At first, I was skeptical about a book that was two hundred sixteen pages, and covered only seven months of the author's life, but the title of Chapter 1: The New Job, and the first couple of sentences had a sense of intrigue, and captured my interest. I had the distinct intuition that the author would be an engaging writer and I was not disappointed.
Jack Goldsmith, conservative lawyer and law professor tells us of his appointment as Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel to the Justice Department under John Ashcroft.
The Counsel is made up of lawyers who analyze the legal ramifications of a policy the president may want to consider or promulgate. They submit their opinions on the same, and its legality. In a post 9/11 atmosphere, Goldsmith describes a White House that is anxious to expand its powers so it may fight terrorism unimpeded. This is motivated by a constant stream of intelligence that provides a daily diet of threats and plots against the USA, and a vice president's belief that any threat, no matter how marginal, must be taken as an imminent threat.
With Goldsmith's appointment in October of 2003, he began to offer his legal opinion on a number of issues. He defended these opinions at White House meetings that included the President's counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, the ever-present Vice President's Counsel, David Addington, and John Yoo who wrote several opinions giving the president carte blanche to implement virtually any policy he wanted. David Addington's long time conservatism and association with Dick Cheney gives him a great deal of power and influence. He is equally abrasive and uncompromising, insisting that presidential decisions should be without limits, and his actions not subject to the scrutiny or knowledge of the Congress or citizens of the US. He dismisses American allies saying, "They don't have a vote."
This is what eventually gets Goldsmith in a squeeze, and enhances his perception by others that he is not a team player. He begins to review some earlier opinions made shortly after 9/11. These opinions are about enemy combatant status and the legal limits of torture. He advocates that these opinions should be reversed, which alienates him from C.I.A. who have been operating under guidelines that they believed would have left them immune from prosecution. With Goldsmith's assertion that previous positions were legally untenable, this leaves several people at several levels open to legal action--retroactively. Hence, the hostility toward the author, who feels he has no option but to resign.
Then abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay unfold after he suggests reversal of opinions regarding torture and treatment. He contends that secrecy, failure to inform, and keeping Congress and the public out of the loop make it appear the government was acting illegally or immorally, a perception he contends is false. He also makes a strong point that the more success the administration had in preventing a second attack, that it "had an equally self-defeating effect of enhancing public skepticism about the reality of the threat."
The author closes by comparing the executive excesses and motives of Lincoln and FDR who were far more calculating and intuitive about public feeling and reaction. He illustrates several examples of their successful attempts through, guile, insight, and even deceit at expanding their power to preserve our freedom rather than a naked grab for power. He is very persuasive in showing the reader how President Bush's go-it-alone policies, operating in secrecy, lack of cooperation with Congress and other agencies, are ultimately self-defeating, less than pragmatic, and add to the public's mistrust of his office.
Goldsmith brought some excellent points to light. There is no doubt that he is a devout conservative and writes well and convincingly. I simply did not feel there was sufficient information to rate this book higher. This was only an appetizer, and I was looking for a feast.
This is a "one-day" book. I wish there had been more.
"The One Percent Solution"
"The Genius of Impeachment"
"The Imperial Presidency"
After serving the Bush II administration for an entire ten months as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from October 2003 to August 2004, Jack Goldsmith has offered up a recap and post-mortem on the major issues with which he was confronted during those 300-odd days. As it turns out, however, they were critical days, and the issues were equally critical: terrorist seizure, confinement, and methods of interrogation as well as the NSA's secret monitoring of communications.
Much of THE TERROR PRESIDENCY is devoted to the arcana of Geneva Conventions and Protocols concerning torture, Presidential/Executive branch wartime powers, and dissection of the weak legal structure upon which lawyer John Yoo authorized and approved earlier Bush II administration OLC opinions concerning those issues. With this subject matter comes, of course, the infinite (or is it infinitesimal?) parsing of words and phrases and nuances over which only a lawyer can get enthused. Readers looking for juicy insider stories about the Bush Presidency will find these discussions off-putting, to be charitable.
However, hidden among the legalistic treatises are some remarkable, if all too briefly discussed, gems as well as some truly troubling presumptions. On a somewhat academic level, Mr. Goldsmith provides a badly needed sense of historical perspective regarding the usurpation of additional Executive Branch powers during wartime. The author repeatedly compares and contrasts the post-9/11 actions of George W. Bush with those of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War and FDR during World War II. On the one hand, the actions of those earlier Presidents provide a degree of historical cover for President Bush. At the same time, Mr. Goldsmith makes clear the enormous difference between Lincoln's and FDR's open, concisely defined, condition motivated, and carefully limited actions and the paranoically secretive, broadly defined, philosophically motivated, and ostensibly permanent actions of Bush II. "The power to manage the vast, whirring machinery of government derives from individual skills as persuader, bargainer, and leader," Goldsmith admirably quotes Arthur Schlesinger. Contrast this statement with "Bush the decider," the uncompromiser, the ignorer of allies, the partisan, and the gut reactor who speaks to and receives his guidance from "a higher authority."
Better still are the occasional first-hand accounts of events in the inner workings of the Bush Administration following the events of 9/11. Regretably, Mr. Goldsmith is a bit too much of a tease, opening the shutters ever-so-briefly before jamming them closed again with lawyerly circumspection. Nevertheless, John Yoo comes off as irresponsible, Alberto Gonzalez as a feckless featherweight, and John Ashcraft as more astute and statesmanlike than one would have thought. David Addington, Dick Cheney's chief assistant, becomes the true villain in this piece, an imperious blowhard and spiteful bully whose favorite argument regarding homeland security appears to center on threatening anyone who disagrees with him that they will be held responsible for 100,000 deaths in the next terror attack on U.S. soil. So much for the Constitution when fear rules.
And that is the true revelation in THE TERROR PRESIDENCY, as suggested by the book's very name. Goldsmith suggests convincingly that virtually every national security action of the Bush/Cheney administration since 9/11 has been motivated by fear of another attack. More specifically, fear of the political damage that would result from being blamed for not stopping the next attack. Goldsmith asserts clearly that fear of a second attack trumped every other consideration, legal or otherwise. In other words, by having three airplanes fly into three buildings on American soil, Osama bin-Laden changed the dynamic of American democracy and the manner in which the Constitution is applied to Presidential powers and American civil liberties.
Most horrifying of all, Goldsmith perceives this to be a near permanent state of affairs, and he conjures up the prospect of devastating attacks without ever mentioning mushroom clouds. "For generations the Terror Presidency will be characterized by unremitting fear of devastating attack, an obsession with preventing the attack, and a proclivity to act aggressively and preemptively to do so." A secretive Presidency is unilaterally and secretively making tradeoffs between perceived security and lost civil liberty without public discussion or Congressional consent. In essence, Bush/Cheney and the American government blinked, giving bin-Laden the ultimate terrorist victory of altering for the worse the governmental behavior and society of the target.
THE TERROR PRESIDENCY suffers from a surfeit of legalese and self-justification, and some readers will likely find either or both off-putting. Yet despite Mr. Goldsmith's overemphasis on legalisms and underreporting of the inner workings of the Bush Administration during the critical months following 9/11, this book sheds some disturbing new light on this Administration's motives and modus operandi.
on September 30, 2007
Countless people on the outside have accused the Bush administration of being isolated and immune from public perception. Jack Goldsmith's riveting new book, "The Terror Presidency" not only confirms these fears but adds a new level of questions about the Bush White House....the author was there for many months and his first hand account is invaluable. Make no mistake about it, Goldsmith is a conservative and in many ways applauds Bush's views of a strong presidency but his parting of the ways with the current administration is proof enough that things are not well in our nation's Executive branch.
Goldsmith, who was head of the Office of Legal Counsel from October, 2003 to July, 2004, paints a sobering picture of how policy is made and the contributing factors to it. He tells us that the administration is surrounded by lawyers who often suggest how policy should be made, even though many of them are simply out of their element of expertise and fail to take in other factors such as public opinion and relations with Congress. Indeed, the most damning comment Goldsmith makes is that the White House, rather than debating what is the right course of action, settles for, essentially, what they can get away with, legally. I suspect that when Bush leaves office in January, 2009, much more of Goldsmith's observations will see the light of day.
The author writes a dry, but serious book. The narrative is not colorful but his assessments more than pop off the page. A chapter on counter-terrorism is worth the whole book, but his chastisement of how lawyers have infiltrated the process of decision-making is nothing less than profound. Did we know this? No! Goldsmith, an academic at heart, parallels Bush with FDR...the comparisons couldn't be more stark with Goldsmith underscoring again and again in his book that failure to get the public on board with the war in Iraq and failure to get Congress to help legitimize the whole shebang has been the abject undoing of the last six and a half years. Summing it up, even before the book nears its conclusion, Goldsmith says, "it was said hundreds of times in the White House that the President and Vice President wanted to leave the presidency stronger than they found it. In fact they seemed to have achieved the opposite". Words for posterity, no matter how Bush wishes his legacy to be.
I highly recommend "The Terror Presidency". It's an insider's view of things that give this book a solid and firm ground on which to make the case of why the Bush administration overreaches and continues to do so. In the meantime, read this book....it's the best in peeling away the layers of Bush and how he got there along the way.
on October 3, 2007
This is a rare book in our polarized age: a book about the Bush Administration that doesn't paint the participants as either angels or demons. Jack Goldsmith is a former Bush Administration official who took over as the point man in the Administration's anti-terrorism legal strategy just as that house of cards, hastily erected in the aftermath of 9/11, began to collapse. He obviously had some "issues" with how that strategy was being handled, but might as well have been banging his head against a wall. His frustration is palpable as he loses one bureaucratic battle after another against other factions in the Administration, and he finally left his post after less than a year. What makes the book unusual is that Goldsmith doesn't demonize his antagonists; to the contrary, he portrays them as reasonable people doing what they thought was best to protect the country. His view is that, in their zeal to protect and enhance executive power, they wound up diminishing it, by pursuing a go-it-alone approach that ultimately backfired. But this is a dispute over means, not ends. Those who are looking for a broad-based indictment of the Bush Administration are looking in the wrong place. Instead, this book is about the messy intersection of policy, politics, and principle in the Age of Terror. It should be required reading for anyone interested in becoming a government lawyer. Particularly interesting is his thesis that "The Terror Presidency" is not limited to this Administration, but is a fact of life in our times, and will continue regardless of who wins the White House in 2008. Definitely an engaging and erudite read.
on September 26, 2007
A fabulous insight into how our government operates under pressure, during war times--It is wonderful that Jack Goldmith has the principles and morals to stand up for what he believes in.
on September 25, 2007
I give this book five stars despite the fact that I have several disagreements with the author. Why five stars? Because this book is basically fair and puts the Bush administration's actions into historical perspective, which is hard to find in a book about the Bush administration, pro or con.
Although highly critical of the Bush administration's view of presidential power, as well as Bush's shortcomings as a communicator and consensus builder, Goldsmith nonetheless portrays an administration bound by the rule of law and compliant with the legal opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel, where Goldsmith served for ten months as an Assistant Attorney General.
Goldsmith provides no evidence that the Bush administration ever acted contrary to counsel, and nearly always had a solid constitutional basis for its actions. Indeed, a couple of Supreme Court decisions which struck down elements of the war on terror were themselves departures from long-standing precedent. (In making this point, Goldsmith observes that the Supreme Court, not just Congress and the President, is influenced by public opinion, the press, the academy, the spirit of the times, and the passions of the moment. Here, too, he faults Bush for being tone-deaf to the nuances of leadership and the importance of getting everyone on board. He has a point: whenever a court bounced some thorny issue back to the president, he was nearly always able to get what he wanted from Congress, even the Democratic-controlled Congress. Had he been more prone to consultation, Bush arguably could have avoided some of these legal challenges.)
Goldsmith points out the extreme difficulty of discerning the exact limits of the law during times of crisis, and describes how these issues played out in the administrations of Lincoln and FDR. This leads to one of my main quibbles with the author - he is more critical of Bush for potential abuses of power, stemming from his imperial view of the presidency, than of the actual abuses of Lincoln and FDR, which far surpassed any of the excesses of Bush. (It will also come as a surprise to many readers that the controversial rendition program, considered by many as one of the black marks of the war on terror, was actually conceived during the Clinton administration.)
I also disagree with Goldsmith when he tries to contrast the views of Bush and FDR on the limits of presidential power. FDR, he says, made limited claims geared towards specific situations, whereas Bush made broad claims with no discernible limits. But Goldsmith himself admits that FDR was being cagey, a salesman, and relied upon tendentious opinions that were purpose-built by a compliant Attorney General. There is no doubt that FDR/Truman would have done - and did do - whatever it took to defeat the Germans and Japanese, Constitution or no Constitution. (Readers may recall that it was Truman, not Bush, who ordered the use of atomic bombs, and it was FDR, not Bush, who interred 90,000 Japanese Americans in relocation camps. Given these facts, Goldsmith is incredibly lenient towards FDR.) As for Bush, his claims to presidentail power are clearly focused on the same area as were FDR's - national security. In other areas, Bush has deferred to Congress and almost entirely eschewed his veto powers.
In those cases where Goldsmith personally found flaws in the legal opinions of his predecessors, the administration reluctantly changed course, but change course it did. Goldsmith makes the point - which should be obvious, but is generally ignored - that people of good will can have honest disagreements about what the Constitution requires and prohibits, about the limits of presidential power, about the handling of prisoners of war, and any of the other legal controversies surrounding national security. Nonetheless, it is clear from Goldsmith's account that when Bush says his policies were vetted and approved by lawyers versed in Constitutional, international, and national security law, he is telling the absolute truth.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft comes across quite favorably; his successor, Alberto Gonzales, much less so. (The problem with Gonzales was not a tolerance for criminality, but rather a lack of experience in national security law, a deficiency which gave him a tendency to rubber-stamp flawed legal opinions from subordinates rather than ask the tough questions.)
Goldsmith attributes most of these flawed opinions to John Woo, the number two deputy at the OLC, who although an expert in the relevant law, cranked out several opinions that Goldsmith viewed as over-broad and imprecise. Goldsmith charitably attributes this to the crisis atmosphere that pervaded the White House in the months following 9/11, when fears of an imminent second major terrorist attack were running rampant.
This book may be like a Rorschach test, where what we see is determined by our own predispositions and tendencies. Be that as it may, I nonetheless recommend the book. For anyone with an open mind about Bush, if there are any such people left, the book describes a presidency that is deeply flawed, but hardly the criminal, rogue, Constitution-shredding despotism portrayed by its critics.
Indeed, as the author points out, never in our history has the conduct of war been so constrained by the influence of lawyers as the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Ironically, Goldsmith says that it was precisely the administration's preoccupation with following the letter of the law, and being justified by the law, that made it ignore the more subtle arts of persuasion and leadership.
Goldsmith's duty as head of the Office of Legal Counsel was to advise Bush II on the legality of various actions. Upon taking the position in October, 2003, he began reviewing his predecessors' work and found much regulating the treatment and interrogation of prisoners to be deeply flawed. This is quite surprising given that Goldsmith, a conservative, had been hand-picked for the job.
His first reaction was to resign - however, he decided to stay on and try to salvage policies with more reasoned support, intending to give the President the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. This only succeeded in delaying his resignation until July 2004.
Fear of not doing enough to stop the next terrorist attack, and an equal fear of doing too much and ending up in court or before a grand jury lie behind the controversial legal policy decisions about the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the Geneva Conventions, military commissions, interrogation techniques, Guantanamo Bay, etc.
Goldsmith's conclusions are based on comparing Bush II's actions during war with FDR's. Roosevelt understood the importance of establishing credibility and trust during times of war, especially by reaching across the aisle to the opposing political party. This helped dispel the suspicion that decisions rested on partisan motives and encourages broader delegations of power from Congress and the public. Bush II's go-it-alone approach relied on minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense that largely eschews the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, and to compromise. As a result, the approach led to major legal and policy errors.
Why did the Bush administration so often assert presidential power in ways that seemed unnecessary and politically self-defeating? Goldsmith believes the answer lies in the administration's focus on increasing hard presidential power. Thus, the Bush team seems more interested in fighting limits on its power than fighting terrorism.
Meanwhile, I sit and try to understand why the Justice Department would first publicly declare torture "abhorrent" in a 12/4 opinion, then greatly expand acceptable (torture) techniques in a secret 2/05 memo, followed by Bush II's denial that we torture after the secret memo was revealed and he had quietly undermined much of Senator McCain's bill against torture through a signing statement. Conclusion - the man is not to be trusted, especially given the larger context of other actions and misleading statements.
on April 28, 2010
Jack Goldsmith's "The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration" is a provocative and important first-hand account of a small piece of the legal war on terrorism. Jack Goldsmith served as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, the DOJ office in charge of providing authoritative legal advice to the President) for a brief time during the Bush II Administration.
The book is an easy read and is very engaging. Goldsmith describes how he got the job at OLC and the personalities of many of the President's and Vice-President's legal advisors that he dealt with regularly. Most importantly, Goldsmith describes the most famous - and for him, most difficult - decisions that he made by withdrawing two earlier legal decisions concerning torture.
Most interestingly, and despite the misleading title (Goldsmith doesn't argue that President Bush ran a terror presidency; instead, that his presidency was overshadowed by the terror threat), Goldsmith is not very critical of the overall legal posture of the Bush presidency. Instead, he criticizes the tactics taken by many in the administration for claiming overly-broad executive power when that posture was not necessary. Instead, that extreme view has caused a reaction against the President's legal policies. He also discusses how the fears of further terror attacks drove the policies in the White House. Finally, Goldsmith argues that this new emphasis on legal opinions is the result of the criminalization of warfare and the "gotcha" investigations that pervade Washington, D.C. He claims that these attitudes unnecessarily hinder (and place in jeopardy) the intelligence and military operatives responsible for implementing policies.
This is an illuminating book, although at times it is a bit short on details that leaves the reader wanting more substance - probably because many of the issues that Goldsmith worked on were and still are classified. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the legal policies and controversies during the early years of the War on Terror.
on October 14, 2007
After 9/11 the major concern of the Administration was that an incident like that must never happen again. A second act of destruction would surely bring down the government. The Terror Presidency is written by an acknowledged conservative, and I am in no way a conservative, yet I found the book to be quite interesting. First of all it is not the typical raving rant that constitutes many books written by conservatives and liberals alike.
Mr. Goldsmith was, for a short time, the head of the Office of Legal Counsel. He quickly found out that legal opinions were most valued when they did not in any way constrict the powers of the president. This attitude was again based on the compelling need to see that no further terrorist attacks occurred in the United States. David Addington, VP Cheney's chief lawyer, is the most adamant proponent of the idea that the powers of the presidency cannot be limited during this war against terror. When Mr. Goldsmith finally told the Administration that the anything goes opinion on torture written in 2002 by John Yoo was on shaky legal ground, the response was to kill the messenger. Mr. Goldsmith resigned.
But here is the fascinating part of the book. The author spends a lot of time comparing President Bush's wartime responses to those of Presidents Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. FDR wanted to provide help to England at the beginning of WWII. The mood of congress and the nation, however, was soundly for isolationism. FDR got everything he wanted by a variety of actions. First he dismissed the Secretaries of War and the Navy, and installed two Republicans. His fireside chats to the nation forcefully presented his cause. He consulted with Congress, and even with his Republican opponent (Willkie) in the upcoming election campaign. He got what he wanted. Mr. Goldsmith feels that President Bush has gone too far along the route of secrecy, consulting with no one. His opinion is that Mr. Bush could learn from the approach of FDR.
While I do not always agree with everything Mr. Goldsmith says I did learn something from his reasoned interpretation of both current and historical events. On the other side of the coin I was somewhat frustrated with the author telling us from time to time that he engaged in various debates with White House lawyers, but due to security reasons he wasn't free to tell us what the substance of those debates were. Anyway, this is a book that should be interesting to all but those on the extremes of the right-left continuum
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Bush Presidency has not been its seizure of unprecedented power to the detriment of the standing of the other branches of government, but how most members of his party gave him unqualified support in this authoritarian venture, accepting the administration's position that all those who oppose him are liberal, ignorant, defeatists. Of course, there have been a few exceptions, former Congressman Bob Barr for example who has called for the President's impeachment, but by and large the silence from Republicans has been nothing short of chilling.
Professor Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer with unassailable credentials who served in the Bush Justice Department as the Head of the Office of Legal Counsel, does not tell us anything we didn't know in terms of the policies of the administration, but gives a frightening first hand account of how the President skirted and even broke the law, even as Dick Cheney's hatchet men threatened and bullied those who were disturbed by these efforts. Goldsmith describes a White House inclined to twist the law like a mafia lawyer, often making arguments that fly in the face of 200 years of history, such as the strange idea that international treaties are not binding on the Executive Branch.
While often couched in "leagaleze," Goldsmith demolishes the comparisons often invoked by the administration's defenders with actions taken by Lincoln and FDR, explaining how both these presidents made every effort not to overly disturb the balance of power between the branches of government. Perhaps most frightening of all, Goldsmith explains how the use of 9/11 risks the evisceration of the institutions and principles on which America's democracy rests and how, without quick intervention, the imperial president might quickly become a permanent state of affairs.
A worthwhile read.