(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JULY 2008)One of the underreported and unappreciated aspects of the Age of Bush is that despite the appearance of unanimity some administration officials, typically careerists and not political appointees, were horrified at the embrace of torture and other extralegal actions and spoke up. They were silenced and in some case were fired, demoted or resigned.
When an official whose loyalty to the rule of law ran deeper than their loyalty to the administration tried to fight back, they usually were met by a human chain saw by the name of David Addington. After the president and vice president, the chief of staff and former legal counsel to Dick Cheney has been the most powerful if relatively unknown man in Washington over the past seven-plus years.
History is filled with people like Addington who believed absolutely that they were doing right for god and republic but whose actions were so awful that what they saw as patriotism was in fact traitorous.
By that calculus, the foul deeds of Benedict Arnold, Alger Hiss and Aldrich Ames pale in comparison to Addington's actions.* * * * *Indeed, Addington is in a class of his own. Before the fires at the World Trade Center and Pentagon had even been extinguished, Addington asserted himself as the indispensable man even though his legal, political and military bona fides were overshadowed by his far right-wing views, as well as a paranoia that extended to keeping his office locked at all times and a ruthless mastery of the art of confronting outright or backstabbing anyone who got in his way.
There were career lawyers in the Justice Department who had substantial experience with terrorism, but few in or out of the White House were conversant in presidential powers. Neither was Addington, but he was quick to fill this vacuum with his extreme opinions as the chief lawyer for another paranoiac, the vice president.
Although Condoleezza Rice was nominally President Bush's national security advisor, it was Cheney who ran the national security show. Unfortunately for the victims of 9/11 and the nation as a whole, like Rice he still had a Cold War mindset, did not have the foresight to see the threat Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda represented and blew off the confidential papers and briefings that warned of this imminent danger with his trademark arrogance.
From the outset, Addington pushed what came to be known as "The New Paradigm," a absolutist doctrine at the fringes of even conservative legal thinking that the president had the authority to disregard virtually all legal boundaries, including the Constitution, if national security required it.
It has been widely reported after the fact that this paradigm was predicated on two beliefs:
* That the fight against Al Qaeda should be based on their actions being war-like and not merely criminal, and that interrogation should be stressed over due process. The legal system that the Global War on Terror was ostensibly being fought to protect was viewed from 9/12 on not as one of America's greatest strengths but as something that would get in the way.
* That even though terrorists' actions were considered war-like, terror suspects would have neither the rights of criminal defendants nor the rights of prisoners of war. As so-called "enemy combatants," they would be in a no man's land outside all laws and treaties.
Less reported is that virtually no thought was given to the long-term implication of blazing this extraordinary new legal trail, and that has become obvious as the house of cards that Addington and other helpmates built has begun to fall in the wake of a series of Supreme Court and federal appeals court rulings that found illegal key aspects of The New Paradigm, as well as warnings that the helpmates had better think twice before venturing overseas to countries that take war crimes seriously.
Addington's extraordinary role as chief architect and enabler of virtually all of the Bush administrations most egregious excesses is a central theme of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, a must-read by New Yorker writer Jane Mayer.
The administration insiders interviewed by Mayer and those whose accounts she gleaned second hand make it clear that Addington was seen as a someone who believed himself to be a patriot but whose zeal to protect the U.S. was shockingly excessive.
Mayer writes that:
* Addington's radical legal views were less a product of 9/11 than a two-decade collaboration with Cheney. Constitution be damned, the two had long believed that too much power was vested in Congress and begrudged the role that the legislative branch had played in forcing out the last president who declared extraordinary powers -- Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal -- and later during the Iran-Contra scandal.
So bitter was Cheney over Watergate that he described the years afterwards as "the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy."
* From the very first post-9/11 meeting on, Addington was extraordinarily strident and demanding.
"He'd sit, listen and then say, 'No, that's not right.' He was particularly doctrinaire and ideological," said Richard Shiffrin, the Pentagon's deputy general counsel for intelligence. "He didn't recognize the wisdom of other lawyers. He was always right. He didn't listen. He knew the answers."
* When the delicate matter of what to do about the Geneva Conventions was first broached, Addington well knew that torturing and renditioning suspects to secret prisons was prohibited.
This was because as general counsel for Cheney when he was defense secretary, an investigation had found that U.S. military training manuals used in Latin America promoted prohibited interrogation techniques, including executions. Cheney promised to destroyed the manuals but kept several copies that Addington locked in his safe. After 9/11, Addington simply advised Bush to scrap the conventions.
* Jack Goldsmith, who had beaten out David Yoo to run Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, was perhaps the highest ranking administration official to refuse to hew to hard-right ideology, questioned the White House's departure from established law and eventually resigned. He found a favorable audience with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who requested a meeting with his successor, White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez.
But when Ashcroft and Goldsmith and were ushered into Gonzalez' office, Addington was present and flew into a rage, shouting that "The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Conventions protection! You cannot question the decision!"
* When the photographs of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were first broadcast and a toxic result of Bush's abuse of power could be seen so vividly, panic spread through the administration.
The ancillary question of whether CIA videotapes of suspects in its own custody being tortured was brought up at a White House damage-control meeting, but Addington understood the explosiveness of even talking about destroying potential evidence and shouted down the questioner.
* So blind was Addington to the possibility that others might have legitimate views, he was utterly stunned by the Supreme Court rulings against the extralegal excursions he had organized.
When Solicitor General Ted Olson and some White House lawyers beseeched him to soften some of the hard edges of his extreme legal positions in order to garner support from Congress and the courts, he accused them of being defeatist and undermining the president's powers. So disgusted was Olson, the administration's most prominent conservative lawyer, that he resigned from his post.* * * * *While it had been widely assumed that the decision to torture enemy combatants and other detainees in the War on Terror began at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay
and the Bush administration long hid behind that "trickle up" explanation, it is now apparent that the origins of this dark chapter in American history can be traced to Dick Cheney and his eager point man -- David Addington.
But until The Dark Side, there has not been a satisfactory answer to the question of why in the wake of 9/11 attacks that the White House did not want to work within existing laws and systems with Congress and the courts, stubbornly objected to the creation of the 9/11 Commission and created an American gulag and rump court system that ignored constitutionally mandated niceties like habeas corpus.
Like the Watergate scandal of four decades earlier that had so assaulted the sensibilities of Cheney and Addington, the answer is that it was all about covering up.
In this instance Addington spearheaded a not vast right-wing conspiracy that was predicated on scaring the crap out of Americans, hence the oft repeated mantra that "everything has changed" because of 9/11, and used that rationale for a descent into morally repugnant methods and actions unprecedented in modern American history.
The purpose was to cover up the administration's failure to act on the repeated warnings that Al Qaeda planned a major attack on the homeland, an attack that it now appears could have been prevented had the White House not been so caught up in its own sense of infallibility.
In the case of Cheney and Addington, this hubris is all the more amazing because they were obsessed with doomsday scenarios and had participated in many drills in previous years that simulated attacks that might harm the government.
How tragic that in the end it that it is the actions of the traitorous Addington that have done the most harm.