"Never in the history of the United States had lawyers had such extraordinary influence over war policy as they did after 9/11." Those are the words of Jack Goldsmith, the Harvard law professor who was one of those lawyers, as head of the Justice Departments Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 and 2004. They appear in his book "The Terror Presidency," hailed as a criticism of the Bush administrations legal policies, which in part it is.
Believing that some of his predecessors opinions, particularly two on interrogation techniques, were "deeply flawed," he reversed them. He argues that the administration would have ended up with more latitude in fighting terrorism if it had worked with Congress to get legislation, even if those laws would not have been as expansive as the administration wanted. Its a serious argument, and he also presents fairly, I think, the opposing view that such restrictions would make it harder to protect the American people.
But anyone who goes beyond the first newspaper stories and reads the book will find another message. For one thing, Goldsmith also supports many much-criticized policies -- the detention of unlawful combatants in Afghanistan and their confinement in Guantanamo, trials by military commissions, the terrorist surveillance program. And he rejects the charge that the administration has disregarded the rule of law. Quite the contrary. "The opposite is true: the administration has been strangled by law, and since September 11, 2001, this war has been lawyered to death." There has been a "daily clash inside the Bush administration between fear of another attack, which drives officials into doing whatever they can to prevent it, and the countervailing fear of violating the law, which checks their urge toward prevention."
It was not always so, he points out. In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt ordered military commissions to try the eight Nazi saboteurs who had landed on our shores; the Supreme Court unanimously approved, and six were executed six weeks after they were apprehended, to the applause of the media of the day. But FDR "acted in a permissive legal culture that is barely recognizable to us today."