Sunday, September 26, 2010
The government on Friday filed its legal arguments in support of its motion to dismiss Nasser Al-Aulaqi's case against it for allegedly designating his son Anwar Al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen living in Yemen and allegedly supporting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for targeted killing. Thanks to Rachel Mabbott for the heads-up.
The government proffers three principal arguments, each of which reveals a little more about the legal authority it claims for targeted killings in the first place. Thus, the government argues that Nasser Al-Aulaqi, as Anwar's next-of-friend, lacks standing. The government argues that Nasser failed to show the imminence of harm necessary to support standing (because, after all, the whole program is secret--see below) and that Anwar could access the courts by turning himself over to U.S. authorities.
Next, the government argues that the case is barred by the political question doctrine. The government argues that judicial action in the case would intrude upon the foreign affairs and national security powers of the President in violation of separation-of-powers principles. In short, the courts are not well suited to evaluate this kind of claim. Moreover, the government argues that it has clear authority to engage in targeted killing (without admitting that it has targeted Al-Aulaqi) under the AUMF and international law.
Finally, the government argues that its assertion of the state secrets privilege requires complete dismissal. Emboldened by the recent Ninth Circuit decision in Mohamed v. Jeppesen, the government argues that the case should be dismissed on the pleadings based on its assertion of the privilege and the court's ex parte and in camera review of it own affidavits supporting the assertion. The government goes one step farther than the Ninth Circuit's ruling in Mohamed, however, and argues that the privilege is rooted in constitutional principles (citing the Fourth Circuit's decision in El-Masri)--a dangerous argument not supported by Mohamed (or any other authority except El-Masri, for that matter) and taking the courts out of the equation entirely (as I argue in detail here). While the government is careful to argue the privilege as a last resort--and with all the procedural protections built in by the Holder Justice Department--its claim here is still breathtaking and means that the government could order the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen on its own say-so, with no judicial oversight. The government gives a glimpse of the kind of information it seeks to protect here:
Resolution of the plaintiff's claim therefore would require the Court to answer a range of questions, even apart from the question of whether the plaintiff's son has been targeted: What kind of threat, if any, does plaintiff's son pose? If there is a threat, how imminent is it, and how continuing is it? How many innocent people are threatened by the danger plaintiff's son might pose? In the totality of the circumstances does the United States have the capability and access to capture plaintiff's son safely? In trying to capture him, how many innocent people or military personnel would likely be killed or injured in the process? It is self-evident that all the above questions (and more) directly implicate information protected by the military and state secrets privilege, at a minimum because those facts would require the examination of any available and pertinent classified intelligence that might exist on the subject, as well as the sources or methods for gathering that intelligence, and any related information concerning foreign relations and diplomatic communications.
. . .
Finally, plaintiff also raises a claim under the Fifth Amendment that expressly seeks disclosure of alleged secret criteria governing the targeting of U.S. citizens engaged in terrorist activities with lethal force. Such a disclosure would reveal not only whether such targeting has occurred or been considered in any given case but would disclose to the plaintiff and any potential target the criteria utilized by the Government to make this determination. It strains credulity to argue that the Due Process Clause requires the Government to disclose to Answer al-Aulaqi, an operational leader of the [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], whatever criteria it may be applying to respond to his activities.
Thus the government follows the Ninth Circuit's lead in invoking the privilege quite carefully, with protections (or saying that it's invoking the privilege carefully with protections), but in the end its sweep is every bit as broad as the more cavalier invocations by the prior administration and the Fourth Circuit in El-Masri.