NSA Got Into Bed with the Saudis Just Before Our Technical Cooperation Agreement Expanded

In February 2011, around the time the CIA took over the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, NSA started collaborating with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) Technical Assistance Directorate (TAD), under the umbrella of CIA’s relationship with MOI (it had previously cooperated primarily with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense).

On August 15, 2011, hackers erased the data on two-thirds of the computers at Saudi Aramco; American sources claim Iran was the culprit.

On September 30, 2011, CIA killed Anwar al-Awlaki, using drones operated from a base on Saudi soil.

On November 5, 2012, King Abdullah named close John Brennan ally Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN) Minister of the Interior; MbN had for some time been our top counterterrorism partner in the Kingdom.

On December 11, 2012, James Clapper expanded NSA’s Third Party SIGINT relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for the first time formally including the Ministry of Interior’s Technical Affairs Directorate.

Between January 14 and 16, 2013 MbN traveled to Washington and met with just about every top National Security person (many of whom, including Brennan, were just assuming new jobs). On January 16, MbN and Hillary Clinton renewed and expanded the Technical Cooperation Agreement initiated in 2008. The TCA was modeled on the JECOR program used from the late 1970s until 2000 to recycle US dollars into development programs in Saudi Arabia; in this more recent incarnation, the Saudis recycle dollars into things like a 30,000 mercenary army and other military toys for internal stability and border control. Last year’s renewal — signed just over a month after Clapper made the Saudis full Third Person partners – added cybersecurity to the portfolio. The TCA — both the existing security resources and its expansion under close ally MbN — shored up the power base of one of our closest partners (and at a time when we were already panicking about Saudi succession).

In other words, in addition to expanding Saudi capabilities at a time when it has been cracking down on peaceful dissent, which is what the Intercept story on this document discusses, by giving the Saudi MOI Third Party status, we added to the power of a key ally within the royal family, and did so at a time when the TCA was already shoring up his power base.

We did so, the Information Paper makes clear, in part because MOI has access to internal Saudi telecommunications. While the Information paper talks about AQAP and Iran’s Republican Guard, they are also targeting Saudi targets.

And these new capabilities? They get coordinated through Chief of Station in Riyadh, the CIA. John Brennan’s agency.

It’s all very tidy, don’t you think?

Colleen McMahon Kicks the Administration’s Ass

Back when we last saw Judge Colleen McMahon in the ACLU/NYT drone killing FOIA, she reluctantly shut down those FOIA bids. Since then, of course, the government kept blathering about its drone programs — including releasing a white paper so John Brennan could become CIA Director — leading the 2nd Circuit to order the government to release the drone killing memo and have McMahon review the others for release.

The government tried to welch on that part of the order though, twice asking McMahon to let them file a motion for summary judgment regarding what it should and should not have to disclose.  The ACLU and NYT were not amused with the government’s attempts to rewrite the 2nd Circuit’s order.

You know who was even less amused? Judge McMahon.

This court will not be entertaining arguments about the applicability of FOIA exemptions to the legal memoranda that the Government must produce before complying with the mandate. Instead, it will follow the mandate to the letter: I will analyze the legal memoranda that were not previously produced (either to this court or to the Second Circuit) to see if the Government has waived its right to invoke any FOIA exemptions. I will do that before I do anything else, and I will do it on the schedule I set.

There is no need to conduct any “careful review,” let alone any “inter-agency review” before producing the documents in accordance with the mandate. The Circuit’s order that they be produced for in camera inspection is clear and admits of no argument or exception. Frankly, the Government’s bald assertion, in its letter of July 7, 2014, that it gets to decide “whether any of those documents, or particular portions thereof, fall within the scope of the waiver found by the Second Circuit” would be offensive if it were not so laughable. The Second Circuit directed this court to make that determination, in light of the rulings it has made. And so I shall. [emphasis original]

Remember, McMahon made it clear that before the government kills someone for treason, they’re supposed to make their case before an Article III Judge.

She seems to be getting weary of the government’s usurpation of her job.

In very much related news, the 2nd Circuit just told the government it actually has to provide a functional Vaughn Index. It, too, appears to be weary, this time of the government’s repeated efforts to expand the universe of titles of documents it doesn’t have to disclose.

It is far too late in the day to fail to identify by specific numbers the “other” listings.  The Government’s claim that “space constraints” in the rehearing petition preclude the requisite specificity, see Petition 15, is without merit. Any additional numbers could have been included in one or two lines of type in the blank bottom one-third of the last page of the petition.

Imagine that. The government might actually have to release more details of how it uses drones to kill US citizens.

AQAP Drone Strikes Obama’s Awlaki Drone Story

Shirhi Abdulmutallab KissTwo days before the Administration was due to release a memo laying out its rationale for drone-killing American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP released a video that challenges the narrative the Administration has used for doing so.

As Gregory Johnsen reports, the memo shows (see correction below) former Gitmo detainee Said al-Shihri embracing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, then whispering in his ear.

In the video, Shihri says he was the head of external operations — the title the US always used to describe Anwar al-Awlaki.

The video says that it was Shihri — not Awlaki — who was “responsible for external operations against America.” For years, the Obama administration has argued the opposite, claiming that Awlaki was directing AQAP’s efforts against the U.S., including the failed underwear bomb on an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

On the day Awlaki was killed, Obama called him “the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and said he “directed” the 2009 attack. The video appears to refute both claims, giving credit to Shihri, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee.

Halfway through the video there is a clip of Shihri embracing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber in the Christmas Day attack, and whispering in his ear as a narrator reads that the attack was conducted “under the direct supervision of (Shihri) and a number of his brothers in the section in charge of external operations.”

While there may be some disagreement about how best to translate Shihri’s role — “directed” or “supervised” — this video clearly says that Shirhi was in charge, directly to the contrary to the narrative DOJ released purportedly summarizing Abulmutallab’s confession (the one that conflicted in key ways with his two other confessions).

What Johnsen doesn’t say — but is clear from comparison — is that that embrace took place while Abdulmutallab was dressed to make his martyrdom video.

Compare this frame, which appears just after the embrace in the new video (at 21:54),

Abdulmutallab Video Shihri

With this one from Abdulmutallab’s martyrdom video (at 0:52).

Abdulmutallab Video Martyr

That’s important because arranging to make the martyrdom video is one of the tasks DOJ’s narrative says Awlaki did.

Awlaki told defendant that he would create a martyrdom video that would be used after the defendant’s attack. Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to film the video. Awlaki assisted defendant in writing his martyrdom statement, and it was filmed over a period of two to three days. The full video was approximately five minutes in length.

Shihri’s presence at the making of Abdulmutallab’s martyrdom video doesn’t refute the claim that Awlaki had a role in making it (though none of the experts I have asked has ever given a remotely credible explanation why AQAP’s greatest English-language propagandist and someone formally schooled in English would make a martyrdom video in Arabic). But it does place him there, suggesting Awlaki was not the only one directing the production of the video, if he had a role at all.

This video definitely doesn’t prove that Awlaki didn’t have an operational role in the UndieBomb attack. But it shows that the narrative the government released — which Abdulmutallab’s lawyer said had been made in the context of a plea deal never finalized and which the government agreed not to rely on at the trial, where it could have been challenged — neglects not just the role of Fahd al-Quso, but also Said al-Shihri. It is, at the very least, incomplete in some important ways.

And yet that is the only public “proof” the government has ever released that justified their execution of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Update: Apparently al-Shihri isn’t the one portrayed in this video, Nasir al-Wuhayshi is. In which case this connection is not meaningful.

Sabrina de Sousa and the Drone Memo

Jason Leopold has a long piece on Sabrina de Sousa, the former CIA operative who got screwed over in the aftermath of the Abu Omar rendition.

Leopold’s piece focuses on de Sousa’s efforts to call attention to how stupid the rendition was. He includes her correspondence with a range of people — from Condi Rice to Colin Powell to Hillary to Dianne Feinstein’s staff – she tried to reach out to. As such, Leopold’s piece is yet another case showing the intelligence whistleblowers can’t use “proper channels” to expose wrong-doing they find.

But I wanted to focus on a more narrow point de Sousa makes about Abu Omar’s rendition, one that — in the wake of the release of the Awlaki killing memo – is of particular significance. One problem with Abu Omar’s rendition, de Sousa notes, is that none of the conditions normally present for extraordinary renditions were present. The fact that Italy was already closely watching him meant the US didn’t have to intervene to neutralize him.

There was nothing definitive in the classified cables, De Sousa says, about the threat the CIA said Abu Omar posed to national security as the rendition operation was being planned. “The cable was full of ‘suspected of,’ ‘alleged to.’ Nothing that said ‘he was responsible for.’ Nothing definitive,” De Sousa says.

De Sousa describes her CIA colleagues in Rome and Cairo as acting like keystone cops in the aftermath of Abu Omar’s rendition, trying to figure out who had the evidence against him to present to Egypt so he could be prosecuted.

“The CIA station chief in Cairo said to Jeffrey Castelli [CIA station chief in Rome] ‘Where’s the evidence?’ Castelli said, ‘I thought you had the information.’ And Cairo said, ‘We don’t have it. We thought you had it.’ Castelli says, ‘We don’t have it.’ Then Cairo says, “We issued this arrest warrant on your behalf. So where is the evidence?” The blunder ultimately forced Egypt to set Abu Omar free.

“This is exactly when the whole cover-up started,” she says. “It turns out there was a big miscommunication between Cairo Station and Rome Station. There wasn’t any prosecutable evidence against Abu Omar. It’s why he was never picked up by the Italians. But Castelli decided he wanted a rendition and he got one.”


“Abu Omar was a nobody,” De Sousa says. “The renditions are meant for imminent, very dangerous threats and [are meant to be used in]countries that are incapable of laws that would allow them to pick up people who pose threats to national security. They’re not meant for a country like Italy already following the guy around.”

Those trying to dismiss the seriousness of the Anwar al-Awlaki memo, after all, say it’s not that big of a deal, given that most Americans of concern would be in places — like, say, Milan — where they could easily be seized by local authorities, and therefore would never need to be drone killed.

And rendition is obviously the step short of drone killing. There’s little risk CIA will start flying drones over Milan (and if they did, Italy has the capability to shoot them down).

Nevertheless, the Abu Omar case is one reason why you can never say the conditions laid out in the memo will always protect Americans from being drone killed — or just as likely, simply killed — based on claims about a country’s ability to arrest and turn over someone.

Those same conditions should have protected Abu Omar. Yet, because some guy was bucking for a promotion, they didn’t.

Stimson Center: Yes, the Drones Are Killing Westphalia

Three years ago, I wrote a long post called the Drone War on Westphalia arguing that our use of drones was eroding state sovereignty in ways we hadn’t considered — much less debated — the impact of.

[W]e risk trading a failed state in pursuit of what the Executive Branch, often in secret, defines as our national interest. It not only risks exacerbating the risk failed states represent around the world–and the further proliferation of terrorism–but as Spencer lays out, the fact that the Executive can do so without balancing the political cost of doing so changes our relationship with our government. (It is no accident, I think, that these changes in strategy are occurring at precisely the same moment both parties are cooperating to dismantle the social safety network.)

Now, for the record, I’m not entirely certain whether chipping away at sovereignty is a good thing–will it allow oppressed people to band together to fight the global elite, or a terrible thing–will it allow weaponized elites to turn average people back into serfs in exchange for the security the nation-state used to offer (though of course I’ve repeatedly suggested we’re headed for the latter condition). But our elected representatives are wittingly and unwittingly pursuing policies that accelerate the process.

So there are two public debates that we’re not having. First, there’s the debate about what standard the Executive needs to use before he assassinates a US citizen with no due process, or what standard the Executive needs to use before he launches new “hostilities” with no congressional mandate. Those are the old-style debates about public accounting that the Executive is using secrecy to try to avoid.

But there’s a larger debate we need to be having. Our system of governance is changing, subtly but increasingly radically, with no discussion. Drones are one symptom and one catalyst of that. And before the consent of the governed is completely eliminated, it’d be nice to have a “public debate” about it.

Today, as part of a larger study on the impact of our use of drones, the Stimson Center makes a very similar argument I did.

Erosion of sovereignty norms: The US government takes the view that it has a legal right to use force in the territories of foreign sovereign states when those states are“unwilling or unable” to take what the United States considers appropriate action to eliminate what it sees as imminent threats. But inevitably, assessments of what constitutes an imminent threat to the United States and what would constitute appropriate action are somewhat subjective in nature; the United States may view the use of force as justified even when US allies and partners do not. The US use of force in sovereignnations whose consent is questionable or nonexistent may encourage other states tofollow suit with their own military platforms or commercial entities.


Democratic Accountability: Increased US reliance on lethal UAVs in cross-border targeted strikes also poses challenges to democracy and the American system of checks and balances. While we understand the administration’s reasons for considering additional transparency difficult, the effect of the lack of transparency is that the United States has been fighting what amounts to a covert, multi-year killing program. Without additional information, the citizenry cannot evaluate US targeted strikes.

Continue reading

Whither the Assassination Consideration?

As I noted earlier, I’m doing a fairly detailed comparison of what parts of the white paper don’t show up in the drone memo released Monday. But that’s going to take a while.

Far easier is to compare what Charlie Savage’s sources said the memo included but doesn’t.  I’ve noted before that they told him there was one memo when there were really two. Given these discrepancies, it’s possible they merged the two memos in their descriptions:

  • Savage’s sources said the memo was “roughly 50 pages;” it is 41
  • Savage’s sources said the memo was “completed around June 2010;” it was completed on July 16 (remember, too, that Scott Shane FOIAed the memo in June 2010)

Other than those details, Savage’s story maps the actual memo very closely, down to the caveat that,

The memorandum, which was written more than a year before Mr. Awlaki was killed, does not independently analyze the quality of the evidence against him

Similar caveats appear repeatedly in the memo (most OLC memos start that way, and a redacted footnote in this apparently lays that out, but this one repeated it several times later in the analysis).

Savage’s report of the content of the memo starts — as the memo itself does (though this is redacted; see page 41 for a description of what appears in the redacted sections) — with a description of the claims the Intelligence Community used to claim Awlaki qualified as a target under the AUMF. Significantly, this includes the claim that “a pattern of activities [] counterterrorism officials have said show[] that he had evolved from merely being a propagandist … to playing an operational role.” Later the memo refers to Awlaki recruiting, which I suspect may be an artifact of the argument they made in February 2010, based on what Dennis Blair said publicly at the time. So I find this claim of a progression of particular interest (not least because it’s another reason why this memo simply could not cover the attempt to kill Awlaki on December 24, 2009).

Before Savage’s report turns to the consideration of 18 USC 1119 — which is where the memo starts its analysis — it describes a section considering whether the “ban” (in an unenforceable Executive Order that gets changed from time to time without notice in the actual text) on assassinations would prohibit such a killing.

It then considered possible obstacles and rejected each in turn.

Among them was an executive order that bans assassinations. That order, the lawyers found, blocked unlawful killings of political leaders outside of war, but not the killing of a lawful target in an armed conflict.

No discussion of assassination appears in the memo (unless it appears in a classified section and is not noted by the court opinion, but that seems unlikely as there’s no logical place for it). That said, the “ban” on assassinations did appear prominently in Harold Koh’s justification for drones given in March 2010.

Fourth and finally, some have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the long-standing domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.” 

This leads me to suspect the structure of the first memo may parallel the structure of Koh’s speech, with the assassination “ban” figuring prominently in that memo. That is, it seems likely Savage’s sources, in conflating the two memos (if that’s what they did), included that language because it appeared in the first memo.

From that deviation, however, the report in Savage’s story returns to its close match of the actual drone content, with one exception and one area where Savage’s report probably reflects something redacted in our version of the memo.

  • Consideration of 18 USC 1119 (though Savage doesn’t talk about the heightened importance of this analysis for CIA)
  • Consideration of War Crimes Act
  • Consideration of the Fifth and Fourth Amendments

The part that Savage includes but doesn’t appear in the declassified memo is this bit:

But that raised another pressing question: would it comply with the laws of war if the drone operator who fired the missile was a Central Intelligence Agency official, who, unlike a soldier, wore no uniform? The memorandum concluded that such a case would not be a war crime, although the operator might be in theoretical jeopardy of being prosecuted in a Yemeni court for violating Yemen’s domestic laws against murder, a highly unlikely possibility. [my emphasis]

That italicized bit doesn’t appear in what we got Monday (though the acknowledgment that CIA officers would not have immunity in footnote 44 addresses precisely the same legal issue), but there is a redacted section on page 38 that may well acknowledge that point.

Finally, there’s the one section of the memo that neither Savage’s sources nor DOJ, in summarizing the memo in the white paper, included: section IV, which considers whether killing Awlaki would violate 18 USC 956(a)‘s prohibition on conspiring within the US to carry out kidnapping or murder overseas. I find that curious and, because they appear to be suppressing it, worthy of more examination. Does the apparently consistent effort not to acknowledge that this might apply reflect some insecurity about the strength of this argument?

The Delayed “Imminence” of Anwar al-Awlaki’s Killing

As a number of people have noted (Jen Daskal is one), the OLC memo released yesterday doesn’t describe what the government considers an imminent threat.

Meanwhile, Ben Wittes is unexpectedly spending his time writing interesting posts about why imminence is in there in the first place, and not mocking the NYT editorial calling for a drone and/or targeted killing court.

Wittes writes.

I think the source of law for imminence in Holder’s speech, in the white paper, and in this memo is a presidential covert action finding. That is, I think the president, in issuing whatever finding gave rise to the killing of Al-Aulaqi, limited the authorization to situations involving imminent threats. This invocation was prudential, not legally required by any other source of law, but it operates as law for the executive branch.

There are a few pieces of evidence—not conclusive, but suggestive—supporting this view:

The most important is that memo—by omission—excludes the other major possibilities. If the imminence requirement is not there because of constitutional separation of powers, international law, or the constitutional rights of the targets, it’s got to be coming from somewhere. Internal executive branch law is one of the few remaining possibilities.

Moreover, it’s the only obvious possibility I can think of that would leave so little footprint in the memo. Indeed, if the imminence discussion is present but redacted, that suggests that the very source of law is classified. That is consistent with its appearance in a finding. Alternatively, if the reason the discussion seems to be missing is that it isn’t there at all, that is also consistent with its originating in a finding. After all, if we assume that imminence is only a requirement because the president said it’s a requirement, it follows that the concept means—at least in this context—whatever the president wants it to mean.

I’m not sure I buy that there is no legal reason for imminence, but I do agree it is relatively absent in what we have of the July 16, 2010 memo.

As it happens, in my thinking about the absence of a discussion of imminence in this memo, I have started comparing what’s in the white paper but not the OLC memo (I have already noted that the desultory treatment of why Courts couldn’t review the assassination is not in the OLC memo).

Remember, there are two possible explanations for why something would be in the White Paper (dated November 8, 2011, over a month after Awlaki was killed) but not in the July 16, 2010 OLC memo we got yesterday. First, those missing elements could be in the first OLC memo, from February 2010. Section VI of yesterday’s memo cites from and appears to repeat the analysis from that other memo. And that’s precisely where the reference to “imminent” is.

The task before OLC in February 2010 was likely somewhat different than the task in July 2010, because not only did OLC have to come up with an argument for killing an American going forward, but it likely felt some urgency to justify the attack on Awlaki attempted on Christmas Eve 2009, which was by all reports conducted under Article II justification. Dana Priest’s report that Awlaki was on the JSOC kill list probably created real urgency in January and February to provide this justification. Both the fact that that strike was attempted under solely Presidential authority, and that it was done without prior OLC review would raise the importance of arguing that Awlaki, in the wake of early December 2009 revelations that he had been in contact with Nidal Hasan, was an imminent threat.

The other possibility is that the emphasis on imminence came after the OLC memo, and DOJ added it into the white paper either for what was intended to be public (or at least Congressional) consumption, or to deal with developments that occurred between the time David Barron finished the memo in July 2010 and the time the government killed Awlaki 14 months later.

Meanwhile, I’ve been puzzling over something that appears in the white paper that we know can’t appear in either OLC memo: the citation to John Brennan’s September 16, 2011 speech on “Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws.” This sentence of that speech was cited: “The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa’ida as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.” That is, unless I’m mistaken, the only reference to a source that post-dates the OLC memo that authorized Awlaki’s killing.

As it turns out, that sentence introduces a discussion that leads to a treatment of the government’s definition of “imminence.”

The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa’ida as being restricted solely to “hot” battlefields like Afghanistan.  Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the United States takes the legal position that —in accordance with international law—we have the authority to take action against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time.  And as President Obama has stated on numerous occasions, we reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.

That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally—and on the way in which we can use force—in foreign territories.

Others in the international community—including some of our closest allies and partners—take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the “hot” battlefields.  As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theatres, the United States can only act in self-defense against al-Qa’ida when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against U.S. interests if it amounts to an “imminent” threat.

In practice, the U.S. approach to targeting in the conflict with al-Qa’ida is far more aligned with our allies’ approach than many assume.  This Administration’s counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant – even if only temporary – disruption of the plans and capabilities of al-Qa’ida and its associated forces.  Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define “imminence.”

We are finding increasing recognition in the international community that a more flexible understanding of “imminence” may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups, in part because threats posed by non-state actors do not present themselves in the ways that evidenced imminence in more traditional conflicts.  After all, al-Qa’ida does not follow a traditional command structure, wear uniforms, carry its arms openly, or mass its troops at the borders of the nations it attacks.  Nonetheless, it possesses the demonstrated capability to strike with little notice and cause significant civilian or military casualties.  Over time, an increasing number of our international counterterrorism partners have begun to recognize that the traditional conception of what constitutes an “imminent” attack should be broadened in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.

At a minimum, Brennan’s speech might suggest the imminence analysis is in the OLC memos, to the extent it is, because our allies would insist on it. But even while he does that — and purportedly cedes to the international view on the battlefield that would 2 weeks later take Awlaki’s life — he suggests the definition is changing.

Remember, too, that Assassination Drone Czar Brennan would have been the one to conduct the final review of the standards laid out before okaying the killing of Awlaki, the one to decide he was still an imminent threat 21 months after he was first targeted. So Brennan’s depiction of a changing standard of imminence is quite interesting, given that either by this time, or 2 weeks later, he would have signed off on the imminence of the threat Awlaki posed.

I raise Brennan not just because I find it significant that the white paper relied on this as a “source” of authority to kill Awlaki over a year after OLC had judged it. But the reliance on the speech also suggests that the white paper emphasis on imminence might post-date both OLC’s memos on Awlaki.

And there is one obvious thing that emphasized imminence — and the potential role of judges — that post-dated the OLC memo, though not by much. Around July 1, Nasir al-Awlaki’s father retained ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights to represent him in a challenge to Awlaki’s targeting. The very same day OLC issued its memo, Treasury named Awlaki a Special Designated Terrorist, which required the ACLU and CCR to request permission to represent Awlaki’s father to avoid being charged with material support for terrorism.

In their suit — filed August 30 — they asked for,

a declaration from this Court that the Constitution and international law prohibit the government from carrying out targeted killings outside of armed conflict except as a last resort to protect against concrete, specific, and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury; and an injunction prohibiting the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi outside this narrow context.

That is, the ACLU/CCR suit emphasizing imminence almost certainly would have raised the stakes for it, if it wasn’t already a government standard.

In September, the government moved to dismiss the suit, arguing (as they did in the white paper but not the July 2010 OLC memo) that the courts had no role in reviewing this issue…

The Judiciary is simply not equipped to manage the President and his national security advisors in their discharge of these most critical and sensitive executive functions and prescribe ex ante whether, where, or in what circumstances such decisions would be lawful. Whatever the limits of the political question doctrine, this case is at its core.

… And arguing that the courts couldn’t determine whether someone was an imminent threat.

For example, even assuming for the sake of argument that plaintiff has appropriately described the legal contours of the President’s authority to use force in a context of the sort described in the Complaint, the questions he would have the court evaluate—such as whether a threat to life or physical safety may be “concrete,” “imminent,” or “specific,” or whether there are “reasonable alternatives” to force—can only be assessed based upon military and foreign policy considerations, intelligence and other sources of sensitive information, and real-time judgments that the Judiciary is not well-suited to evaluate.

See also this post for the choose your own adventure novel the government laid out to cover Awlaki’s killing.

Whatever the government argued in February 2010, its arguments to combat this suit in September 2010 required the government to deal with imminence directly, whether or not they did extensively in February or July 2010. And then, just weeks before they killed Awlaki (it having been a year since the most recent publicly claimed attack the government claimed Awlaki had a role in), the Administration publicly advocated a very flexible notion of imminence.

Clearly, the government nodded to imminence before the Nasir al-Awlaki suit, at least by a few weeks. But certainly, the government’s successful attempt at avoiding court review relied on certain arguments that show up in more prominent form in November 2011 then it does in July 2010.

Again, I’m agnostic whether the government emphasized imminence to explain the (under the standard as written, because the government did not believe Awlaki to be operational on that day) illegal strike against Awlaki from December 24, 2009, or whether they increased their focus on imminence in response to CCR and ACLU. But I think either might be a likely explanation.

Please No Drone and/or Targeted Killing FISA Court!

Last year, after the drone white paper demonstrated how shoddy were the Obama Administration’s claims to be able to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a group of Senators decided the best way to avoid difficult questions but appear to address the issue would be to have the FISA Court review drone and/or targeted killings before they happened. I did a series of posts laying out what a horrible idea that was. I showed:

  • The FISA Court has a history of  unquestioningly accepting evidence from dubious sources, including torture
  • Certain factual issues a drone and/or targeted killing court would need to judge — including the scope of the AUMF — are not well defined and should not be defined by the Executive in secret
  • The Administration claims the authority to conduct targeted killings for pre-crime, which a court has no way of assessing (and which should not be sanctioned in law)
  • Decisions by the FISC — such as interpreting “relevance” to authorize vast suspicionless collections of data and permitting back door searches of content collected off of programatic orders – prove that the court no longer fulfills its originally intended purpose

As a reminder, I argued the claims in that last bullet in February 2013.

The Fourth Amendment holds that judges must decide whether wiretaps are reasonable or not.

Yet after the FISA Amendments Act, that’s not what happens. Rather, judges are deprived of the ability to do more than review the government’s certifications about targeting and minimization. Once a judge has done so, however, the government can not only bulk collect telecommunications involving someone overseas, but it can later search on those telecommunications to get to the US person’s side of the conversation, apparently without court review on the back side.

Effectively, discretion over this massive system has collapsed back inside the Executive Branch.

And all that’s before the government’s use of the secret law that Mark Udall and Ron Wyden keep complaining about, which probably involves — in part — the bulk collection of geolocation information from cell phones. It’s also before the government has interpreted the word “relevance” to justify other massive collection programs (at a minimum, of things like hydrogen peroxide and acetone purchases) involving US persons.

In short, the FISA Court has become a venue not for judges to exercise individualized discretion about probable cause. Rather, it has become the venue in which the government uses the secrecy offered to develop expansive legal interpretations to support vast new spying programs it won’t even tell Americans about. Not only the promise of individualized judicial discretion has been eliminated, so has the very premise that American should know what laws they are subject to.

In June and August of last year, Snowden disclosures led the rest of the world to recognize that the FISC had authorized back door searches without judicial review of programmatic collection, had authorized the bulk collection of data from cell phones (though more limited collection of location data), and had interpreted the word “relevance” to mean “all.”

That is, my argument that the FISC was broken and therefore couldn’t be trusted with matters of life and death came to be accepted by just about everyone, up to and including Administration officials who agreed to make cosmetic (though not functional) changes to the FISC.

Along the way, we have also learned that the government is not complying with Congressional intent with respect to defendants’ rights, meaning the efficacy of the FISC in protecting constitutional rights has avoided the tests it should have had.

Yet the changes we have made — effectively inviting the FISC to call their existing clerks “advocates” to provide the patina of adversarial review — really are no more than cosmetic, and USA Freedumber has aspects that would weaken the FISC even further.

I thought all this had led people to see the folly in using the FISC to judge drone and/or targeted killings.


Continue reading

The CIA’s [redacted] Operations

As you read the Awlaki memo, it’s worth remembering why it was written, after David Barron had already written a memo authorizing Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing 5 months earlier. In April 2010, as newspapers reported that Awlaki had been added to the CIA Kill List (having been added to the JSOC one either in December 2009, before they tried to kill him on Christmas Eve, or in January 2010, when Dana Priest reported it), international law scholar Kevin Jon Heller wrote a blog post arguing that it would be murder for CIA to kill Awlaki.

The Obama administration has been savagely criticized for authorizing the CIA to use lethal forceagainst Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is allegedly a member of al-Qaeda in Yemen.  Glenn Greewald, for example, has described the decision — justifiably — as “unbelievably Orwellian and tyrannical.”  To date, however, critics have ignored what I think is perhaps the most important point:An American who kills an American outside of the United States is guilty of murder.  Not political murder.  Not figurative murder.  Legal murder.

18 USC 1119:

(a)Definition.— In this section, “national of the United States” has the meaning stated in section 101(a)(22) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8U.S.C. 1101 (a)(22)).

(b)Offense.— 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 11111112, and 1113.

The foreign-murder statute has to be the starting point of any analysis of the Obama adminstration’s decision to authorize the CIA to kill al-Awlaki.  If the CIA does kill him — and even if it doesn’t; see below — any CIA operative involved in the killing who is American is presumptively a murderer.  The only questions would be (1) whether for some reason 18 USC 1119 would not apply, and (2) whether the CIA operative would have a plausible defense if he was charged with murder in federal court.

In response to this post, David Barron felt the need to reconsider the question.

The main point was to determine whether the CIA — not the government generally — could kill Awlaki.

And the memo seems to betray uncertainty about whether they’ve really proved their case.

Consider the length. Barron takes 10.5 pages to consider whether DOD could kill Awlaki, and somewhat unsurprisingly finds that soldiers whose job it is to kill the country’s enemies can kill someone who has been deemed an enemy to his country.

Barron spends just 5 pages considering the far more controversial question whether CIA can kill Awlaki. As was pretty clear Barron would do from the White Paper, he does so by collapsing the difference between soldiers (whose job is to kill our enemies) and CIA (who are prohibited from breaking US law and whose job is not, primarily, to kill our enemies). That is, the argument in favor of soldiers killing stands in for a considered argument for spies killing.

It seems to accomplish this by classifying CIA’s actions as military — though the classification is redacted. See this passage from page 18:

Screen shot 2014-06-23 at 4.24.44 PM

And this passage from page 32:

Screen shot 2014-06-23 at 4.28.11 PM

Given debates that took place afterwards, I think the redacted language may either describe CIA’s actions as Traditional Military Activities or paramilitary activities. It appears by labeling the CIA’s job as such, Barron disappeared the other rules that govern CIA action. But his language in this footnote, doesn’t reflect great confidence his argument is very strong.

We note, in addition, that the “lawful conduct of war” variant of the public authority justification, although often described with specific reference to operations conducted by the armed forces, is not necessarily limited to operations by such forces; some descriptions of that variant of the justification, for example, do not imply such a limitation. See, e.g., Frye, 10 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 221 n.2 (“homicide done under a valid public authority, such as execution of a death sentence of killing an enemy in a time of war”); Perkins & Boyce, Criminal Law at 1093 (“the killing of an enemy as an act of war and within the rules of war.”)

Barron’s confidence in footnote 44 — especially where he argues that the US doesn’t think that unprivileged combatants (which include both CIA and al Qaeda members operating not in uniform) engaging in killing violates the law — appears even more shaky. If that’s true, then someone should go free Omar Khadr, because we argued that his self-defense attempted killing of Americans was illegal solely because he was unprivileged.

That is, it doesn’t appear even Barron believes his own argument.

One other thing that appears to be redacted is the authority for CIA’s actions, in the redacted language following “the CIA would carry out in accord with” …

That language probably refer to the Presidential Finding required before CIA engages in covert operations. That is, critical to this argument appears to be the formula that if the President deems the CIA a military force (and gives them drones) then they get treated — at least according to US law — just like soldiers, even when they’re killing Americans. 

That involves an extra step to the formula “if the President authorizes it,” requiring also that he call CIA spies soldiers. But it still amounts to the same argument.


Working Thread: The Awlaki Memo

The Awlaki Memo has just been released. This post will be a working thread. Note, page numbers will be off the page numbers of the memo itself (starting at PDF 61).

Pages 1-11: Barron takes 11 pages to lay out both the claims the government made about Anwar al-Awlaki and the request for an opinion. All of that is redacted.

Page 12: This memo is particularly focused on 18 USC 1119, which OLC only treated because Kevin Jon Heller raised it in a blog post. Note that OLC splits its consideration of whether DOD could kill Awlaki (which it probably could) from its consideration whether CIA could (which is far more controversial). The memo seems to have been written so as to authorize both DOD and CIA to carry out the operation, whichever got around to it. Also note the memo assumes the earlier Barron memo that authorizes this secret due process gimmick.

Page 13: OLC’s analysis is closely tied to legislative history, which is fine. Except that DOJ routinely ignores legislative history when it doesn’t serve its purposes.

Page 15: Footnote 12 argues that after invoking public authority jurisdiction the government doesn’t have to say what happened to the law:

There is no need to examine whether the criminal prohibition has been repeated, impliedly or otherwise, by some other statute that might potentially authorize the governmental conduct, including teh authorizing statute that might supply the predicate for the assertion of the public authority justification itself.

Nothing is cited to defend this proposition. It seems like a giant hole in the opinion, though I await the lawyers to tell me whether that’s the case.

Page 15: Note the government has redacted all the other memos listed in Fn14 where it has exempted itself from criminal law.

Page 16: The government only leaves Nardone unredacted in FN15 among laws where Congress has limited Congressional action. That seems … odd.

Page 17: Note that part of FN 20 is redacted. This seems to justify other claims OLC made that something wasn’t illegal.

Page 18: Note the redaction describing the kind of CIA operation here. I’d be curious whether it used Traditional Military Activities or paramilitary, as the distinction is a crucial one but one that often gets ignored.

Page 19: Note how the language on “jettison[ing] public authority justification” as if it existed prior to 1119 for both DOD and CIA.

Page 19: This is likely one reason why Ron Wyden keeps asking for more specifics:

Instead, we emphasize the sufficiency of the facts that have been represented to us here, without determining whether such facts would be necessary to the conclusion we reach.

Page 21: Note that one of the things OLC concludes — rather than restates — in the redacted 11 pages that start the opinion is the AUMF language. It appears by reference in this form.

And, as we have explained, supra at 9, a decision-maker could reasonably conclude that this leader of AQAP forces is part of al-Qaida forces. Alternatively, and as we have further explained, supra at 10 n 5, the AUMF applies with respect to forces “associated with” al-Qaida that are engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or its coalition partners, and a decision-maker could reasonably conclude that the AQAP forces of which al-Aulaqi is a leader are “associated with” Al Qaeda forces for purposes of the AUMF.

Two things about this: by this point (July 2010), the government had already gotten away with this “associated forces” claim in Gitmo habeas filings. But if that’s what they rely on, why not leave it unredacted? (Note, they do cite it on the next page, but not in this discussion.)

Continue reading

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @JustinRaimondo @towards_freedom But they won't if a wing nut Republican wins?
bmaz @ScottGreenfield @lawfareblog @OrinKerr @granick You saw my opening salvo I presume.
bmaz @ScottGreenfield @lawfareblog @OrinKerr @granick Ah, top of the morning to you Mr. Greenfield.
bmaz Okay, CNN International simulcast is great. Just did a report on the scary clown ban in France. Now that is news I can use. #BanClowns
bmaz @LegallyErin The report I just saw on CNN looked pretty awesome. Wind and waves onto roads and all kinds of good stuff.
bmaz @LegallyErin Bundle up baybee!
bmaz @LegallyErin Say, my tee-bee says you have some kind weather thing going on there.
bmaz @walterwkatz @gideonstrumpet @ScottGreenfield @LilianaSegura @roomfordebate Yes, that was a nice little touch, no? Jeebus.
bmaz RT @LegallyErin: There's something very sexy about Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal. I always date the worst guys.
bmaz @imraansiddiqi You seemed like such a respectable chap, and now here you are talking about Kardashians. #Shame
bmaz @cody_k I went as a Pando journalist blowing shit out of my ass about Greenwald.
bmaz @dcbigjohn @erinscafe In or out of the furry costume?
November 2014
« Oct