Evenhanded study of justice blindfolded by “a broad, omnipotent reading of the president’s wartime authority.”
There is some chicken and some egg in the question of why and how America embarked on the war on terror: Was Bush intent on going to war precisely in order to expand that authority, or did the authority necessarily expand to cover the comprehensive engagement of that war? Helen Thomas, the near-legendary correspondent and gadfly, has suggested the former, observing that she had never seen anyone so determined to go to war. Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times correspondent Lichtblau—who was the Los Angeles Times Justice Department reporter at the time of 9/11—seems less sure. However, his account of executive power begins with a stern warning—as it happens, from the chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time—that the Constitution prohibits much of the domestic program of the Bush administration, which for its part had been arguing from even before 9/11 that individual liberties, the Bill of Rights and other such legal provisions were mere niceties, disposable in the fight against the homeland’s enemies. The press fell into line, Lichtblau observes, burying important stories about the law writ large, on drugs and inner-city violence and other concerns, in the interest of secrecy. One story that was so buried, he charges, concerned the “unusual arrangements that the Secret Service had made allowing one of President Bush’s underage daughters—Jenna Bush, then nineteen—to make a bar-hopping trip south of the border”—and that less than a week before she was to appear in court in Texas on a charge of underage drinking. That was a trivial operation compared to others engineered by the administration, from the Valerie Plame affair to illegal wiretapping and financial investigations to the “324-page legislative grab bag” that was the Patriot Act, all of which Lichtblau visits in careful detail, recording the administration’s relentless protests that making any such efforts public was tantamount to working for al-Qaeda. Even conservative legislators, Lichtblau writes in closing, now reject that sham excuse.
A sobering, saddening but altogether excellent book of legal reportage.