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Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency After 9/11 Hardcover – March 12, 2012
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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About the Author
Jack Goldsmith is the Henry L. Shattuck Professor of Law at Harvard University. From October 2003 to June 2004 he was assistant attorney general, Office of Legal Counsel. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
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Jack Goldsmith makes a good case that traditional checks and balances are still very much at play. What we see in the media is that nobody above the rank of sergeant went to prison over Abu Ghraib, and nobody’s been tried for what in retrospect was probably torture in CIA prisons. I still find that shocking, but no matter how Teflon-coated our policy makers appear in the media, the author explains that behind the scenes each new scandal results in a flurry of activity. One of the results is that every branch of government has newer and tighter policies, plus a veritable army of in-house lawyers whose job it is to enforce compliance.
As we read about widespread NSA surveillance of our phone calls and emails (as revealed by Edward Snowden after this book’s publication), and as we see the defenders of those policies seeming to prevail in Congressional hearings, it is comforting to know that despite the appearance of unchecked power, behind the scenes these same people are scurrying to make their activities more acceptable to the courts, the Congress, and American public. It may be that in their minds it’s just window dressing, but the result according to Goldsmith is serious and long-lasting constraints.
Here, however, is my question for Goldsmith: Is this equilibrium, this partial reversion to a slightly different mean, actually stable? Have we reached institutional settlement in 2012? Or will things that looked fairly settled and stabilized in 2012 under the Obama administration suddenly look a lot less stable in 2013, if there were, for example, a Romney administration? As advocacy groups continue to call for prosecutions and investigations, either here or abroad, of Bush era officials - Human Rights Watch, for example, in a recent report - in ways that look frankly fringe given the position of the Obama administration, will all that suddenly look more palatable if there were a Republican administration - and Democrats who swallowed hard, but refused to take up real cudgels against "their" administration suddenly realize they no longer have a stake in the "institutional settlement"?
I believe that this is the single "must-read" book in 2012 on the presidency and presidential power and national security.
One of the most consistent headlines of the last decade has been the increase in power the President holds in his hands (see the recently published book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachael Maddow, for instance). We are told that the President can hold individuals captive indefinitely, send armed forces to any part of the world, and assassinate American's living abroad, all on a whim. But until this book, we have only been told this single sided story.
Jack Goldsmith does not judge these practices or dispute their existences, rather he shows, with convincing proof, the legitimacy these practices have received from the courts, Congress, and the press, and, most importantly, the limits those legitimizing sources have instituted.
While the President may very well be able to do more than at any time in the history of the US, I am now assured that there are multitudes of checks and limits to hold the President accountable to the laws of our great country. Read this book if nothing more to gain the comfort that if the People want to change the actions and powers of the Presidency, we could. A win for democracy.