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Former Bush official discusses terror war, law

Students and faculty crowded into a packed lecture hall in the School of Law Monday to hear the insider perspective of former presidential adviser Jack Goldsmith on the complex legal issues surrounding President George W. Bush's administration and the War on Terror.

Goldsmith, currently the Henry L. Shattuck professor of law at Harvard Law School, served under then-attorney general John Ashcroft for nine months as the head of the Office of Legal Council in the Department of Justice. Goldsmith advised the president on legal issues such as wiretapping laws and torture until his resignation from the department in 2004.

Goldsmith said when he entered the OLC he found some of the previous legal opinions formulated as a result of the War on Terror to be overly broad on issues like torture.

"I think one of the explanations for the opinions is fear," he said. "I wasn't there in the first year after 9/11, but I noticed an enormous fear in the government of another attack. The lawyers I'm sure were under enormous pressure to push the law as far as it could go."

The government has not exaggerated the threat of terrorism, Goldsmith said.

"My experience, as of three years ago, is that the opposite is true: The threat is much more intense than is revealed to the public," he said.

Goldsmith noted, however, that the president relied too much on unilateral action after 9/11. He said Bush could have been more successful by involving Congress from the outset of the War on Terror.

"Trust and credibility in wartime is always difficult to achieve," Goldsmith said. "I think this president has made it super hard through his actions."

During the discussion, Christopher Schroeder, Charles S. Murphy professor of law and public policy and director of the Program in Public Law, interviewed Goldsmith about his recently published book "The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration." Schroeder served as head of the OLC during former President Bill Clinton's administration.

Schroeder said he could relate to the fear of terrorism after reading Goldsmith's book.

"There are several moments in your book when you scare the hell out me when you outline what the intelligence community is saying," Schroeder said.

Goldsmith said his book described the lessons he learned from his government experience.

"I was incredibly naive when I started this job," he said. "I [did not] realize the political pressure inside the department."

Many students said they found Goldsmith's insider perspective interesting.

"I came to the presentation because I wanted to find a view from inside the administration on how the policy was formed," said third-year law student Arman Tasheneff.

Ben McNabb, also a third-year law student, agreed but said he thought the interview was vague.

"I'm not really clear what his conclusion was, to be honest," he said. "I think he saw a lot of merit in what was being done, but he thought Congress could have been a little more involved."

McNabb said he thought Goldsmith was hesitant to criticize the Bush administration.

"I really want to hear what he says in the book because it will probably clarify a lot of what he said today," he added.


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