July 14, 2008— -- In the days after 9/11, when fears of another terrorist strike were at their peak, Vice President Dick Cheney was convinced that he had been subjected to a lethal dose of anthrax, according to a new book.
White House insiders from that white-knuckle time told author Jane Mayer, who authored "The Dark Side, The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," that the scare contributed to Cheney's insistence on hard-line tactics for fighting terror.
Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker, claims that the vice president became the driving force in pushing for tougher interrogation tactics that critics charge went over the legal line and constitute torture.
In the days after the horror of 9/11, the country seemed to be under assault from many sides, with anthrax letters showing up in Congress and newsrooms.
On Oct. 18, 2001, a White House alarm went off indicating that sensors had detected dangerous levels of radioactive, chemical or biological agents. According to Mayer, anyone who had entered the White House situation room, including Cheney, had been exposed.
"They thought Cheney was already lethally infected," said a former administration officer who had kept the White House secret until now, according to the book.
Despite the unnerving news, Cheney calmly reported the emergency to the National Security Council. It turned out that the detection system had malfunctioned and there was no hazard.
But in the days after the incident, Cheney was taking no chances. Eleven days later, Cheney insisted on leaving the White House and retreating to one of his "secure, undisclosed locations," the book claims.
Cheney and other Cabinet members took turns hunkering down in one of several cold war era bunkers built to survive a nuclear attack. The bunkers, deep underground, were crammed with communications gear and Cheney would stay in what was dubbed the "The Commander in Chief's Suite," Mayer writes.
When vice president wasn't in the bunker, Mayer claims that "a sense of constant danger followed Cheney everywhere." The route was altered daily during the veep's commute to his above-ground office. On the back seat next to him would be a duffel bag stuffed with a gas mask and biochemical survival suit. And a doctor nearly always traveled with him, "The Dark Side" claims.
Cheney's deputy press secretary Megan Mitchell told ABC News, "On-the-record, we have not seen the book, so we really can't comment on it."
Mayer suggests that the shock of 9/11 coupled with his anthrax scare changed Cheney and made him an overpowering force in the administration arguing for significantly tougher interrogation techniques.
"The Dark Side" claims that former White House legal counsel and later attorney general Alberto Gonzales confided to colleagues that he agreed with administration lawyers who claimed the tactics were torture and illegal.
Gonzales reportedly told James Comey, the former deputy attorney general, that he was under too much pressure from Cheney to oppose him on the issue.
The book also reveals that a Red Cross report submitted to the CIA concluded that the treatment of 9/11 suspects, admitted mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, amounted to torture and war crimes.
The Red Cross made its report after being granted access to the detainees when they were transferred to the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Among the tactics the detainees said they were subjected to: kept naked in a frigid room and doused with water, kept in a small box called the "coffin" for hours at a time, arms shackled over their heads so they had to stand on tiptoes for up to eight hours straight.
Those claims by the 9/11 detainees could not be confirmed, but Mayer said several detainees told consistent versions of the tactics to the Red Cross although they were not allowed to communicate with each other.
ABC News' Ann Compton contributed to this report