Jane Mayer has been awarded the 2009 Ridenhour Book Prize which honors an outstanding work of social significance from the prior publishing year. Mayer’s book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into A War on American Ideals, is a damning indictment of how the United States made self-destructive decisions in the wake of 9/11 that not only violated the Constitution and American values, but actually hindered the pursuit of Al Qaeda.

In The Dark Side, Mayer details how Vice President Dick Cheney and his powerful, secretive advisor David Addington used the fallout from the terrorist attacks to further their long-held agenda to enhance presidential powers. She relates how U.S.-held prisoners, some of them completely innocent, were subjected to torture that frequently led to false confessions. And she sets these specific cases against the larger tableau of political Washington where numerous administration lawyers, politicians and administration officials—many deeply conservative—tried without success to oppose these policies.

As new and increasingly disturbing facts continue to emerge regarding the conduct of the Justice Department over the past eight years, The Dark Side provides an invaluable chronicle of one of the most troubling chapters in American history, one that will serve as the lasting legacy of George W. Bush.

The New York Times’ Alan Brinkley called it a “powerful, brilliantly researched and deeply unsettling book.” Other reviews were similarly full of praise. “Many books get tagged with the word ‘essential;’ hers actually is,” wrote Louise Bayard on Salon. “The Dark Side is about how the war on terror became ‘a war on American ideals,’ and Mayer gives this story all the weight and sorrow it deserves.”

Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the coauthor of two bestselling books, Landslide and Strange Justice. Based in Washington, D.C., she specializes in political and investigative reporting. Before joining The New Yorker, Mayer was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal for 12 years, where she became the paper’s first female White House correspondent. Mayer has written for a number of publications, including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Review of Books.

2009 Book Prize Speech

Text of the speech given by Jane Mayer 

Well, first, thank you so much, Scott. Since this is an event that is devoted to truth telling, I can tell the truth, which is that I first got to know Scott because he was a secret source.

And since then, however, he’s morphed. It might be better to say he actually exploded into so many different personas. He’s become a phenomenon. He’s not just a source. He’s a lawyer. He’s a behind the scenes player, an activist, a journalist, a blogger, whose website at Harper’s is called No Comment, which to anyone who knows Scott is kind of amusing because he has a comment on everything.

And I’m also very happy to say that he has been a great partner in crime and a great friend. So thank you very much.

So last night Ham Fish was speaking, and he said a wise thing, I think, which was it’s a dangerous thing to start thanking people because you always leave somebody out. I’m not going to go down the Academy Awards path here. But I do want to thank one or people, including Hamilton Fish and The Nation Institute and Randy Fertel and the brilliant judges who chose my book. And the New Yorker magazine, which has allowed me to do this work. And I have to say at a time when the independent press is threatened by economic collapse, there’s absolutely no better place on earth to work.

And my work has been careful and painstaking, part of reason is because we have an amazing, just a brigade of fact checkers. So it’s not just because I can do this naturally.

And posthumously, I’d also like to thank Ron Ridenhour, because I never had a chance to meet him. But his courage actually impacted my life like so many others. I was in junior high school when the My Lai massacre story broke. I was a kid growing up in New York City and we all thought we were very hip.

I remember my friend had a huge poster in her room of the famous photograph of the bodies that were in the ditches. And over the photograph were inscribed the words from Mike Wallace’s interview with Lieutenant William Calley. And the words were, “And babies?” And the answer was “And babies.”

And at that time I had no idea that I would become a journalist. But I think that it was, for me, very important to see that just by getting the truth out, that society could somehow redeem itself.

We had to know these things no matter how dark they were, and that that is partly the power of our society, that we can get to the truth and change.

So you know very early on I got to see this even with his work. There’s also a kind of poetic symmetry, I think, to this in that Ridenhour tried to show that My Lai wasn’t just an aberrant act of a single individual who had gone berserk on his own.

One of the main reasons I wanted to actually turn these stories in the New Yorker into the book that became the Dark Side which was to show that contrary to what Donald Rumsfeld said his characterization of Abu Ghraib of course was it was just a few rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel. This was not just an aberration. Abuse and torture were the systematic deliberate and official policy of the Bush Administration, in violation not just of multiple laws, but of the core values of our country.

And I was able, and the whole challenge to me was to connect the dots between what was happening around the world in those dungeons and the people at the top of our government. And it was just an incredible privilege to be able to pull this altogether.

I also want to say that this prize is unusual among journalism prizes because it honors not only the journalists but their sources. To some extent what I wanted to do was to take this honor and pass it on to the people who helped me tell their stories. It was a privilege for them to let me work with them. And I have to say some of them were very courageous. Some were wire tapped themselves in the Tamm tradition.

All kinds of things happened that made it very hard for people to speak up, but they did. And so many people, both republicans and democrats, there were people in the FBI, people at the CIA, when they were confronted with this crisis of conscience, they said basically: Not me, not this country. Not now, not ever. And it’s to them that I think this prize should go. So thank you.