On the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, State Department legal adviser John Bellinger III ’82 was in Rome, delivering a speech that may have come as a bit of a surprise to his European audience — and might have raised eyebrows back home, among some supporters of the Republican administration he represents.
In a speech at the Center for American Studies, a 70-year-old meeting place for Italian and American intellectuals and politicos, Bellinger offered a disarmingly candid assessment of the state of his nation’s relations with its allies. “I know that many Europeans are troubled by the United States’ insistence that we are engaged in a ‘global war on terror,’” he said. He did not try to browbeat his audience out of this view or liken those who held it to Neville Chamberlain.
Instead, Bellinger offered understanding. “Given the devastation inflicted upon Europe by two world wars in the last century, Europeans are understandably reluctant to engage in another war, much less a global war,” he said. Then came reassurance. “I hope I can address these concerns by clarifying that the United States does not believe that it is engaged in a legal state of armed conflict at all times with every terrorist group in the world, regardless of the group’s reach,” he continued. “Nor is military force the appropriate response in every situation across the globe.”
When he was a student in the Woodrow Wilson School, Bellinger impressed one of his mentors, Professor Richard Ullman, with his knack for “seeing things not in black and white, but in shades of gray.” It may be Bellinger’s best qualification for the job he now holds. As a close confidant of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the 46-year-old Bellinger is walking a tightrope. Domestically, he has a low profile. Internationally, however, Bellinger has become a leading salesman for Bush administration policies that — according to numerous reports that he won’t talk about but doesn’t deny — he has tried vigorously to modify.
During the five years since Bellinger watched on television from the White House situation room as the twin towers toppled, he has been at the shadowy center of an intense internal debate over how the war on terror should be prosecuted. As Rice’s chief legal adviser — first at the National Security Council, and now at the State Department — Bellinger has occupied the gray zone between administration hard-liners who have pushed for aggressive surveillance and interrogation techniques on the grounds that an unconventional war requires unconventional responses, and civil libertarians who insist that the president is threatening to destroy the republic in his effort to save it.
In an administration that has been widely viewed as being unwilling to consider opposing ideas, Bellinger has brought different points of view to the table. He is a vocal proponent of international law in a political party where it’s not always popular. And he is a legal conservative who favored applying the Geneva Conventions to terror detainees when that was not the prevailing view in the White House.
Bellinger’s behind-the-scenes role was vindicated in June by the Supreme Court. Ruling inHamdan v. Rumsfeld, the justices held that the administration’s decision not to accord Geneva Convention protections to the detainees was unconstitutional and ordered the administration to come up with a new plan for interrogating and trying suspects.
In the infighting over the administration’s first plan for interrogating and trying terror suspects, Bellinger “was on the side of the angels,” one participant in the debates told the Princeton Alumni Weekly. He sided with State Department and National Security Council lawyers against those from the Justice Department and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office over whether the Geneva Conventions should apply to the detainees. For a long time, that was the losing side. Prior to the Supreme Court’s Hamdan ruling, the administration’s official position was that the Geneva prohibitions against “outrages upon personal dignity” during interrogations did not apply because the Geneva Conventions were written to protect uniformed members of the military and civilians, and suspected terrorists are neither. In an infamous 2002 memo, Justice Department lawyers argued that certain “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” interrogation techniques, if employed on the post-9/11 detainees, might be legally defensible.
The New York Times recently reported that Bellinger was one of four officials who participated in drafting a memo that proposed the administration seek congressional approval for its detention policies, return to the minimum standards in the Geneva Conventions, move the 9/11 plot suspects from their secret cells and try them before military tribunals, and eventually close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. When President Bush unveiled his new plan in September and announced that 14 “high-value” terror suspects were being moved out of secret CIA prisons — the first time the administration publicly acknowledged their existence — to Guantánamo Bay for trial, The Washington Post interpreted the announcement as a victory for Rice and Bellinger over Cheney and the lawyers on his staff. If Bellinger shares that view, he is being discreet about it. He says he was heavily involved in drafting the president’s military tribunal legislation.
Bellinger won’t discuss his disagreements with others in the administration. He insists that he’s on good terms with lawyers for Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who reportedly clashed with him. “We may not agree on everything, but we agree on most things,” he says.
He can afford to be magnanimous. While fellow Princetonian and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ’54 has faded from view, Bellinger is attached to a rising star. Tensions among Cabinet secretaries exist in every administration, but those between Rumsfeld and Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, were particularly pronounced. With criticism of the war in Iraq and the war on terror mounting, and Rice now at the helm of State, the balance of power between the two departments seems to have shifted. Now Rice takes most of the high-profile trips and speaks out on foreign affairs. When Rumsfeld visited Iraq in April, she went with him and got most of the headlines.
Bellinger met Rice when he was assigned as a lawyer to her National Security Council team at the beginning of the Bush administration. One of a small number of aides who meet with the secretary at the beginning and end of every day, he has become a point person in her global charm offensive to win back the good will of the world. It’s part of the “transformational diplomacy” that Rice has made the theme of her tenure at State. “In this day both with modern communication and also all that’s being asked of the United States, we don’t just report on events; we need to actually help shape events around the world,” Bellinger says. That means “actually helping to shape the decisions of other governments or of their societies — helping to make the world a more democratic place, supporting women’s rights around the world, supporting health initiatives around the world, supporting religious freedom around the world,” he says. “Diplomacy then becomes something where you are transforming the world.”
Rice and Bellinger recognize that they have to do some remedial work with allies. “We understand the concern. Some of our policies have been controversial,” Bellinger says. Trotting the globe an average of one week a month, Bellinger has been part of an aggressive public relations campaign aimed at convincing anyone who will listen that Americans aren’t a bunch of trigger-happy cowboys who view the world as their OK Corral. Bellinger puts it more diplomatically: He says he’s been assigned to “work on international legal public diplomacy” and describes his mission as refuting “this allegation that the United States does not take its international obligations seriously.”
For Bellinger, that has meant doing double duty as Uncle Sam’s chief flak catcher abroad. “We’re on defense on a lot of things,” acknowledges Bellinger. His boyish face has appeared on television from Britain to Japan. He has been quoted on the Al-Jazeera Web site saying that there have been “relatively few instances of actual abuse” of al-Qaida suspects and that the Bush administration is “absolutely committed to uphold its national and international obligations to eradicate torture.”
In his spacious State Department office, filled with oversized leather furnishings and pictures of his wife, Dawn, and two daughters, Bellinger says he wants to have a new international dialogue on how to develop rules for handling the terrorist threat. What should the rules be for interrogating a prisoner who might have information on an imminent threat to thousands of lives? He acknowledges that the administration could have been more open and inclusive as it debated such issues in the past. “Certainly with respect to this whole area relating to detainees and the war on terrorism ... we could have done a better job if we had more actively engaged with our allies, and with others domestically, to try to explain the decisions and try to get more support for them at a time when there was more support and sympathy,” he says. “Now as some of our policies have become more controversial, as Sept. 11 fades in memory and there’s only distant sympathy, it’s harder to persuade allies — both domestically in Congress and internationally — to be with us. I wish we had gotten more buy-in internationally.”
As a result, Bellinger now spends much of his time overseas trying to explain and defend the Bush administration’s policies on such matters as the detention and trial of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, secret CIA “renditions” of terror suspects to other countries, and U.S. views on the Geneva Conventions.
“These are not always the most enjoyable issues to talk about,” says Bellinger, who has become accustomed to prickly receptions everywhere he goes. He faced tough questions last May, when he led a U.S. delegation to Geneva to defend the nation’s policies before the U.N. Committee Against Torture. In the face of allegations by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that Americans had put prisoners through mock drownings, as well as embarrassing media reports of prisoner abuse, Bellinger had to make the case that “these incidents are not systemic” under two days of questioning by U.N. officials. It was “one of the hardest things I had to do,” Bellinger says. “The U.S. was essentially being put on trial. I was the principal person asked to defend it.”
Bellinger insists that the abuses of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are isolated cases that do not reflect the policies of the Bush administration. The case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen whose government concluded he was tortured in Syria after being sent there by U.S. officials, was a legal deportation, Bellinger says, and not a deliberate effort to expose him to abuse. He insists that the United States does not condone torture or knowingly send terror suspects to be interrogated in other countries that practice it. In his Rome speech, he portrayed the president’s decision to move some top terror suspects from secret prisons to Guantánamo Bay as a response to allies’ “concerns about our detainee policies,” and called for efforts “to bridge the growing divide between the United States and Europe” by “avoiding hysterical descriptions of others’ views and actions.” Bellinger says his statements reflect a recognition by the Bush administration that “we needed to do a better job explaining our policies to the world.”
Views about Bellinger’s role are divided. Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, in April hosted a briefing for journalists with Bellinger, and wrote on his blog, www.thewashingtonnote.com, that Bellinger deserved “enormous credit for his willingness to engage in public forums of this sort.” A reader sharply dissented: “If I had been there, when Bellinger discussed the legal rationalizations and justifications for many of the Bush administration positions, I probably would have lost my dinner. How does one justify torture while touting Geneva Conventions?”
Anthony Romero ’87, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls Bellinger “an apologist” for the Bush administration. The ACLU, which has filed suit on behalf of Guantánamo detainees, doesn’t buy Bellinger’s view that abuses have been isolated or the work of a few misguided and low-ranking soldiers. He views Bellinger’s role as a “good soldier for President Bush” as part of a cover-up. “Princeton in the nation’s service doesn’t mean Princeton in the president’s service,” Romero contends.
However, Stephen Pevar ’68, who also works for the ACLU, says he admires the role Bellinger is playing. “I’d rather have him on the inside, working for change,” Pevar says.
As the State Department’s chief legal adviser, Bellinger runs the equivalent of a midsize law firm, supervising about 300 lawyers and support staff whose duties run the gamut from drafting U.N. resolutions and international treaties to more mundane matters such as reviewing purchasing contracts and leases. In the Bush administration, he has been handed some crucial assignments. When, after considerable public pressure, the White House decided to make public the potentially embarrassing “presidential daily brief,” a classified intelligence document that, on Aug. 6, 2001, warned of Osama bin Laden’s plans to hijack aircraft and “bring the fight to America,” Bellinger oversaw the release. When the administration was under fire from former antiterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, Bellinger helped Rice, then national security adviser, prepare for her grilling by the 9/11 Commission, and afterward for her Senate hearings to become secretary of state. When the administration decided to follow the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations to create a director of national intelligence, Bellinger helped draft the legislation. Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75, now the director of the University’s Washington office, was working for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., at the time and negotiated with Bellinger on the bill. She says his “straightforward” and candid style enabled both sides to move from vastly different positions to a consensus.
Born in Paris and reared on various military bases, Bellinger appears to have been bred for a life in international diplomacy. His father was a career military officer; his mother was a Russian analyst for the CIA. In Washington, where the family eventually settled, he attended St. Alban’s School, an imposing private facility with a Princeton-like campus and a history of educating the sons of Washington’s elite.
His decision to go to Princeton was, by his family’s standards, an act of rebellion: Bellinger is a descendant of three generations of West Pointers. But by the time he was preparing for college, Bellinger says, his father had become convinced that Vietnam had tarnished the reputation of the military. “He did not encourage me to go to West Point,” he says.
At Princeton, Bellinger’s friends were struck by his sense of purpose. “We were all sure that John would go in for the foreign service, end up an ambassador or something like that,” says former roommate John Hutton ’82, now an art history professor at Salem College in North Carolina. Following graduation, Bellinger obtained a law degree at Harvard and a master’s in foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. Back in Washington, he served as a special assistant to CIA Director William Webster from 1988 to 1991, enjoying a ringside seat at such momentous historical events as the first Persian Gulf war and the dismantling of the Soviet bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After Bill Clinton was elected president, Bellinger was out of a job. He decompressed with his wife and new baby at a cottage in the Cotswolds, then returned to join Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, a blue-chip Washington law firm whose name partner, the late Lloyd Cutler, was a leading Demo-cratic wise man frequently consulted by his Republican counterparts to pull the strings they couldn’t. He headed back into public service in 1995, becoming general counsel to a bipartisan commission on U.S. intelligence, and then counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In 1996, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick recruited Bellinger for a top-level job advising the Justice Department on national security matters. Gorelick says she sought Bellinger for what was “a pretty sensitive position” because “I thought he was really talented.” It was a civil service post, so Bellinger was never a Clinton appointee. His politics were not an issue. “I had no idea what his politics were — zero,” says Gorelick’s successor in the Clinton administration, Eric Holder, a Democrat. Holder would come away from meetings remembering things that Bellinger had said, even when the room had been filled with more senior officials. He also liked the fact that Bellinger didn’t sugarcoat the facts or spare his bosses unpleasant truths. “He’s not the kind of guy who will tell you the answers you want to hear,” Holder says. “He’s not going to stretch to reach a result.”
More recently, Bellinger’s work with Rice has made him an enthusiastic admirer of the secretary. The feeling appears to be mutual: In September 2005, Rice delivered the keynote address at Princeton to kick off the Wilson School’s 75th anniversary year and met with faculty members and Wilson School students. University officials considered it a coup. According to Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, it was Bellinger who made the arrangements.
Bellinger saw the visit as a way to thank Princeton for preparing him to think about problems in which solutions are rarely clear-cut. “I’ve seen on the more liberal Web sites, people say, ‘Geez, if this guy has a conscience, he should just quit,’” he says. But he dismisses such unequivocal idealism as an obstacle to progress. “There are no easy answers as to how to deal with international terrorists. Secretary Rice and I have tried hard to engage other countries in a more intensive dialogue and to do a better job of explaining U.S. policies and addressing international concerns. I feel that we’re making a difference.”