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Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justiceby Eric Lichtblau
Synopses & Reviews
In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush and his top advisors declared that the struggle against terrorism would be nothing less than a war — a new kind of war that would require new tactics, new tools, and a new mind-set. Bush's Law is the unprecedented account of how the Bush administration employed its "war on terror" to mask the most radical remaking of American justice in generations.
On orders from the highest levels of the administration, counterterrorism officials at the FBI, the NSA, and the CIA were asked to play roles they had never played before. But with that unprecedented power, administration officials butted up against — or disregarded altogether — the legal restrictions meant to safeguard Americans' rights, as they gave legal sanction to covert programs and secret interrogation tactics, a swept up thousands of suspects in the drift net.
Eric Lichtblau, who has covered the Justice Department and national security issues for the duration of the Bush administration, details not only the development of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program — initiated by the vice president's office in the weeks after 9/11 — ;but also the intense pressure that the White House brought to bear on The New York Times to thwart his story on the program.
Bush's Law is an unparalleled and authoritative investigative report on the hidden internal struggles over secret programs and policies that tore at the constitutional fabric of the country and, ultimately, brought down an attorney general.
The jacket of Eric Lichtblau's "Bush's Law" promises much: "an unparalleled and authoritative investigative report on the hidden internal struggles over secret programs and policies" and an "unprecedented account of how the Bush administration employed its 'war on terror' to mask the most radical remaking of American justice in generations." Both in a narrative and a conceptual sense, this is an ambitious... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) project. The story of the Bush administration, the war on terrorism and the law is complicated and far-flung. Its many threads pull in conflicting directions, and its distinct story lines involve diverse issues — from immigration rules to overseas military targeting and detention decisions to domestic intelligence and law enforcement to dozens of seemingly unconnected policy decisions. Yet the story "Bush's Law" tells is an already familiar, even conventional, one: that "America had started out fighting the good fight after 9/11" but "somewhere on the road to retribution, there was a sense that America had lost her way." The administration, driven largely by Vice President Dick Cheney, cast the law aside. Its excesses harmed innocents and were, in any event, of dubious value in the fight against terrorism. It stifled internal dissent. And it declared war on the press and tried to shield itself from public accountability. Lichtblau, one of two New York Times reporters who broke the story of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, tries to tell both the story of what the administration and its many agencies did and the story of what he did to expose them. At its best, "Bush's Law" makes contributions on both fronts. Lichtblau's account of the Times' deliberations over the NSA story is detailed and interesting, and his report of the vigor with which the administration attempted to quash the story — the repeated meetings he and his editors had with numerous top-level administration officials, including one the publisher and executive editor of the newspaper had with Bush himself — is illuminating. Lichtblau also offers fascinating accounts of battles within the administration, some previously well-known, others less so. And he gives a lengthy catalogue of apparently innocent people harmed by the administration's new policies; these stories will give pause even to hardened supporters of strong anti-terrorism policies. The book, however, is marred by two major problems. The first is the certainty and simplicity of Lichtblau's thesis. Though "Bush's Law" is billed as reportage and its thesis thus never directly stated, Lichtblau's point of view — that Bush's legal revolution was a big mistake — drips from every page. Whether he's writing in admiration of officials who dissented from aggressive policy decisions, highlighting the victims of those policies, or questioning their efficacy, his reflex is more skeptical than exploratory. He never pauses to reflect seriously on whether any recalibration of U.S. law was appropriate after Sept. 11, and if so, what the right changes might have looked like or how far from the ideal the administration's approach was. He also treats all of the administration's enhancements of its power as all bad: The NSA program is somehow of a piece with, for example, the roundup of illegal immigrants after Sept. 11, the aggressive attempts to hinder terrorist financing, the botched fingerprint analysis that led to the arrest of an Oregon lawyer named Brandon Mayfield. And all of this somehow has something to do with the scandal over the firing of U.S. attorneys and the politicization of the Justice Department, to which Lichtblau inexplicably turns in the final chapter. This is too simplistic. The policies the Bush administration adopted varied a great deal in their effectiveness and impact on civil liberties. And some significant adjustment of the legal system was both necessary and inevitable. The other major problem is that Lichtblau cannot seem to decide whether he's primarily writing about the administration or about himself. He begins with a narrative about the changes in the justice system, every once in a while popping in to offer a personal anecdote or experience. Midway, however, the book shifts to a triumphant first-person account in which Lichtblau explains how he took on the Bush administration, broke the NSA story, got pummeled by the political right and finally emerged as an unbowed and Pulitzer Prize-carrying defender of the First Amendment. Then, all of a sudden, it shifts back to the institutional story. Behind-the-scenes books by reporters of big news stories that interlace the story itself with the reporter's own yarn often work beautifully, as in "All the President's Men" and Michael Isikoff's "Uncovering Clinton." In this case, however, the narrative is clumsy and, at times, both self-pitying and self-regarding. In one spot, for example, Lichtblau even describes himself as having been "Swift-boated" — a pun on the acronym of the highly classified program he outed. Lichtblau's book has one other problem: It's a bit late. The inside story of the administration's legal machinations is, in broad strokes and in many details, well-known by now — in part because of Lichtblau's own work. The challenge these days is not to add the missing details but to figure out what it all means and where to go from here. Bush's law has less than a year, after all, before it can be remade again. Reviewed by Benjamin Wittes, who is a fellow and a research director at the Brookings Institution and the author of the forthcoming 'Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Even readers who have followed the administration's legalistic contortions over wiretapping and waterboarding since 9/11 may be unnerved by Lichtblau's recounting of the human dramas behind the stories of laws broken and ignored." New York Times
"Lichtblau's account of secret government operations...is chilling." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"No doubt newspapers have been known to overstep their bounds when reporting on government activities, but in this case, Lichtblau and The New York Times proved to be worthy watchdogs in defense of the First Amendment." Rocky Mountain News
"A sobering, saddening but altogether excellent book of legal reportage." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Eric Lichtblau received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, for his stories on the NSA's wiretapping program. He has worked in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, covering the Justice Department, since 2002. From 1999 to 2002 he covered the Justice Department for the Los Angeles Times. He is a graduate of Cornell University and lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
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