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Jack Goldsmith’s The Terror Presidency—Part 3


Jack Goldsmith’s The Terror Presidency also provides a fascinating account of the “unusual psychological pressures on executive branch officials who are personally responsible for preventing hard-to-fathom terrorist attacks that could kill thousands.”  Jack himself felt those pressures keenly.  When he informed the White House in the spring of 2004 that he could not support the legality of an important counterterrorism initiative, he reports that David Addington, the Vice President’s counsel, responded, “If you rule that way, the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.”  Far from ridiculing Addington’s response, Jack defends it as “reflect[ing] the profound anxieties that pervaded the Bush administration,” anxieties flowing from the reality of the daily threat matrix.  As Jack puts it, “It is hard to overstate the impact that the incessant waves of threat reports have on the judgment of people inside the executive branch who are responsible for protecting American lives.” 


In chapter 5—“Torture and the Dilemmas of Presidential Lawyering”—Jack recounts his intense anguish on concluding that two important OLC opinions on the law of interrogation that had been rendered before he took office were flawed and had to be withdrawn.  Jack certainly doesn’t spare himself criticism: 


“I had done something I had tried very hard to avoid:  I had changed the rules in the middle of the game in a way that potentially jeopardized national security and that certainly harmed an institution I had come to admire, the CIA.…  The agency had been asked to go out on a limb in 2002, and it had demanded and received absolute legal assurances from the Department of Justice and the White House.  I had done the unthinkable in withdrawing its golden shield.  And I had done so at a time that George Tenet would later describe as one of the most threatening since 9/11.”


Jack doesn’t take solace from the praise he has received from some quarters for withdrawing the opinions:  “[I]t is very easy to imagine a different world in which my withdrawal of the opinions led to a cessation of interrogations that future interrogations made clear could have stopped an attack that killed thousands.  In this possible world my actions would have looked pusillanimous and stupid, not brave.”

Tags: Whelan


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