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Public's Distrust of Bush Dimmed Success of Preventing Terrorist Attack, Says Former Member of Bush Administration

Jack Goldsmith
Jack Goldsmith
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Once he takes office Tuesday as the nation's "second terror president," Barack Obama must confront public skepticism about the reality of threats the United States continues to face from terrorists.

That is the assessment of Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, a former member of the Bush administration and author of "The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration."

Goldsmith spoke Monday at Washington and Lee University's Founders' Day/ODK Convocation, during which new members were inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK), the national leadership fraternity founded at W&L in 1914. The event is held on the birthday of Robert E. Lee, president of the university from 1865 to 1870. Goldsmith is a member of the W&L class of 1984 and of ODK.

In his role as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in the George W. Bush administration, Goldsmith advised the president on the limits of executive power. He left the post after 10 months because he concluded that many of the government's counterterrorism policies "rested on severely damaged legal foundations," as he wrote in the introduction to his book.

In Goldsmith's view, seven and a half years of "frightening threat reports" with no attacks have left Americans "deadened" to warnings of attacks despite alarming predictions of continued vulnerability made by both the leaders of the 9/11 Commission and by a bi-partisan commission.

"The large and growing gap between the president's worried attitude toward the threat and the public's relatively indifferent attitude toward it is an enormous problem for the presidency in the age of terrorism, or the ‘Terror Presidency,' as I have called it," Goldsmith said.

If the public perceives a serious national security threat, Goldsmith said, it will give the president "strong support and wide latitude" in calming that threat. But if the public does not share the president's view, the president will have difficulty in that task.

Goldsmith said that President Bush deserves, and may ultimately receive, credit for preventing a terrorist attack since 9/11. But the primary failure of the Bush administration, he said, was its failure to "establish and maintain public trust concerning the terror threat."

Bush lost that trust, said Goldsmith, by shunning congressional consultation and by boasting of the need to maintain and expand executive power. "When an administration makes little attempt to work with the other institutions of our government and makes it a public priority to emphasize its aim is to expand its power, the Congress and the public believes it and worries about it a lot," he said. "These two mistakes led to deep suspicion of the president's motives in taking aggressive steps to keep us safe.  They did great harm to the Bush administration, and will always, I think, dim the luster of his extraordinary accomplishment in keeping us safe. "

Despite some opinions that Obama's presidency marks an end to the war on terror, Goldsmith predicted that with Obama's daily reading of the intelligence reports, he "will not cease to be very aggressive in meeting the terror threat."

Goldsmith expects Obama to do a much better job of overcoming the "presidential trust deficit" than his predecessor. This situation stems from his own criticism of the Iraq invasion and skepticism about Bush's counterterrorism methods, said Goldsmith.

In addition, Obama's ability to "narrow the public's hazardous skepticism about the reality of the terrorist threats we face" is based on the bipartisan national security team he has assembled, along with his apparent commitment to "genuine consultation with and consent from Congress" and his promise of a less secretive executive branch.

Goldsmith concluded: "Let us hope that these efforts help strengthen the second Terror Presidency such that if it exercises good judgment and is lucky, it can prevent the second and more devastating attack that many experts believe is inevitable - an attack that, if it occurs, will change our nation in ways that will make George W. Bush seem like a civil libertarian."

In his introductory remarks to the convocation, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio said that the occasion offered an opportunity to recognize and celebrate a particular kind of leadership and its centrality to the Washington and Lee mission, one with integrity, honor and service to others as defining qualities.

Added Ruscio: "We will have other occasions throughout the week to reflect on leadership, as we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and as we witness a historic transition in our nation's top political offices. This is both a hopeful and a challenging time in our nation's history, perhaps even a time of transformation. It calls upon us as a nation to be ambitious and humble, confident in our ability to meet the challenges and aware of the sacrifice that will be necessary."

Twenty-seven students, both law and undergraduate, were initiated into ODK along with two honorary members: Susan Dittman, former varsity volleyball coach at W&L and an active community member, and Doug Harwood, a 1974 journalism graduate of W&L who is editor and publisher of The Rockbridge Advocate.

The student initiates to ODK:

Class of 2009

Aaron Paul Albert, of Hebron, Conn.; Mackenzie Elise Brown, of Kingwood, W.Va.; Kehvon Marie Clark, of Boone, N.C.; Caitlin Jane Corr, of West End, N.C.; Emily Kieffer Deddens, of Maplewood, N.J.; Jacqueline Frost DiBiasie, of Salvisa, Ky.; Yuji Eugina Huang, of Lawrenceville, Ga.; Julie Anna Mancini, of Glenshaw, Pa.; Christopher Lee Martin Jr., of Shreveport, La.; Julie Catherine Peterson, of Fayetteville, W.Va.; Mallory Anne Ruymann, of Sudbury, Mass.; Jennifer Nicole Sanow, of Leesburg, Va.; John Brennan Stanton, of New Orleans, La.; Rebecca Lynne Taylor, of Burton, Wash.; and Anne Magee Van Devender, of Jackson, Miss.

Class of 2010

James Christian Dick, of Schenectady, N.Y.; Emily Shay Martin, of Brookhaven, Pa.; Joseph Patrick McDonald, of San Antonio, Texas; Elliot William O'Brien, of Te Awamutu, New Zealand; and Cristin Elizabeth Quinn, of Beaumont, Texas.

Law Class of 2009

Ryan Matthew Decker, of Lexington, Va.; Kristen Ann Hutchens, of Tampa, Fla.; Arif Shamsherali Noorani, of Fayetteville, Ga.; Robert Carter Thomson Reed, of Lexington, Va.; and Megan Leigh Williams, of Redmond, Wash.

Law Class of 2010

Caitlin Roberts Cottingham, of Washington, D.C.; Bryan John Hoynak of Doylestown, Pa.; and Charles Richardson Yates III, of Atlanta, Ga.