s impossible.

So, if they keep doing that and you have a successful attack, that will be another occasion where this debate will come back into public view. Already with the Christmas Day bomber, the Republicans’ big issue was: he should have been interrogated by the military or the intelligence agencies; he shouldn’t have been taken off by the FBI and read his Miranda rights. It’s a very small step from that argument to a full scale discussion of torture or what we should be doing. If such an attack is successful under President Obama that is one of the avenues the discussion will take. The former vice president has already laid out the plot line here — Dick Cheney started demanding that the Obama Administration use “these techniques that served us so well,” as he put it, within two weeks of his leaving the White House, which is astonishing. So, I don’t think the issue will fall back into the darkness, although for the moment it has. I think it will return one way or another.

During the Cold War, the United States and U.S.-backed regimes committed massive human rights violations in Central America, South America and other parts of the world in the name of “national security” to avoid the spread of communism. Do you think that history is repeating itself, in the sense that now human rights violations are being committed in the name of “national security” to avoid the spread of terrorism?

Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” And I think there is a certain rhyme going on. It’s true that the Bush administration in its initial response, particularly its doctrinal response, but also its bureaucratic response to 9/11, relied very much on Cold War models. All you have to do is look at President Bush’s September 20 speech to Congress and compare it to the Truman Doctrine speech of April 1947. The idea of dividing the world into two — you’re either for us or against us, you have to make a choice — all of these idioms come from the Cold War.

I did a piece that took this up called “Taking Stock of the Forever War” for the New York Times Magazine; it was on their cover on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 in 2005 — five years ago.   So there are a lot of parallels between U.S. policy now and during the Cold War, with the terrorists as the new communists. And that’s not a coincidence. Americans are used to thinking that way. The bureaucracy is used to operating that way. It helps to have an enemy. There are a lot of reasons for it. In the Cold War, of course, there was never an officially sanctioned policy of torture — one that was “legally” inscribed in policy, as this one was — though the United States was far from having clean hands.

The dynamics of what the CIA did and where official responsibility lay within the government was conceived differently. The CIA essentially did what it did, what it felt it had to do, and kept the president in a position of deniability. The president could claim he didn’t know. For the other “rhyme” here, in Twain’s sense, is the Bush-Cheney years and the mid-1970s, when the very young Dick Cheney was White House Chief of Staff and his mentor Donald Rumsfeld was the youngest secretary of defense. In that post-Watergate moment, the CIA and all its dirty laundry was exposed to public view through the Church and Pike Committee hearings.

All the attempted assassinations, coup d’états, various other things, were exposed in very public hearings in the mid 1970s, and these events are extremely important in CIA history, they remain very traumatic. So when the CIA was asked in the months after 9/11 to interrogate these people in this way, there was one thing they emphasized. George Tenet and other people in the organization demanded, “We will do this, but only if you give us an iron-clad legal document that will say it’s legal.” They actually demanded at first “an advance declination,” which is to say, advance immunity from the Justice Department, saying that whatever you do, you will not be prosecuted. The Justice Department refused and that’s when you had these famous “torture memos” composed and approved.

The whole story of this is fascinating and important and can be found, by a click on the internet, in the Office of Professional Responsibility Report from the Department of Justice. So — to return to your question about the Cold War — the result was that the burden of public responsibility was shifted from the CIA, which, as exposed in the mid 1970s, had taken on responsibility for coups and all the other dirty tricks — assassinations and so on — to the lawyers who wrote the memos.

Now, of course, we are in this peculiar situation: because the lawyers in the Justice Department said that what the interrogators did was legal, you can’t prosecute the interrogators. They also, by indirection, said what the policymakers ordered was legal. So you have a situation where you have President Bush in his memoirs, currently climbing the bestseller list, coming out and saying, “What did I say when they came to me and asked whether we should waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Hell yes!” I think it was “hell yes” or “damn right,” I don’t know. And here it is, right in front of us. At the same time, we have an attorney general in office now who says waterboarding is illegal. Now what’s the problem with that picture? (laughing)

So you have the former president admitting to committing an extremely serious crime. It’s a felony, it’s against the Convention Against Torture, I mean, and this is not negligible. But the burden of responsibility, in a sense, has been shifted to the people within the Department of Justice, who, at CIA insistence, ruled that this stuff is legal. It sets up this very strange dynamic. There are a lot of parallels. Maybe not directly the ones you cited. But the parallels, there are a lot of them.

Many of the soldiers responsible for the El Mozote massacre were trained at the notorious School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Is there a reason why you chose to not mention that in the book?

I didn’t think the School of the Americas was a central element in the story. There’s a lot that’s not in that book. I wanted to concentrate on the central narrative of what happened in El Mozote and why. Although there is background about the war in El Salvador and so on, I wanted to keep it to a minimum. And the School of the Americas to me was not the key element in that story. The Atlacatl was American trained, of course, and that is in the piece, but it wasn’t simply a matter of the School of the Americas.

How did you obtain the Red Cross report that you wrote about in The New York Review?

(Asks me to repeat question, then laughs) I obtained it. There’s not really an answer to that question, I’m afraid. When you write about a subject a lot, you become known as someone who will write about a subject. So things sometimes come into your hands.

In your New York Review essay, “US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites”, you wrote, “Reading the Red Cross report, one becomes somewhat inured to the “alternative set of procedures” as they are described: the cold and repeated violence grows numbing.” How did you deal with this numbness you described, and how did it influence your writing the article?

I think you have to fight through any such numbness and try to identify in an analytic way what are the salient elements of what you’re looking at and why they’re important. And try to provide the reader not only with what’s in the report, but why it’s significant. And to put it in some kind of historical context, which I tried to do. So I suppose part of your job as a writer is not to become numb. But you can tell readers what you feel.

As a result of the information released in the essays you wrote about the Red Cross Report, the Obama Administration released the Justice Department torture memos weeks later. How did you feel about that, knowing that they made that move as a result of your essays?

I’m not sure I would take that statement of cause-and-effect as a given. I mean, they claimed that it was. In the spring of 2009 several senior White House officials, including Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, went on the Sunday morning shows and said, why should we be criticized for releasing these memos when it was all in the New York Review of Books?  And my publication of the report may have entered into their decision or at least have helped those within the administration who were arguing for releasing the memos. It may have helped them make their argument that those memos should come out. Or it could just have been that pointing to the publication of the Red Cross report was a useful way of diminishing the political damage of releasing the memos. The truth is that we don’t know. All we know is they have used it as a reason publicly.

Again, I don’t exclude the fact that it may have been helpful, that it may have helped lead to the memos’ release. But it’s just very hard if you’re not in the administration and privy to their discussions to judge how much of an influence the Red Cross Report and my pieces had on the decision to release the memos. I don’t doubt that it helped. I don’t know that it was a determining factor. I’m a huge fan, obviously, of the release of information. I was encouraged when the Obama administration came in and spoke about transparency. And I think having the memos publicly available is very important.

Again, I wish more people would read the original memos because they make astonishing reading. They’re fascinating. It should be said also, though, that the 2004 John Yoo, Jay Bybee memo, which is the critical memo, has been out since the early summer of 2004. I published that document in “Torture and Truth” in October of that year, so it isn’t as if we didn’t already have a lot of information. We did. But I’m happy the others came out and I wish a lot of other documents would come out as well — and that people would read them and learn what their government has been doing and what its arguments are justifying.

Mark Danner: Writing about Politics & War