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The White Paper and its Critics

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Someone for reasons unknown last week leaked the classified Department of JusticeWhite Paper” on targeting with drone attacks the numerically tiny number of US citizens overseas who have joined al Qaida or affiliated groups. The leak set off an outburst of public debate, much of it ill-informed by people who did not bother to read the white paper and some of it intentionally misleading by those who had and, frankly, know better.

Generally, I’m a harsh critic of the Holder DOJ, but their white paper, though not without some minor flaws of reasoning and one point of policy, is – unlike some of the critics – solidly in compliance with the laws of war, broader questions of international law and the major SCOTUS decisions on war powers. It was a political error to classify this document in the first place rather than properly share it with the relevant Congressional committees conducting oversight

Here it is and I encourage you to read it for yourself:

Lawfulness of Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qa’ida

Much of this white paper debate has been over a legitimate policy dispute (“Is it a good idea if we use drones to kill AQ terrorists, including American ones?”) intentionally being mischaracterized by opponents of the policy (or the war) as a legal or constitutional question. It is not. The law is fairly settled as is the question if the conflict with AQ rises to a state of armed conflict, which SCOTUS dealt with as recently as Hamdi and for which there are ample precedents from previous wars and prior SCOTUS decisions to build upon. At best, framed as a legal dispute, the opponents of the drone policy would have a very long uphill climb with the Supreme Court. So why do it?

The reason, as I discern it, is substituting a legalistic argument and judicial process (“FISA court to decide drone killings”) to conceal what is really a debate over American war policy   and the President’s war powers in order to accrue domestic political advantage or at least avoid paying the costs of advocating a potentially unpopular position. Otherwise, opponents have to argue on the merits that the US should not as a matter of policy kill al Qaida terrorists sheltered by Pakistan or beyond the reach of government control in Yemen. Or that we are not “really” at war or that Federal judges are better suited for picking bombing targets than Air Force and CIA analysts and that “due process” should apply to enemy combatants on the battlefield. Many of these arguments are valid ones to raise and debate but are unlikely to be persuasive to the public or Congress; if they were, they would have prevailed in 2010 (drones) or 2001 (“are we at war?).

A straightforward legal analysis begins and stops with ascertaining whether or not we are in a state of armed conflict with al Qaida. The white paper used a “kitchen sink” approach to try and cover all legal bases, perhaps to create a basis for a later freewheeling peacetime use of armed drones – which incidentally, I am not in favor of – but it is not required here and actually distracts from the strongest legal argument – the administration is lawfully fighting an enemy in an armed conflict declared by Congress.
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If we are in an armed conflict under international law with al Qaida – and the evidence appears here in fact, legislative action, context, historical and legal precedent to be overwhelming – renders most of the other justifications cited in the white paper for the policy regarding due process as well as nearly all of the criticisms of it moot, at least in terms of legality. Wartime enemy combatants are in a qualitatively different legal status vis-a-vis the United States government acting as a belligerent than are non-combatants or are civilians in peacetime (even civilians who commit criminal acts). No American citizen has a right to pick up arms and join an enemy army or armed group during a war, period. Or a subsequent right to be treated as anything but a combatant if they do. Combatant status is not determined by nationality under international law but by behavior and adherence to a belligerent party’s military forces and their physical disposition ( hors d’ combat, in the act of surrender etc.).
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American citizens fought in enemy armies, notably the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, against the United States in WWII and a handful defected to the enemy in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While some of these men were tried for treason after these wars ended, others were treated as enemy POWs or simply allowed to come home at a later date, but none were accorded judicial due process *during* the conflict as potential targets of an American military attack. Only after capture, as with the saboteurs in the Ex Parte Quirin case, did judicial review and due process come in to play.. We see a similar phenomena with the Civil War where, even under the Lincolnian theory that the Confederacy merely represented “Combinations too powerful to be suppressed” (i.e. a private insurrectionist conspiracy and not the states themselves as corporate, legal, sovereign entities in rebellion), we do not see SCOTUS insisting on normal, civilian, judicial due process in Ex Parte Milligan except where “civil courts are in operation” (i.e. away from the battlefield). This was to prevent the application of martial law in civilian areas in the North, not to stop martial law in theater or occupational zones.
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Had this issue of due process for active enemy combatants been raised during WWII or even Vietnam, it would have been likely (and properly) regarded by US officials as ludicrous; if true, the logic would imply that enemy units could immunize themselves from attack (or substantially delay them)  by recruiting American citizens into their ranks. It would also beg the question why the US could lawfully bomb enemy targets and risk killing American POWs via collateral damage, but not directly target enemy fighters who happened to be American citizens. It would further beg the question why it would be lawful to indirectly target an American citizen in a group of enemy fighters with, say, artillery or gravity bombs from 52,000 feet but be an unlawful violation of due process to aim at him directly with a drone missile or a sniper rifle. Is a Marine rifleman who happens upon Adam Gadahn in Afghanistan and kills him therefore an “assassin” (to use Glenn Greenwald’s description of targeted killings) to be charged with murder?
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Even as a matter of “due process” (!) – never mind fighting a war – how could this legal argument possibly make any sense? What precedent under military law or international law from prior conflicts supports it?
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How would inserting judicial review – even SCOTUS – over operational planning and target selection as a step in the President’s exercise of his Constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief likely to affect the Separation of Powers? This is not a trivial question – in military terms it is analogous to the judiciary usurping the position of the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives over legislative matters. How would this innovation impact our ability to fight our next war or wars?
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Much like the white paper’s lengthy, but entirely irrelevant discourse into the nature of threat “imminence” and “breadth”, this argument is sheer invention if a state of armed conflict with al Qaida exists. Most criticisms and not a few of the white paper’s own legal justifications consist of novel restraints alien to the historical practice of states prosecuting an armed conflict that we would be extremely unwise to adopt and sanctify as precedents for waging future wars.
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Let us take one of the more intellectually serious and responsible expert critics as an example, Steve Vladeck of American University. Not everything he has to say in his lengthy post is wrong and I even agree with some of his points, but things like this strike me as specious, or at least a very weak reed upon which to rest an argument that alters the constitutional balance:
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….First, many of us who argue for at least some judicial review in this context specifically don’t argue for ex ante review for the precise reasons the white paper suggests. Instead, we argue for ex postreview–in the form of damages actions after the fact, in which liability would only attach if the government both (1) exceeded its authority; and (2) did so in a way that violated clearly established law. Whatever else might be said about such damages suits, they simply don’t raise the interference concerns articulated in the white paper, and so one would have expected some distinct explanation for why that kind of judicial review shouldn’t be available in this context. All the white paper offers, though, is its more general allusion to the political question doctrine. Which brings me to…

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Second, and in any event, the suggestion that lawsuits arising out of targeted killing operations against U.S. citizens raise a nonjusticiable political question is almost laughable–and is the one part of this white paper that really does hearken back to the good ole’ days of the Bush Administration (I’m less sold on any analogy based upon the rest of the paper). Even before last Term’s Zivotofsky decision, in which the Supreme Court went out of its way to remind everyone (especially the D.C. Circuit) of just how limited the political question doctrine really should be, it should’ve followed that uses of military force against U.S. citizens neither “turn on standards that defy the judicial application,” nor “involve the exercise of a discretion demonstrably committed to the executive or legislature.” Indeed, in the context of the Guantánamo habeas litigation, courts routinely inquire into the very questions that might well arise in such a damages suit, e.g., whether there is sufficient evidence to support the government’s conclusion that the target is/was a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates…

My first criticism would be that Vladeck’s premise that the question of a targeting decision of an American citizen who is a senior leader of al Qaida during a state of armed conflict who is active outside the territory of the United States is a matter for adjudication by US courts is incorrect. He is essentially arguing that the political question doctrine does not cover the exercise of the Constitutionally specified war-making powers of the executive and legislative branches during a war. I am highly skeptical this is an argument any Supreme Court would entertain lightly, much less the Roberts Court.
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My second criticism is more practical – that Vladeck in seeking judicial review of the decision process by which an American citizen is determined to be senior or not senior leader in al Qaida leadership is a distinction without a difference from a court having a priori judicial review of the larger military operation in wartime but with the added detriment of exposing the intelligence process, to discovery. Targeting decisions involve assessment of intel about the target from a variety of perspectives – confidence, effect, probability of success/costs and the “fusion” of (usually) USAF and IC in a targeteering shop. Why  judicial scrutiny should apply only to drone strikes targeting a specific US citizen among other al Qaida operatives in wartime vice simply bombing an al Qaida safe house in which a US citizen might be employs a legal reasoning that is obscure to me. If a US citizen being a potential casualty is the critical constitutional variable here, then not also judicial review of a bayonet charge?
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The proposal for judicial review of potential attacks during an armed conflict (not peacetime) is rife with a host of counterproductive second and third order constitutional and military effects. It represents a sweeping change in our political order by a technical legal fiat. It would also be an exceedingly dumb way to run a war. It might test our powers of imagination, but somehow, we faced down Hitler and the Imperial Japanese without Federal judges running our strategic bombing campaigns.
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This preference for legalistic arguments is partly a product of over representation of lawyers among the American political elite. Highly competent attorneys are very skilled at framing arguments on behalf of clients so that they begin litigation not only from a favorable explicitly stated position but, where possible, with several layers of one-sided implicit premises built in that you accept uncritically only at your peril. When a lawyer comes into a public policy debate saying that a political question is a legal question, he is making a political argument to remove a political dispute in a democratic polity to the courts where the matter will be decided under very different procedures and will remain as a legal question thereafter.
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Sometimes, this is the constitutionally correct thing to do; more often, it is simply an expedient thing to do that diminishes democratic accountability while rendering policy and process needlessly more complex and adversarial than even open public debate. It is also a self-aggrandizing feedback loop for lawyers as a class – when all political questions are legal questions, then should we not all defer to their superior expertise and training? It is the road to technocracy and the rule of law becoming “rule by lawyers”.
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Does that mean the critics have no point whatsoever regarding the use of drones in “targeted killings”? No. The idea that targeting American citizens is bad *policy* because it might, for example, be poorly employed against innocent people by mistake or, in slippery slope fashion, lead to a normalization and extension of the practice of targeted killing outside of an officially recognized armed conflict is a completely valid *political* argument. It is even, in my view, a very wise caution. It just does not hold water as a legal argument on behalf American citizens who go overseas and pick up arms and wage war against the US by joining al Qaida.
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More importantly, there are better, simpler remedies to a “slippery slope” with drone attacks that can be employed legislatively and through vigorous oversight that can be enacted that will strengthen rather than undermine and confuse our constitutional system of governance. First, the Obama administration, for it’s part, should allay critics fears by removing “targeted killings” from the arbitrary hands of unnamed “senior officials” (code for the President? The National Security Adviser? A random White House lawyer?) and either return to a more traditional Pentagon target assessment procedure or use the NSC process with a PDD/NSDD and a properly and timely “finding” being presented to Congress.
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Secondly, the proper body to review the judgement of the administration in tactics, operations, and strategy is not the judicial branch, but the legislative, which has done so in prior conflicts and holds the power of the purse to control the extent of campaigns and the raising of armies. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was the oversight mechanism the Congress employed during the Civil War to review and influence the actions of the Lincoln administration. I would argue that the US Congress is more than sufficient to do the same task today with a far less existential conflict, if it chose to do so. Congress could, if it wished, forbid these operations or cease funding them. Quite pointedly, they have done neither.
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If Congress does not engage in rigorous oversight, it does not follow that a Federal Court is the appropriate constitutional substitute for Congress abdicating it’s wartime responsibilities. Targeted killings of enemy combatants during a declared armed conflict is a question of war policy, not due process, and is the purview of the political branches, not the judiciary
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Thirdly, the “slippery slope” danger is genuine and should be interdicted with legislation prohibiting or severely restricting the use of armed drones at home or forbidding their use against civilians resident in the territory of the United States entirely. A definition from Congress of under which circumstances that terrorism is a matter for law enforcement or military action is something that is likewise years overdue.
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Congress should be taking up it’s weighty responsibilities in war policy and not punting them to the executive or the judiciary, so that the actions of the US government in a matter of extreme gravity like a war are constitutionally clothed in democratic consent.

Having eyes to see…

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — looking through the eyes of tech, math, art, flies, and intelligence ]
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Imaging the winds and the waters

I’ve been raising questions about the varieties of ways of seeing here — asking whether guardian angels can be more than guys on night watch and if so what that “more” means, invoking William Blake’s fourfold vision [see move 4], and so forth. And I tend to emphasize the visionary over against the material.

I thought I’d do something different this time, and show you two views of the world that science brings us, that we couldn’t have seen half a century ago unless you were Theodore von Kármán (below, upper image)…

let alone a century ago, unless you were Vincent van Gogh (lower image).

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In descending order, these four images are:

  • the winds over a portion of the Americas, as depicted by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg a few days ago, see also their current live feed
  • a NASA image drawn from the Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio‘s Perpetual Ocean animation, hi-res Gulf Stream image
  • a diagram of a Kármán vortex street, from Arthur E. Bryson, Jr., Demetri P. Telionis, “Kármán vortex street,” in AccessScience, ©McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008
  • and Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The gentleman in the meditation goggles — he calls them “eye-bags” — featured in the “mini-SPECS” section of the Winds and Waters SPECS is my friend David Woolley, who alerted me to these simulations on his Just think of it blog today. David, btw, is the fellow who designed and wrote PLATO Notes, the first permanent, general-purpose online conferencing system, back in 1973.

The eyes features in the “mini-SPECS” of the Kármán / van Gogh SPECS are a fly’s “compound” eyes — “compound meaning that each eye has hundreds of facets (ommatidia or simple eyes).

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And that’s the point, isn’t it?

We as the human community have many eyes, many perspectives — the visionary, the technological, the abstract, the photographic, the artistic, the consensus, the minority opinion — such as that of Mr Justice Douglas in Sierra Club vs Morton, perhaps? …

Our intelligence — our intel too — should build on a rich and wide array of ways of seeing. After all…

… unless the above is just a recruitment slogan.

Online Symposium at CTLab

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Next week CTLab in it’s slick, officially rolled-out, version kicks off it’s new iteration by hosting an online symposium on the Hamdan trial ( note, this is not the SCOTUS decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld - though I’m certain that case is also fair game for discussion –  but instead Hamdan’s subsequent trial by military tribunal).

Social Science In War / Online Symposium

“CTlab member Brian Glyn Williams, PhD, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, recently testified as an expert witness for the defence in the trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, “Bin Laden’s Driver”, in the first US military tribunal since World War II…

…On 22 September 2008, CTlab will launch an online symposium on the scholarly and substantive implications of the Hamdan trial. Dr. Williams has drafted an original, narrative account of his experience, and is making it available for discussion through the CTlab weblog. It will be released for public consumption, followed by comments and observations from a panel of invited legal scholars and social scientists based in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.”

I’ll put in my two cents regarding the symposium and Hamdan after the conclusion.

Scalia on Target

Friday, June 27th, 2008

The SCOTUS decision in Heller is important. Let me crib from Lexington Green:

The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.

Justice Scalia, The District of Columbia v. Heller

Heller was not just an affirmation of the common sense and historical interpretation of the 2nd Amendment as an individual right -indeed, the idea that the people did not have the right to be armed except at the pleasure of and in service to the national or state governments would have struck the Founders as outrageous tyranny – the entire Bill of Rights was added to placate moderate antifederalists who were unmollified by Hamiltonian assurances regarding Federal power – but of the right of self-defense itself. Not everybody believes that right exists. Or more precisely, they seek to convince you against all history and common sense that you have no right to preserve your life when threatened.

That ancient underlying right emanating from Natural Law is the real target of gun grabbers and authoritarian bureaucrats.


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