How Bush’s Bumbling Saved Our Civil Liberties

Elsewhere, the book veers into memoir, sometimes unnecessarily. We learn of how Orrin Hatch gave the author a bear hug by way of apology for unfairly coupling him with Timesman-gone-bad Jayson Blair. Mr. Lichtblau minutely details his blacklisting by DOJ honchos in retaliation for tough coverage. (“So, this is what it was like to be a big-league reporter.”) He dreads ending up eating prison food like Judith Miller. He frames many of the events in terms of how he reported them for The Times, and whether or not the stories appeared on the front page. Teamed with Mr. Risen, the author seems tempted to take measurements for the mantle of Woodward and Bernstein.

But in the end there isn’t enough material here to pull it off. It’s not Mr. Lichtblau’s fault. Bush’s Law is a taut read, and the author’s strong reportorial skills are on display throughout.

The problem is more with the boundaries of his beat. Officials at the Justice Department come across as more hapless than heavy. “What the hell’s going on here?” supplies the book’s refrain. Some of it’s funny, like the “Pizza Hut leads,” so-called because communication dots came always to connect with the pizza deliveryman; or the head of F.B.I. counterterrorism who can’t tell the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam. The book closes with the non-9/11 farce of Bush patsy Alberto Gonzales melting down on the U.S. attorney scandal.

There aren’t really any heroes here, either. A few mid-level officials pushed back on the more extreme elements of administration policy (some of them unlikely, such as I.N.S. commissioner James Ziglar), and even Attorney General John Ashcroft had his limits. (The now-famous hospital room scene, in which an ailing Mr. Ashcroft stiffs Mr. Gonzales and the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, on the N.S.A. program, is nicely retold here.) But no one has the stamina, the will or the power to bring basic constitutional precepts back into play. There isn’t anyone on either side of the moral aisle sufficiently engaging to carry the narrative.

The real brutes are offstage—mostly at the White House, in the form of Dick Cheney and his hidden hand David Addington—as are the real injustices, in places like Guantánamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. It’s our loss that Eric Lichtblau hasn’t been put on those trails, too.

Peter J. Spiro, who teaches law at Temple University, is the author of Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization (Oxford). He can be reached at books@observer.com.