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Context of 'Shortly After September 11, 2001: ’War Council’ Sets Legal Course for White House’s Response to Terrorism'

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A self-styled White House “war council” begins meeting shortly after the 9/11 attacks, to discuss the administration’s response to the attacks and the methods it will use (see (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The ad hoc group is composed of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, Pentagon chief counsel William J. Haynes, and the chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, David Addington. According to Jack Goldsmith, who will become head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in 2003 (see October 6, 2003), the four believe that the administration’s biggest obstacle to responding properly to the 9/11 attacks is the body of domestic and international law that arose in the 1970s to constrain the president’s powers after the criminal excesses of Richard Nixon’s White House. Chief among these restraints is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 (see 1978). Though Addington tends to dominate the meetings with his imposing physical presence and aggressive personality, Yoo is particularly useful to the group; the head of the OLC, Jay Bybee (whom Goldsmith will replace) has little experience with national security issues, and delegates much of the responsibility for that subject to Yoo, even giving him the authority to draft opinions that are binding on the entire executive branch. Yoo agrees wholeheartedly with Addington, Gonzales, and Cheney about the need for vastly broadened presidential powers. According to Goldsmith, Yoo is seen as a “godsend” for the White House because he is eager to draft legal opinions that would protect Bush and his senior officials from any possible war crimes charges. However, Yoo’s direct access to Gonzales angers Attorney General John Ashcroft, who feels that the “war council” is usurping legal and policy decision-making powers that are legally his own. [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007] In 2009, Goldsmith will say, “[I]it was almost as if they [Cheney and Addington] were interested in expanding executive power for its own sake.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, William J. Haynes, Richard M. Nixon, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jay S. Bybee, Jack Goldsmith, John C. Yoo, Bush administration (43), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Alberto R. Gonzales, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Bradford Berenson.Bradford Berenson. [Source: PBS]In the weeks following 9/11, government lawyers begin to formulate a legal response to the newly perceived threat of terrorism. Four related issues are at hand: forceful prevention, detention, prosecution, and interrogation. What degree of force can the government employ to prevent acts of terrorism or apprehend suspected terrorists? How and where can it best detain terrorists if captured? How can it best bring them to trial? And how can it best obtain information from them on terrorist organizations and plots? These questions are handled in a new atmosphere that is more tolerant towards flexible interpretations of the law. Bradford Berenson, an associate White House counsel at this time, later recalls: “Legally, the watchword became ‘forward-leaning’ by which everybody meant: ‘We want to be aggressive. We want to take risks.’” [New York Times, 10/24/2004] This attitude is seemingly in line with the president’s thinking. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later recall President Bush saying, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We are going to kick some ass” (see (9:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Clarke, 2004, pp. 23-24] At the center of legal reconstruction work are Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, his deputy Timothy E. Flanigan, and David S. Addington, legal counsel to Vice President Cheney. [New York Times, 12/19/2004] They will find a helpful hand in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), most notably its head, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee [Los Angeles Times, 6/10/2004] and his deputies John C. Yoo [New York Times, 8/15/2004] and Patrick F. Philbin. Most of the top government lawyers dwell in fairly conservative circles, with many being a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal fraternity. Some have clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whose ruling effectively lead to the presidency being awarded to George W. Bush after the 2000 presidential election. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] Others worked for Judge Lawrence H. Silberman, who set up secret contacts with the Iranian government under President Reagan leading to the Iran-Contra scandal, and who advised on pursuing allegations of sexual misconduct by President Clinton. [Inter Press Service, 2/6/2004]

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Richard A. Clarke, John C. Yoo, Joan Claybrook, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bradford Berenson, Jay S. Bybee, Alan M. Dershowitz, Rena Steinzor

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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