When Jack Goldsmith was appointed to his position in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, he almost immediately found himself at odds with the regime. During his first two months, he was briefed on some of the most top-secret policies of the administration. Some of these he found to be “deeply flawed” and “sloppily reasoned, overboard, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the President,” drawing the conclusion that “some of our most important counterterrorism policies rested on severely damaged legal foundations.”
“In an administration bent on pushing antiterrorism efforts to the limits of the law, OLC’s authority to determine those limits made it a frontline policymaker in the war on terrorism.”
Given the continuing attention on the torture memos and “who knew what when” stories still dominating the political media, this is a timely book, and well worth the attention of anyone interested in America, torture, the rule of law and the Presidency. Best of all, Goldsmith locates the current torture and legal debate in America’s history, comparing today with previous presidencies – those referred to include FDR’s, Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s. “But unlike these other presidents, President Bush acted in an era in which many aspects of presidential war power had become encumbered by elaborate criminal restrictions,” causing government officials to seriously worry about the possibility that “judgment calls would result in prosecution by independent councils, Justice Departments of future administrations, or foreign or international courts.”
The author discusses the effect of reading the daily “threat matrix”, and how it had the potential for instilling a near-constant sense of paranoia (not exactly conducive to sound government). Key characters such as John Yoo, Richard Armitage, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, and so forth, receive fair appraisals, even when he describes how memos or legal findings from the OLC that did not support the President’s beliefs and statements were often ridiculed or shot down.
Instead, the administration used a “go-it-alone” approach, coming to conclusions through “minimal deliberation [and] unilateral action.” This approach, as well as frequently marginalising Congress, only goes to explain the situation we are now in. His basic argument, on this score, is that the Bush administration did not attempt to use “consultation, deliberation, the appearance of deference, and credible expressions of public concern for constitutional and international values” to meet their goals. This left only a hard-nosed, aggressive approach, even when both Houses of Congress were controlled by their own party.
In this honest (occasionally patchy) account of his time working for the Bush administration, Goldsmith has achieved what he set out to do; namely, provide a look into the pathologies and thought-processes at work during the aftermath of 9/11 and the following War on Terror. The Bush administration was one with a pathological need to expand executive power, a narrow-mindedness and love for secrecy that alienated allies, and a sketchy grasp of the political and legal realities of the methods they wanted to approve. The Terror Presidency is an illuminating, well-written book, filled with interesting and detailed information.
Despite the administration fault, Goldsmith argues, the Bush presidency and policies has done good for America and has helped protect America. He criticises in the afterword the new culture of excessive caution in Washington – a natural outgrowth from prosecutorial instruments like independent counsels and (in this case) a liberal establishment who might want revenge for eight years of Republican (mis)rule. Even though the author is a Republican, he holds hope for the Obama administration, believing that Obama will keep many of the Bush antiterrorism policies in place, but approach the legislation differently, more like Lincoln and FDR, who used a “bipartisan and pragmatic national security team” with “genuine consultation and consent from Congress, [and] a less secretive executive branch.”
A critical portrait of an administration stretching laws to their breaking-points, The Terror Presidency is a very well-written and useful book – the chapters are well structured, the author’s prose are very clear, and it’s both engaging and highly readable.
An excellent book.
Also try: Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2008); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004) & The One-Percent Doctrine (2007); Jane Mayer, The Dark Side (2008); David Iglesias, In Justice (2009); John Yoo, War By Other Means (2006); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)