He's barely known outside Washington's corridors of power, but David Addington is the most powerful man you've never heard of. Here's why:
One week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush briefly turned his gaze away from the unfolding crisis to an important but far less pressing moment in the nation's history. The president signed legislation creating a commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling desegregating public schools. In a brief statement, Bush invited the various educational groups listed in the legislation to suggest the names of potential commissioners and also urged members of Congress to weigh in, as a "matter of comity." But in a little-noted aside, Bush said that any such suggestions would be just that--because under the appointments clause of the Constitution, it was his job, and his alone, to make those kinds of decisions.
This was what is known, in the cloistered world of constitutional lawyers and scholars, as a "signing statement." Such statements, in the years before President Bush and his aides moved into the White House, were rare. A signing statement is a legal memorandum in which the president and his lawyers take legislation sent over by Congress and put their stamp on it by saying what they believe the measure does and doesn't allow. Consumed by the 9/11 attacks, Americans for the most part didn't realize that the signing statement accompanying the announcement of the Brown v. Board commission would signal one of the most controversial hallmarks of the Bush presidency: a historic shift in the balance of power away from the legislative branch of government to the executive. The shift began soon after Bush took office and reached its apogee after 9/11, with Bush's authorization of military tribunals for terrorism suspects, secret detentions and aggressive interrogations of "unlawful enemy combatants," and warrantless electronic surveillance of terrorism suspects on U.S. soil, including American citizens.
The "invisible hand." Much of the criticism that has been directed at these measures has focused on Vice President Dick Cheney. In fact, however, it is a largely anonymous government lawyer, who now serves as Cheney's chief of staff, who has served as the ramrod driving the Bush administration's most secretive and controversial counterterrorism measures through the bureaucracy. David Addington was a key advocate of the Brown v. Board and more than 750 other signing statements the administration has issued since taking office--a record that far outstrips that of any other president.
The signing statements are just one tool that Addington and a small cadre of ultraconservative lawyers at the heart of the Bush administration are employing to prosecute the war on terrorism. Little known outside the West Wing and the inner sanctums of the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department, Addington is a genial colleague who also possesses an explosive temper that he does not hesitate to direct at those who oppose him. Addington, says an admiring former White House official, is "the most powerful person no one has never heard of."
Name one significant action taken by the Bush White House after 9/11, and chances are better than even that Addington had a role in it. So ubiquitous is he that one Justice Department lawyer calls Addington "Adam Smith's invisible hand" in national security matters. The White House assertion--later proved false--that Saddam Hussein tried to buy nuclear precursors from Niger to advance a banned weapons program? Addington helped vet that. The effort to discredit a former ambassador who publicly dismissed the Niger claim as baseless, by disclosing the name of his wife, a covert CIA officer? Addington was right in the middle of that, too, though he has not been accused of wrongdoing.