Monday, June 23, 2014

Court Releases Memo Outlining Legal Authority for Targeted Killing, Drones

The Second Circuit today released a redacted version of the DOJ/OLC memo outlining the government's legal authority for the use of a drone attack to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi (sometimes spelled al-Awlaki).  We've blogged extensively about this issue, including here, on the earlier released white paper outlining the government's authority to conduct the same attack.

The released version does not include the first 11 pages of the memo, presumably including the information that the government passed on to the OLC about al-Awlaki that formed the basis of the analysis.  It's not clear whether that first 11 pages included other material or analysis.  (The released version starts with "II.")  There are other redactions throughout, especially in the portion analyzing the CIA's authority to conduct drone attacks.

The analysis in the memo differs slightly from the analysis in the earlier white paper, but, because of the redactions, it's not clear how much this matters.  Thus, for example, the analysis released today makes a careful distinction between DoD authority and CIA authority to conduct a targeted drone attack.  (The earlier white paper didn't make this clear distinction.)  But it's not entirely clear why or how that distinction is significant, given that much of the CIA analysis is redacted.  The analysis released today is also more fact specific.  (The earlier white paper didn't so clearly limit itself to the facts of one case.) But the memo today redacts the facts, so we don't know them.

Other than those points, the analysis released today doesn't appear to be importantly different than the earlier white paper.

As we've noted, and as others have noted, the analysis leads to the surprising result that the government may be able to kill someone by drone attack more easily than it may detain them (with due process under Hamdi).  Still, we don't know this for sure, because we don't know precisely what processes the government used in killing al-Awlaki: that detail is redacted from the memo.

The memo starts by outlining the statutory prohibition on foreign murder of a U.S. national--the federal provision that outlaws one U.S. national from killing another overseas.  That provision, 18 U.S.C. 1119(b), says that "[a] person who, being a national of the United States, kills or attempts to kill a national of the United States while such national is outside the United States but within the jurisdiction of another country shall be punished as provided under sections 1111, 1112, and 1113."  Section 1111 penalizes "murder," defined as "the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought."  The memo thus centers on whether al-Aulaqi's killing was "unlawful."

The memo says that the killing was not unlawful, because the prohibition includes the "recognized justification" of "public authority"--that is, the government's ability to kill under its public authority.  As to the Defense Department's use of drones, the memo says that (1) the president had executive war powers authorized by Congress under the AUMF, (2) the AUMF authorized the president to use all necessary force against al-Qaida and associated forces (the OLC said that the AUMF included associated forces in an earlier memo), (3) al-Aulaqi was a member of al-Qaida or associated forces (AQAP) who posed a "continued and imminent threat" to the U.S., and (4) the DoD was acting pursuant to statutory authorization in targeting and killing al-Aulaqi.  Moreover, the memo says that al-Aulaqi's killing comports with the laws of war.  That's because DoD "would carry out its operation as part of the non-international armed conflict between the United States and al-Qaida, and thus that on those facts the operation would comply with international law so long as DoD would conduct it in accord with the applicable laws of war that govern targeting in such a conflict."  The memo said that this operation in Yemen is part of that conflict, even though Yemen is not within the area of that conflict.  Finally, the memo says that the method of killing complies with the laws of war--that is, that the targeted drone attack complies with the principle of distinction, it would minimize civilian casualties, and it would not violate prohibitions on "treachery" and "perfidy" (because those "do not categorically preclude the use of stealth or surprise, nor forbid military attacks on identified, individual soldiers or officers . . . and we are not aware of any other law-of-war grounds precluding the use of such tactics.").

The memo drew the same, or very similar, conclusions as to the CIA's use of a drone strike, but that section was largely redacted.

(The memo also said that another murder-abroad statute similarly did not prohibit the strike, and that the War Crimes Act did not prohibit it, because al-Aulaqi was still an active, fighting beligerent, and an allowable target under the laws of war.)

As to Fourth- and Fifth Amendment protections, the memo says that a high-level decision-maker ("the highest officers in the intelligence community") can make a determination to use lethal force and authorize a strike.  (That's about all it said: this portion of the memo is also highly redacted.)

The memo makes clear that this is all context specific: the "facts" given to OLC that form the basis of its analysis are "sufficient" for the Office to form its conclusions, but the memo declines to say whether those facts are also necessary.  (And we don't know them, in any event, because they're redacted.)

Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Fifth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink

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