Inside the bruising closed door
battles within the Bush Administration over the power of the
presidency an the rule of law.
For three decades Vice President Dick Cheney conducted a secretive,
behind-closed-doors campaign to give the president virtually unlimited
wartime power. Finally, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Justice Department and
the White House made a number of controversial legal decisions.
Orchestrated by Cheney and his lawyer David Addington, the department interpreted executive power in an expansive and
extraordinary way, granting President
George W. Bush the power to detain,
interrogate, torture, wiretap and spy - without congressional approval or
Now, as the White House appears ready to ignore subpoenas in the
investigations over wiretapping and U.S. attorney firings, FRONTLINE
examines the battle over the power of the presidency and Cheney's way of
looking at the Constitution.
"The vice president believes that Congress
has very few powers to actually constrain the president and the
executive branch," former Justice Department attorney Marty Lederman
tells FRONTLINE. "He believes the president should have the final word -
indeed the only word - on all matters within the executive branch."
After Sept. 11, Cheney and Addington were
determined to implement their vision - in secret.
The vice president and his counsel found an ally
in John Yoo, a lawyer at the Justice Department's extraordinarily powerful
Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). In concert with Addington, Yoo wrote
memoranda authorizing the president to act with unparalleled authority.
"Through interviews with key administration figures, Cheney's Law documents
the bruising bureaucratic battles between a group of conservative Justice
Department lawyers and the Office of the Vice President over the legal
foundation for the most closely guarded programs in the war on terror," says
FRONTLINE producer Michael Kirk.
This is Kirk's 10th documentary about the
Bush administration's policies since 9/11.
In his most extensive television interview since leaving the Justice
Department, former Assistant Attorney General Jack L. Goldsmith describes
his initial days at the OLC in the fall of 2003 as he learned about the
government's most secret and controversial covert operations.
shocked by the administration's secret assertion of unlimited power.
"There were extravagant and unnecessary
claims of presidential power that were wildly overbroad to the tasks at
hand," Goldsmith says. "I had a whole flurry of emotions. My first one
was disbelief that programs of this importance could be supported by
legal opinions that were this flawed.
My second was the realization that I would
have a very, very hard time standing by these opinions if pressed. My
third was the sinking feeling, what was I going to do if I was pressed
about reaffirming these opinions?"
As Goldsmith began to question his colleagues'
claims that the administration could ignore domestic laws and international
treaties, he began to clash with Cheney's office.
According to Goldsmith, Addington warned him,
"If you rule that way, the blood of the
100,000 people who die in the next attack will be on your hands."
Goldsmith's battles with Cheney culminated in a
now-famous hospital-room confrontation at Attorney General John Ashcroft's
Goldsmith watched as White House Counsel Alberto
Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andy Card pleaded with Ashcroft to overrule the
department's finding that a domestic surveillance program was illegal.
Ashcroft rebuffed the White House, and as many as 30 department lawyers
threatened to resign. The president relented.
But Goldsmith's victory was temporary, and Cheney's Law continues the story
after the hospital-room standoff.
At the Justice Department, White House
Counsel Gonzales was named attorney general and tasked with reasserting
White House control. On Capitol Hill, Cheney lobbied Congress for broad
authorizations for the eavesdropping program and for approval of the
administration's system for trying suspected terrorists by military
As the White House and Congress continue to face off over executive
privilege, the terrorist surveillance program, and the firing of U.S.
attorneys, FRONTLINE tells the story of what's formed the views of the man
behind what some view as the most ambitious project to reshape the power of
the president in American history.
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