In the Bush administration, however, the most important legal-policy decisions in the war on terror before Goldsmith’s arrival were made not by the Office of Legal Counsel but by a self-styled “war council.” This group met periodically in Gonzales’s office at the White House or Haynes’s office at the Pentagon. The members included Gonzales, Addington, Haynes and Yoo. These men shared a belief that the biggest obstacle to a vigorous response to the 9/11 attacks was the set of domestic and international laws that arose in the 1970s to constrain the president’s powers in response to the excesses of Watergate and the Vietnam War. (The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, for example, requires that executive officials get a warrant before wiretapping suspected enemies in the United States.) The head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the first years of the Bush administration, Jay Bybee, had little experience with national-security issues, and he delegated responsibility for that subject matter to Yoo, giving him the authority to draft opinions that were binding on the entire executive branch.
Yoo was a “godsend” to a White House nervous about war-crimes prosecutions, Goldsmith writes in his book, because his opinions reassured the White House that no official who relied on them could be prosecuted after the fact. But Yoo’s direct access to Gonzales angered his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, according to Goldsmith. (Neither Ashcroft nor Gonzales responded to requests for interviews for this article.) Ashcroft, Goldsmith says, felt that Gonzales and the war council were usurping legal-policy decisions that were properly entrusted to the attorney general, such as the creation of military commissions, which Gonzales supported and Ashcroft never liked.
The matter came to a head in the fall of 2003, when Bybee left the Office of Legal Counsel and Gonzales suggested Yoo as a candidate to lead it. Ashcroft rejected the suggestion. Yoo then recommended his friend Goldsmith to the White House as a suitable alternative. Goldsmith interviewed with Ashcroft at the Justice Department and with Gonzales and Addington at the White House. In his interview with Addington and Gonzales, Goldsmith recalls talking about the dangers of international law and the importance of military commissions. He got the job.
Several hours after Goldsmith was sworn in, on Oct. 6, 2003, he recalls that he received a phone call from Gonzales: the White House needed to know as soon as possible whether the Fourth Geneva Convention, which describes protections that explicitly cover civilians in war zones like Iraq, also covered insurgents and terrorists. After several days of study, Goldsmith agreed with lawyers in several other federal agencies, who had concluded that the convention applied to all Iraqi civilians, including terrorists and insurgents. In a meeting with Ashcroft, Goldsmith explained his analysis, which Ashcroft accepted. Later, Goldsmith drove from the Justice Department to the White House for a meeting with Gonzales and Addington. Goldsmith remembers his deputy Patrick Philbin turning to him in the car and saying: “They’re going to be really mad. They’re not going to understand our decision. They’ve never been told no.” (Philbin declined to discuss the conversation.)
In his book, Goldsmith describes Addington as the “biggest presence in the room — a large man with large glasses and an imposing salt-and-pepper beard” who was “known throughout the bureaucracy as the best-informed, savviest and most conservative lawyer in the administration, someone who spoke for and acted with the full backing of the powerful vice president, and someone who crushed bureaucratic opponents.” When Goldsmith presented his analysis of the Geneva Conventions at the White House, Addington, according to Goldsmith, became livid. “The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections,” Addington replied angrily, according to Goldsmith. “You cannot question his decision.” (Addington declined to comment on this and other details concerning him in this article.)
Goldsmith then explained that he agreed with the president’s determination that detainees from Al Qaeda and the Taliban weren’t protected under the Third Geneva Convention, which concerns the treatment of prisoners of war, but that different protections were at issue with the Fourth Geneva Convention, which concerns civilians. Addington, Goldsmith says, was not persuaded. (Goldsmith told me that he has checked his recollections of this and other meetings with at least one other participant or with someone to whom he described the meetings soon after.)
Months later, when Goldsmith tried to question another presidential decision, Addington expressed his views even more pointedly. “If you rule that way,” Addington exclaimed in disgust, Goldsmith recalls, “the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.”