Friday, August 17, 2012

Court Dismisses Operation Flex Challenge on State Secrets Privilege

Judge Cormac J. Carney (C.D. Cal.) this week dismissed a case brought by several Muslims challenging an FBI surveillance program on the government's assertion of the state secrets privilege.  (Thanks to for links to the opinions below.)

The ruling, along with a companion ruling on the plaintiffs' FISA claim, terminates all but a sliver of the case.  It also illustrates what a powerful weapon the state secrets privilege can be--protecting an indiscriminate surveillance program that, as described by the plaintiffs, even the judge called "disturbing."  At the end of the day, Judge Carney dismissed the entire case (aside from the FISA claim, discussed below and dismissed in part on other grounds) on the government's own claim, based on a sealed declaration, that its defense would necessarily reveal state secrets.

The rulings in Fazaga v. FBI arose out of the plaintiffs' challenge to the FBI's "Operation Flex" program.  According to the complaint, the FBI engaged a civilian, Craig Monteilh, to conduct indiscriminate surveillance on Muslims in Southern California.  The surveillance resulted in hundreds of hours of video and thousands of hours of audio recordings from the mosques, homes, businesses, and associations of hundreds of Muslims.  But it didn't result in a single criminal charge.

The plaintiffs sued the FBI and its officers under several constitutional and statutory theories, including FISA.  The government moved to dismiss, arguing that its defense necessarily required disclosure of information that would harm national security--that is, state secrets--and the court agreed.  Judge Carney explained:

Here, Plaintiffs' claims are predicated on their core allegation that Defendants engaged in an indiscriminate investigation, surveillance, and collection of information of Plaintiffs and the putative class because they are Muslim. . . .  [T]he Court is persuaded that privileged information provides essential evidence for Defendants' full and effective defense against Plaintiffs' claims--namely, showing that Defendants' purported "dragnet" investigations were not indiscriminate schemes to target Muslims, but were properly predicated and focused. . . .  [T]he Court is [also] convinced that the privileged and nonprivileged information are inextricably intertwined, such that litigating the instant case to judgment on the merits would present an unacceptable risk of disclosing state secrets.

Op. at 31, 33 (emphasis in original).

Judge Carney's ruling is thorough and thoughtful--explaining the Totten bar and the Reynolds privilege; navigating between and synthesizing recent rulings coming out of the Ninth Circuit (Jeppesen Dataplan) and the Fourth  Circuit (El-Masri); reviewing the government's confidential supporting affidavit and memorandum; checking the government's assertion against the government's own standards and processes for asserting the privilege; and explaining in broad terms just what the kind of information might be disclosed in the litigation.  In other words, the ruling seems modest, balanced, and reasonable.

But still there's this: Judge Carney dismissed the entire case because the government's defense would have required revealing information that would harm national security, based only on the government's own say so.  The dramatic result creates a perverse incentive for the government to overreach in its surveillance programs, with the knowledge and comfort that it can successfully shut down an entire case simply by showing that any defense of it would reveal state secrets.  

In the companion ruling, Judge Carney dismissed the plaintiffs' FISA claim against the government, but not the individual defendants.  Judge Carney relied on the Ninth Circuit's recent ruling that FISA's civil damages provision did not unequivocally waive sovereign immunity.  But Judge Carney also said that nothing in the civil damages provision stops the suit against the individual defendants.  And the government didn't assert the state secrets privilege over the FISA part of the case.  

As a result, the plaintiffs' FISA claim against the individual defendants appears to go on.  We might expect a government assertion of the state secrets privilege over this remaining part of the case now.  If so, it could face a hurdle: The Northern District of California ruled in In re Nat'l Sec. Agency Telecomms. Records Litig., 564 F. Supp. 2d 1109, 1120 (2008) that FISA preempts the state secrets privilege with respect to a FISA claim.  While the court cited and discussed the case (in rehearsing the plaintiffs' argument), it's not clear that it would agree with it, or not.


August 17, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, State Secrets, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ninth Circuit Says No Waiver of Sovereign Immunity in Case Challenging TSP

In the latest and perhaps last chapter of the Al-Haramain case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government did not unequivocally waive sovereign immunity through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act civil liability provision, ending the plaintiffs' case challenging the government's terrorist surveillance program.

As the court said, "[t]his case effectively brings to an end the plaintiffs' ongoing attempts to hold the Executive Branch responsible for intercepting telephone conversations without judicial authorization."  Op. at 8784.

Recall that the plaintiffs sued under the FISA's civil liability provision for damages resulting from the government's surveillance of them through the TSP.  Most recently, the district court ruled that the state secrets privilege did not foreclose the plaintiffs' suit--that "FISA preempts or displaces the state secrets privilege . . . in cases within the reach of its provisions"--and that the government implicitly waived sovereign immunity through FISA.  The district court ruling would have allowed the case to move forward.

But the Ninth Circuit stopped it.  The court ruled that the government did not unequivocally waive sovereign immunity through the FISA civil damages provision, and therefore the plaintiffs could not sue for damages from the government.

The FISA civil damages provision, 50 U.S.C. Sec. 1810, reads,

An aggrieved person . . . who has been subjected to an electronic surveillance or about whom information obtained by electronic surveillance of such person has been disclosed or used in violation of section 1809 of this title shall have a cause of action against any person who committed such violation . . . .

For the court, the key missing phrase was "the United States" (as in "against the United States" or "the United States shall be liable")--a mainstay of statutes in which the government unequivocally waived sovereign immunity.  Without such an unequivocal waiver, the government cannot be sued for damages.

Even with the government off the hook, though, the plaintiffs still could have proceeded against FBI Director Mueller, another defendant in the action (and a "person" under 50 U.S.C. Sec. 1810).  But the court said that the plaintiffs "never vigorously pursued its claim against Mueller" and dismissed it.  Op. at 8797.

The case almost certainly puts an end to the plaintiffs' litigation efforts to hold the government responsible for the TSP.


August 8, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, State Secrets, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Suit Seeks Damages for Targeted Killing

The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit in the D.C. District on behalf of relatives of victims of the government's targeted killing program.  The plaintiffs, parents of Samir Khan and Anwar al-Aulaqi and grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi (Anwar's son), seek money damages against high-level government officials for authorizing targeted killings in violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and the Bill of Attainder Clause.

The case comes 19 months after Judge Bates (D.D.C.) dismissed an earlier suit by Anwar al-Aulaqi's father, seeking to stop the government from killing his son in the first place.  Judge Bates ruled that al-Aulaqi's father lacked standing and failed to allege a violation of the Alien Tort Statute, and that the case raised non-justiciable political questions.  (Judge Bates didn't rule on the government's state secrets claim.)

The case also comes on the heels of a couple of dismissed torture suits against high-level officials--Doe v. Rumsfeld (rejected because special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy) and Lebron v. Rumsfeld (same, and cert. denied).

All this is to say that the case faces some hurdles--political question, state secrets, Bivens special factors, and qualified immunity, to name a few.

The plaintiffs in the most recent case argue that the targeted killing were illegal under the laws of war, because the plaintiffs were not engaged in activities that presented a concrete, specific, and imminent threat of death of serious physical injury; because something short of lethal force could have been used to neutralize any threat that they posed; because they were not directly participating in hostilities; because the government failed to take steps to avoid harm to bystanders; and because the killings didn't meet the requirements of distinction and proportionality.

We covered the government's likely justification for targeted killing here, here, here, and here (among other places, linked in these posts).  We still don't have a complete legal justification from the government for the targeted killing program.


July 18, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Due Process (Substantive), Fifth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Political Question Doctrine, Procedural Due Process, Recent Cases, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, June 15, 2012

D.C. Circuit Rejects Torture Suit Against Rumsfeld

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today rejected a U.S. citizen's Bivens action against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for developing, authorizing, and implementing policies that led to his torture while in U.S. custody in Iraq.  The panel, following an earlier similar ruling from the Fourth Circuit, Lebron v. Rumsfeld, held that special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy--special factors "pertaining to military, intelligence, and national security."

The ruling comes on the heels of the Supreme Court's rejection of the plaintiffs' cert. petition in Lebron and while a similar suit is now pending before the en banc Seventh Circuit.  (A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit earlier ruled that the plaintiffs in that case did have a Bivens remedy against Rumsfeld.)

The case means that U.S. citizens won't have a civil damage action for constitutional violations against U.S. officials in the D.C. Circuit, even when the violations resulted from torture while in U.S. custody.  With two circuit rulings now on the books--this case, Joe Doe v. Rumsfeld, and Lebron--and with a Seventh Circuit ruling against the plaintiffs now all but certain, and with the Supreme Court's rejection of cert. in Lebron, it now seems all but certain that other circuits faced with the question will follow suit, and that therefore U.S. citizens won't have a civil damage action for constitutional violations against U.S. officials anywhere.

The case also gives extraordinary authority to the executive to evade suits for detention and mistreatment--even torture--of U.S. citizens.  Congress, of course, could change this by authorizing such suits.  But don't look for that to happen anytime soon--or ever.

The D.C. Circuit ruling closely follows the Fourth Circuit's earlier ruling.  That is, the court today ruled that the "special factors" of military, intelligence, and national security foreclose a civil damage remedy for constitutional violations by U.S. citizens.  Here's the court's special factor analysis:

In his complaint, Doe challenges the development and implementation of numerous military policies and decisions.  The complaint would require a court to delve into the military's policies regarding the designation of detainees as "security internees" or "enemy combatants," as well as policies governing interrogation techniques.

Doe's allegations against Secretary Rumsfeld implicate the military chain of command and the discretion Secretary Rumsfeld and other top officials gave to [military] agents to detain and question potential enemy combatants.  The allegations raise questions regarding Secretary Rumsfeld's personal control over the treatment and release of specific detainees.  Litigation of Doe's case would require testimony from top military officials as well as forces on the ground, which would detract focus, resources, and personnel from the mission in Iraq.  And . . . allowing such an action would hinder our troops from acting decisively in our nation's interest for fear of judicial review of every detention and interrogation.

Op. at 10-11.

The court also found persuasive--another "special factor" counseling against a Bivens remedy--that Congress did not authorize such suits under the Detainee Treatment Act, or any other statute.  

Because the court ruled against Doe on Bivens, it did not rule on Rumsfeld's defense of qualified immunity.


June 15, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Executive Authority, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Court Declines Review in Padilla's Torture Case

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to review an earlier Fourth Circuit ruling rejecting Jose Padilla's civil case against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others for torture.  The move leaves the Fourth Circuit ruling untouched and will almost certainly influence the outcome in a similar case now before the full Seventh Circuit.  The move also lends further legitimacy to the Fourth Circuit's approach--that separation-of-powers principles can be a "special factor" counseling against a civil damage remedy in federal court--or, in short, that the executive has something close to a trump card to shut down litigation against executive officers for torture of individuals while detained for reasons that the executive says are related to national security or terrorism.

The case, Lebron v. Rumsfeld, arose out of Jose Padilla's detention and torture.  Padilla filed a Bivens claim against Rumsfeld and others for violations of his constitutional rights.  The Fourth Circuit ruled that special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy and that Padilla had other forms of relief (i.e., habeas).  As to special factors, the court said that separation-of-powers principles counseled against a Bivens remedy--in particular, that military matters like this are the province of the political branches, and that courts lack expertise and risk upsetting the military command structure and intelligence-gathering activities.

The Fourth Circuit ruling is in tension with similar recent rulings by the Seventh Circuit and two district courts.  The Seventh Circuit case, Vance v. Rumsfeld, was vacated and is now on appeal to the full Seventh Circuit.  The Court's rejection of Lebron will almost certainly influence the outcome of Vance (as if the outcome needed any influencing) and other cases by U.S. citizens alleging constitutional violations against executive officials related to national security, terror, intelligence, and the military.

The Court's rejection also lends further legitimacy to the Fourth Circuit approach, which was an aggressively pro-government, anti-plaintiff approach.  The Fourth Circuit reasoning all but gives the executive a trump card to shut down constitutional litigation against executive officials anytime the government says that the case is related to national security, terror, intelligence, and the military.  This approach gives the executive nearly complete control over this kind of litigation, takes the courts nearly entirely out of it, and sharply curtails plaintiffs' remedies for constitutional violations while in custody for anything that the executive says is related national security, terror, intelligence, and the military.

While the Court's rejection of Padilla's cert. petition is certainly not a ruling on the merits, the rejection signals a constriction of Bivens actions--a signal that the full Seventh Circuit will surely read and apply in the Vance case.

Congress, of course, could change this by authorizing suits for individuals like Padilla (or Vance and Ertel in the Seventh Circuit) for constitutional violations against executive officials.  But don't look for that to happen anytime soon.

The next chapter in this saga will come when the full Seventh Circuit issues its ruling in Vance v. Rumsfeld.  Especially now, in light of the Court's rejection of Padilla's cert. petition, look for the court to reverse the three-judge panel and to reject Vance's Bivens claim.  The only interesting aspect of the Seventh Circuit ruling will be how closely the court follows the Fourth Circuit's reasoning.


June 13, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Separation of Powers, Supreme Court (US), War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Court Says Detention Authority Violates First Amendment

Judge Katherine B. Forrest (SDNY) ruled last week that the detention authority in the National Defense Authorization Act likely violates free speech.  Judge Forrest granted the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction in Hedges v. Obama and thus enjoined enforcement of Section 1021.

The case is notable in that the government could easily have side-stepped the whole thing: It simply could have taken the position that the plaintiffs, based only on their affidavits and testimony, did not fall within Section 1021.  This would have taken away the plaintiffs' standing (as Judge Forrest noted) and undermined the suit.  (The government need not have said anything about whether the plaintiffs would have been covered by Section 1021 if additional evidence arose.)  But it refused, suggesting that it keeps open the possibility that Section 1021 could apply to a remarkably wide swath of individuals, notwithstanding the President's efforts to limit it upon signing the NDAA.  More on this below.

The ruling is the first against the controversial detention authority in the NDAA.  The section at issue, Section 1021, defines a detainable person broadly (and vaguely, as it turns out) and apparently authorizes indefinite detention.  The Section, titled Affirmation of Authority of the Armed Forces of the United States to Detain Covered Persons Pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force, provides:

(a) In General.  Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the [AUMF] includes the authority of the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.

(b) Covered Persons.  A covered person under this section is any person as follows

. . .

(2) A person who was part of or substantially supported al-qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

(c) Disposition Under the Law of War.  The disposition of a person under the law of war as described under subsection (a) may include the following:

(1) Detention under the law of war without trial until the end of hostilities authorized by the [AUMF].

. . .

(d) Construction.  Nothing in this section is intended to limit or expand the authority of the President or the scope of the [AUMF].

But President Obama, upon signing the NDAA, issued a signing statement that said that Section 1021 did nothing to existing government detention authority under the AUMF and that the Section was therefore unnecessary.  In short, according to the President, Section 1021 changed nothing.  As to indefinite detention, the President wrote: "I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.  Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation.  My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable laws."

Moreover, while the White House issued a policy directive that included procedures for detention under Section 1022 (relating to military custody of foreign al-Qaeda terrorists), it issued no such directive on Section 1021--further suggesting that, in its view, nothing changed.

A group of writers, reporters, and activists brought suit, claiming Section 1021 could be interpreted to include them based on their reporting and writing on terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and terrorist activities; that they feared detention under Section 1021; and that Section 1021 chilled their further speech.  They said that Section 1021 was overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment.

Judge Forrest agreed.  In a lenghty and careful ruling, she wrote that the plaintiffs had standing, and that Section 1021 likely violated the First Amendment based on its overbreadth and vagueness.  

The ruling was based as much on the govenrment's stubborn position that it couldn't rule out detaining the plaintiffs based on their affidavits and testimony as it was based on the law.  The government refused to say that the plaintiffs wouldn't be detained under Section 1021 based on their affidavits and testimony, even though it also said that the plaintiffs' fears of detention were unreasonable.  And in a remarkable set of exchanges, reproduced in the opinion (at pages 31 to 34), government lawyers were unable to define phrases like "substantially support" or "directly support," or to give examples, or to assure the court that these plaintiffs, based on their affidavits and testimony alone, would not be subject to detention under Section 1021.

Outside the government's inability to define terms, give examples, or say whether the plaintiffs would be detainable, the court was also concerned about the lack of mens rea in Section 1021--an authority that it viewed as criminal-like, because of the potential for physical detention.  The problem is that a person could violate Section 1021 without intending to, even without knowing.  This, it said in addition to the government's inability to define key terms, rendered the Section unconstitutionally vague, in violation of due process.  

The court said the government's position was strongest on the definition of "associated forces"--a phrase that the government said is rooted in the laws of war.  But even so, "that does not resolve plaintiffs' concerns since they each testified to activities with or involving individuals or organizations that are 'associated forces' as defined by the Government."  Op. at 55-56.  The plaintiffs had the better of the case on "substantially," "direct," and "support."

If the government maintains its positions, keeping its options fully wide open under Section 1021, it's hard to see how an appeals could could rule any differently in this case.


May 22, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Music, Opinion Analysis, Standing, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Guantanamo Military Commission Arraignments

The arraignments by military commission on Saturday of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others at Guantanamo Bay was rocky, at best.  It featured everything from disputes about clothing--both the prosecutors' and the defendants'--to disputes about barriers to defense counsels' ability to communicate and represent their clients.  The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR, among many others, reported. 

While the best live play-by-play was provided by Benjamin Wittes and Wells Bennett at Lawfare, you can read the transcripts of Saturday's proceedings for yourself, available here at the Office of Military Commissions web-site.


May 6, 2012 in Executive Authority, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Drone Strike Kills Al-Quso

The Associated Press reported today that a CIA drone strike killed Fahd al-Quso, "a top al-Qaida leader on the FBI's most wanted list for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship."  According to the report, al-Quso served time in a Yemeni prison for his role in the bombing and was released in 2007.  The CIA carried out the attack with the authorization of the Yemeni government--part of its effort to bring the host country on board with strikes.

The strike comes just a week after President Obama authorized expanded use of drones in Yemen.  The new authority allows the government to identify targets based on their "signatures"--those patterns detected through intelligence that indicate that a target is an operative or otherwise poses a threat against U.S. interests--and not just their "personality."


May 6, 2012 in Executive Authority, International, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 4, 2012

KSM Military Commission Arraignment Tomorrow

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow along with four others in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay. We covered the Convening Authority's referral of terrorism charges here (with a link to the charge sheets).

The proceedings will be telecast live at the Post Theater at Fort Meade, Maryland; more information is here and here. Wells Bennett and Benjamin Wittes will live-blog on the proceedings at Lawfare.

Chief Prosecutor General Mark Martins told Charlie Savage at the NYT that he's optimistic that the trial will be fair. Benjamin Wittes (Brookings, Lawfare) similarly wrote in yesterday's WaPo that the commission hearings are "nothing like the kangaroo court of human rights groups' caricatures," and that they have "[q]uietly and gradually . . . become a real court."

But military defense attorneys interviewed in Savage's piece don't share this optimism. Savage writes that they say "improvements are exaggerated," and that they intend to ask presiding Judge Colonel James Pohl "to send the capital charges back to the Pentagon for reconsideration because of problems that, they say, have crippled their ability to provide a meaningful defense."


May 4, 2012 in Executive Authority, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

D.C. Circuit Rejects Guantanamo Detainee Habeas Claim

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today reissued a ruling rejecting the habeas claim of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.  The case, Alsabri v. Obama, affirms the lower court's dismissal. 

Here's the court's summary of facts:

Alsabri is a Yemeni citizen who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia.  He lived in Saudi Arabia until he was deported to Yemen in 1998, following an arrest for allegedly harboring an individual wanted for passport forgery.  In Yemen, he associated with veteran jihadist fighters, including members of al Qaeda, and decided to travel to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban or al Qaeda.  In the summer of 2000, he traveled to Afghanistan by way of Pakistan, assisted by the Taliban and in the company of several men who expressed a desire to become martyrs.  Once in Afghanistan, Alsabri stayed at several guesthouses affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda.  He actively sought out and received military training from the Taliban or al Qaeda, and thereafter--with the authorization of one of Osama bin Laden's lieutenants--traveled to the front lines of the Taliban's fight against the Northern Alliance.

The court rejected Alsabri's claim that the lower court erred in finding certain facts and in concluding that he was part of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or associated forces.  It also rejected his claim that the lower court wrongly admitted certain pieces of evidence of his objection.  Finally, it rejected his claims that the district court wrongly limited his discovery, that the court wrongly admitted hearsay evidence, and that the lower court wrongly applied a preponderance-of-evidence standard instead of a clear-and-convincing-evidence standard.

There's really nothing new here, and the case is hardly a surprise.  As the court said in regard to Alsabri's legal arguments: "As is apparent, all of Alsabri's legal arguments are foreclosed by Circuit precedent, a point his counsel forthrightly acknowledges.  As is appropriate, counsel notes his disagreement with our rulings and includes the arguments in order to preserve the issues."  Op. at 22.


May 3, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Fundamental Rights, Habeas Corpus, News, Opinion Analysis, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Federalist Society Debate on Legal Rationale for Targeted Killing of U.S. Citizens

The Federalist Society recently posted a pod-cast debate on the legal rationale for targeted killings of U.S. citizens, featuring Professors Michael Lewis (Ohio Northern) and Stephen Vladeck (AU/WCL).  Dean Reuter moderated.

The discussion followed on the heels of AG Eric Holder's speech outlining the administration's case for targeted killing.  Lewis opens the discussion by claiming that Holder's criteria for designating a target would be sufficient, if they were mandatory.  Here's the portion of Holder's speech that Lewis referenced:

Let me be clear: an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

Lewis examines each of these and gives his take on "operational" leader of al Qaeda (not just any al Qaeda member, or supporter), "associated forces" (which are allowable targets under the gloss that the courts have put on the AUMF),the government's determination of "imminent threat" (looser than the immediacy that we understand in a domestic law-enforcement sense), the feasibility of capture, and law of war principles--proportionality and necessity (and how these overlap with the other considerations). 

Vladeck agrees that the government could target U.S. citizens under certain circumstances, but questions when and how:  What process should the government use to ensure that Holder's criteria (or others) are satisfied?  Vladeck looks to the due process analysis in Hamdi as a model, arguing that at least these due process procedures--applicable when the government takes a citizen's liberty--should be in place before the government takes a citizen's life.  (Holder himself referenced the balancing test in Mathews v. Eldridge, but did not give a precise formula for the process due before the government targets and kills a citizen.)  Vladeck argues that a FISA-like, ex ante judicial review is a bad idea, because it would lend legitimacy to targeted killings and entrench the government's power.  Instead, Vladeck argues for judicial review and damage claims after the killing ( allowing government officials to assert qualified immunity and even the state secrets privilege)--thus helping to ensure that the government would take care in its decisions.

The two also discuss whether the authority should extend off the "hot battlefield" and issues related to transparency in government decisionmaking. 

Vladeck noted how odd Holder's speech was, given that it said very little and that the government has refused to turn over any formal written legal rationale for the program--because the speech only refocuses attention on this, without settling anything.  (For the same reasons, Brennan's recent speech only adds to the odd-ness.) 


May 2, 2012 in Executive Authority, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 30, 2012

More Justification for Drones

The President's top counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, set out the administration's legal and ethical case for the use of drones today at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Brennan's speech comes just under two months after AG Eric Holder stated the case at Northwestern University, just over three months after DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson argued the administration's case at Yale Law School, and nearly two years after State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh made the case to the American Society of International Law.  It also comes just over six months after administration sources hinted at the justification in WaPo and the NYT.

We last covered the administration's expanding use of drones in Yemen here.

Brennan's talk echoes Holder's, Jeh's, and Koh's earlier talks, with perhaps more length, but still little detail.  We're still waiting for the administration to release its written legal analysis.  The case by administration officials amounts to little more than "trust us" on its processes for identifying targets that pose a threat to trigger national self-defense.  This falls far short for an authority that the administration used just last year to target and kill a U.S. citizen.

Here's what Brennan said today:

[A]s matter of domestic law, the Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack.  The Authorization for Use of Military Force--the AUMF--passed by Congress after the September 11th attacks authorizes the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force" against those nations, organizations and individuals responsible for 9/11.  There is nothing in the AUMF that restricts the use of military force against al-Qa'ida to Afghanistan.

As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense.  There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.

Second, targeted strikes are ethical.  Without question, the ability to target a specific individual--from hundreds or thousands of miles away--raises profound questions.  Here, I think it's useful to consider such strikes against the basic principles of the law of war that govern the use of force.

Targeted strikes confrom to the principle of necessity--the requirement that the target have definite military value. . . .

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction--the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. . . .

Targeted strikes confrom to the principle of proportionality--the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. . . .

Brennan also touched on the administration's internal checks and processes:

This leads me to the final point I want to discuss today--the rigorous standards and process of review to which we hold ourselves today when considering and authorizing strikes against a specific member of al-Qa'ida outside the "hot" battlefield of Afghanistan.  What I hope to do is to give you a general sense, in broad terms, of the high bar we require ourselves to meet when making these profound decisions today.  That includes not only whether a specific member of al-Qa'ida can legally be pursued with lethal force, but also whether he should be. . . .

If our counterterrorism professionals assess, for example, that a suspected member of al-Qa'ida poses such a threat to the United States as to warrant lethal action, they may raise that individual's name for consideration.  The proposal will go through a careful review and, as appropriate, will be evaluated by the very most senior officials in our government for decision.

First and foremost, the individual must be a legitimate target under the law. . . .

Of course, the law only establishes the outer limits of the authority in which counterterrorism professionals can operate.  Even if we determine that it is lawful to pursue the terrorist in question with lethal force, it doesn't necessarily mean we should. . . .

As a result, we have to be strategic. . . .

For example, when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. . . .  I am not referring to some hypothetical threat--the mere possibility that a member of al-Qa'ida might try to attack us at some point in the future.  A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al-Qa'ida or one of its associated forces.  Or perhaps the individual is himself an operative . . . .  Or perhaps the individual possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack. . . . .


April 30, 2012 in Executive Authority, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

President Obama Expands Drone Authority in Yemen

President Obama this month authorized expanded use of drones in Yemen, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.  Under the expanded authority, the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command can use drones to fire on targets based only on their "signatures"--those patterns detected through intelligence that indicate that a target is an operative or otherwise poses a threat against U.S. interests.  Prior to the expansion, the CIA and USJSOC only had drone authority in Yemen to fire on targets based on individual identity and close vetting, so-called "personality" strikes.

The administration has yet to provide a comprehensive legal justification for its use of drones in Yemen--which last September killed alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki and, mistakenly, his non-targeted son.  AG Eric Holder gave us all the legal justification we know (on the pre-existing Yemen drone program, not the expanded one) in a speech last month; we covered that speech here

Bruce Ackerman argued in Sunday's Washington Post that expanded drone use in Yemen exceeds congressional authorization under the AUMF.

According to reports, the expanded authority in Yemen still falls a little short of the broader drone authority in Pakistan.


April 26, 2012 in Executive Authority, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Convening Authority Refers KSM Charges to Military Commission

The Convening Authority today referred terrorism charges against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin 'Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi to a capital military commission.  Capital charges include conspiracy, attacking civilians, murder in violation of the law of war, hijacking and aircraft, and terrorism.

We last posted on the case--and separation-of-powers issues in the congressional restriction on trying in a regular Article III court--here.  (Recall that the administration originally sought to try these individuals in regular Article III courts; Congress restricted the administration's ability to do that; the administration balked, but ultimately decided to try them by military commission.)

The Office of Military Commission web-site, including electronic case files, is here.


April 4, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Holder Talks War Powers

Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this week outlined the administration's legal case for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, trials, and targeted killings to an audience at Northwestern University. Here's the transcript.

In all, Holder's message was that the government approached these decisions with balance and care, making efforts to ensure that its actions comport with U.S. law and international law, and that its efforts are transparent and checked by the other branches, even if only minimally. He also emphasized the government's inter-agency coordination on these and other, related measures. But at the same time, Holder didn't back down from defining sweeping government authority in these areas.

And in the end, a good part of the government's case, especially with regard to targeted killings, amounts to this: Trust us.

As to surveillance and intelligence-gathering, Holder pointed to the administration's on-going efforts under section 702 of the FISA, which authorizes the AG or the DNI to authorize annually, through the FISA court, collection directed at identified categories of foreign intelligence targets without a warrant. Holder said that the executive branch has three checks on this power--an internal check within the executive branch, reporting to Congress and the requirement for reauthorization by Congress, and the FISA court.

As to trying alleged terrorists, Holder made a strong case for executive discretion to try alleged terrorists in a regular Article III court or a military tribunal. How to decide which?

  • "First of all, commissions only have jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who are part of al Qaeda, have engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, or who have purposefully and materially supported such hostilities."
  • "Second, our civilian courts cover a much broader set of offenses than the military commissions, which can only prosecute specified offenses, including violations of the laws of war and other offenses traditionally triable by military commission."
  • "Third, there is the issue of international cooperation." Without it, military commissions are tougher.

As to targeted killings of enemies, including American citizen enemies, Holder's speech didn't really have any surprises. He said that a combination of the AUMF and Article II authorities, plus the exectuive's inherent power to protect the nation and self-defense, gave the President power to engage in targeted killings with minimal, and apparently all internal, due process. Holder did say that the administration would respect the counter-veiling values in the constituiton (like due process) and international law. And he elaborated on what we've seen with regard to international law:

The principle of necessity requires that targets have definite military value. The principle of distinction requires that only lawful targets--such as combatants, civilians directly participating in hostilities, and military objectives--may be targeted intentionally. Under the principle of proportionality, the anticipated collateral damage must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Finally, the principle of humanity requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.


March 9, 2012 in Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 27, 2012

War Powers Resolution Challenge to Libyan Mission Moot

Judge Richard W. Roberts (D.D.C.) on Tuesday dismissed as moot Whitney v. Obama, a civil case seeking a declaration and injunction against President Obama's commitment of U.S. troops to Libya last year.  We previously posted on House Members' claim against the President here (with links to our past posts on the Libyan mission).  (Judge Walton dismissed that case, Kucinich v. Obama, for lack of standing.)

The plaintiff brought the case under the War Powers Resolution.  Judge Roberts declined to address the merits but instead ruled the case moot because the operation ended in 2011:

"[T]he [U.S.] ceased air operations in support of" NATO's Operation Unified Protector on October 31, 2011, and Whitney cites no authority for the proposition that the War Powers Resolution covers the continued presence of peaceful troops.  Because "[t]he clash . . . has subsided, and what occurred during the dispute cannot be undone[,] "the court can grant no meaningful relief[.]"  The declaratory judgment Whitney seeks would constitute an "improper advisory opinion" since no live dispute remains.  Granting injunctive relief likewise would prove ineffectual, as the challenged actions have long since ceased.  Accordingly, Whitney's claims are moot.

Op. at 6-7 (citations omitted).  Judge Roberts also ruled that the action was neither capable of repetition (because there's no reasonable expectation that Whitney will suffer the same alleged violation of the WPR again), nor evading review (because "offensive wars initiated without congressional approval are not in th[is] category[,]" and neither are military missions "inherently short in duration," Campbell v. Clinton, 203 F.3d 19, 34 (D.C. Cir. 2000).


February 27, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Mootness, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oral Arguments in Torture Suit Against Rumsfeld

The en banc Seventh Circuit heard oral argument on Wednesday in Vance v. Rumsfeld, the case by two American military contractors against the former Secretary of Defense (among others) for authorizing their torture while in military detention in Iraq.  We posted on the three-judge panel decision allowing the case to move forward here.  The full Seventh Circuit vacated that decision and took up the case en banc.

The plaintiffs, Vance and Ertel, filed a Bivens claim against Rumsfeld and others, seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief.  The government, on behalf of Rumsfeld, moved to dismiss, arguing that special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy, namely wartime context and the military's ability to do its job without threat of litigation.

The arguments today focused around these themes--all relating to special factors counseling against Bivens except the last one:

Disincentives.  Some on the bench, led by Judge Posner, were concerned that allowing a Bivens claim to move forward here would discourage talented people from considering public service.  Others expressed concern that not allowing a Bivens claim here would give a green light to the military to violate whatever constitutional provisions it likes, with no judicial check.

Separation of Powers.  Some, again led by Judge Posner, argued that Congress was the better branch to provide a remedy, and that the courts should take great caution in crafting a judicial remedy, or in applying Bivens beyond its narrow facts. 

Contractor Status.  Judge Posner pressed the plaintiffs' attorney about the plaintiffs' contractor status, suggesting that this status, equivalent in all but name to active members of the military, creates exactly the same special factors counseling against a Bivens remedy that an active-duty member's claim raises.  And the courts have rejected Bivens for such a military-on-military claim.

Alternative Remedies.  Several on the bench seemed concerned that the plaintiffs hadn't pursued, or hadn't at least tried to pursue, alternative compensation remedies through the Defense Department.

Judge Posner, the most vocal voice on the court against a Bivens damage remedy, was also most vocal about saying that the plaintiffs could get injunctive relief.  Thus one possibility is that the en banc court would dismiss the damage action but allow injunctive relief to move forward.  The problem: Plaintiffs might then face a Lyons-like standing problem.

Another possibility: The en banc court might dodge the thorny question of special factors and instead dismiss the case based on the plaintiffs' failure to pursue alternative remedies.

Oddly, nobody on the bench (or behind the podium) seemed to consider that the qualified immunity doctrine could cover for the discourage-public-service concern--and that qualified immunity might do it in a better way: Allowing the Bivens case to move forward would give the plaintiffs their day in court and only discourage plainly unconstitutional public service, not all public service.


February 8, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Foreign Affairs, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Oral Argument Analysis, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

ACLU Sues for Material Authorizing Targeted Killings

The ACLU filed suit on Wednesday against the U.S. government in the Southern District of New York seeking the release of records related to the targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas.  Recall that the New York Times and two reporters filed a similar suit in December 2011.

The ACLU lawsuit comes after the Departments of Justice and Defense and the CIA rejected or indefinitely delayed their responses to the group's FOIA request for the records.  The complaint alleges,

The press began reporting in early 2010 that Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico, had been placed on CIA and JSOC "kill lists" that authorized his targeted killing.  In the fall of 2011, the media reported on the existence of a legal memorandum drafted by the OLC ("OLC memo") that provided a legal analysis to support al-Awlaki's killing.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of President Obama's YouTube interview in which he acknowledges and defends drone strikes.  Here's Al Jazeera's report on the interview:



February 1, 2012 in Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fourth Circuit Rejects Padilla's Civil Claims

A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit yesterday rejected Jose Padilla's civil claims against Donald Rumsfeld and other high-level government officials growing out of his designation as an enemy combatant and his military detention.  The ruling, Lebron v. Rumsfeld, is at least in part in tension with a recent Seventh Circuit ruling (now on appeal to the en banc Seventh Circuit, and discussed below) and two recent district court rulings--one from the Western District of Washington and the other from the District of Columbia.

Padilla sued the officials for constitutional violations under Bivens and for violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  He sought declarations that his designation and detention were unconstitutional and that the policies that led to his treatment were unconstitutional, an injunction against future designations and detentions, and nominal monetary relief.  The district court rejected his Bivens and RFRA claims, and ruled that he lacked standing for injunctive relief.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed.  The panel applied the two-part framework in Wilkie v. Robbins (2007) and ruled (1) that special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy and (2) that Padilla had alternative forms of relief.  The panel said that separation-of-powers principles counseled against a Bivens remedy, in particular: military matters like this are the province of the political branches, and the courts lack the expertise and risk upsetting the military command structure and intelligence gathering activities.

The panel also said that Padilla had other forms of relief, in particular habeas.

The ruling on special factors and separation of powers is in tension with similar recent rulings by the Seventh Circuit and two district courts.  Thus in Vance v. Rumsfeld a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled that separation-of-powers principles like those at issue here did not stand in the way of the plaintiffs' Bivens remedy.  The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled similarly in Doe v. Rumsfeld.  Both cases involved U.S. citizen plaintiffs (like Padilla)--an important point of distinction for the Seventh Circuit panel, which distinguished Ali v. Rumsfeld (D.C. Cir. 2011) and Arar v. Ashcroft (2d Cir. 2009), both of which rejected Bivens claims of aliens.  (We posted on the cases here.)

The Western District of Washington extended Vance and Doe just last month in Hamad v. Gates.  That court ruled that separation-of-powers principles did not counsel against a Bivens claim of an alien.  The court ruled that alienage didn't matter for the special factor analysis.

The ruling on alternative relief is not so obviously in tension with Vance and Doe.  The plaintiffs in those cases were U.S. citizens detained overseas at Camp Cropper, without available access to habeas.  (Whatever one thinks about the Fourth Circuit's ruling that habeas as a reasonable alternative to a Bivens claim in the Wilkie calculus, the plaintiffs in Vance and Doe didn't even have that.)

The panel ruling in Vance was vacated and is now on appeal to the en banc Seventh Circuit.  Oral arguments are set for February 8.

The Fourth Circuit also ruled that the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity against Padilla's RFRA claim, because it wasn't clearly established that RFRA would apply to military detention.

Finally, the court ruled that Padilla lacked standing on his claim for injunctive relief.  It ruled that Padilla couldn't show that he'd be subject to re-designation or re-detainment, and, in any event, it won't happen for a long time: He's now facing more than 17 years on resentencing in his criminal case.



January 24, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 23, 2011

The New York Times Sues the Justice Department for Memos Authorizing Targeted Killing

The New York Times and reporters Charlie Savage and Scott Shane sued the Department of Justice in the Southern District of New York this week to obtain any legal analysis from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing the government's targeted killing of suspected terrorists.  Courthouse News Service first reported here.

Recall that Savage reported on the government's legal justification for its targeted killing of Anwar al Alwaki, a United States citizen and alleged terrorist living in Yemen.  But Savage relied on a government source, not an OLC memo or other formally released legal advice.  According to Savage's story, the government's legal advice probably closely tracked State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh's arguments to the American Society of International Law in May 2010.  But still, the government had not released the actual legal advice.

Savage and Shane filed two separate FOIA requests with the Department of Justice for any legal advice that the Department offered to the administration on the legality of, or authority to commit, targeted killings.  The DOJ rejected the requests, citing FOIA Exemption 1 (relating to national defense or foreign policy information classified under EO 13526), Exemption 3 (relating to information protected by statute), and Exemption 5 (relating to privileged information).

The complaint argues that Exemptions 1 and 3 do not apply, because the FOIA request seeks only legal analysis, and "[m]emoranda containing only legal analysis fail to meet the requirements for properly classified materials under Executive Order No. 13526 or other legal authority."  (Para. 55.)  It argues that Exemption 5 doesn't apply, because "[m]emoranda containing legal analysis relied upon by the government constitute final determination of policy by the government and therefore are not deliberative materials."  (Para. 54.)

The complaint also cites the widespread calls for release of any memos--by Members of Congress and former OLC attorneys.

Given the widespread calls for release, the all-but-known legal advice that's in the memo, and the administration's stated commitment to transparency, the government's intransigence doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.  (The government also succeeded in dismissing al Alwaki's father's case on the pleadings--and, alas, could probably succeed in dismissing any similar case on similar grounds--and so there doesn't appear to be a threat that release of any memo now would give up a litigation position later.)  And now, in response to the Times's case, the government may feel like it has to dig in its heels to preserve the vitality of these exemptions in future cases. 

The government should just release the memo publicly--something it should have done months ago, without the threat of a FOIA suit--and move to dismiss the Times's case as moot.


December 23, 2011 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)