I’m sure that Eric Holder didn’t mean to suggest that the assassination plots purportedly planned by Iran’s Quds Force and Manssor Arbabsiar with the assistance of a DEA informant targeting the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, as well as Israeli and Saudi figures in Argentina, are legal.
But given the debate between the ACLU’s Anthony Romero and Jack Goldsmith over whether assassinations in this country would be legal, I wanted to look at what he did say.
In their debate on WBUR’s On Point, Romero said something to the effect of Holder’s argument for targeted killing would serve as justification for other countries to target their own “terrorists” in our country. Goldsmith objected, saying such assassinations would only be legal in failed states (implicitly, like Yemen and Pakistan) where a state was unable to apprehend such a figure.
That’s not what Holder said. Here’s what he did say:
Over the last three years alone, al Qaeda and its associates have directed several attacks – fortunately, unsuccessful – against us from countries other than Afghanistan. Our government has both a responsibility and a right to protect this nation and its people from such threats.
This does not mean that we can use military force whenever or wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for another nation’s sovereignty, constrain our ability to act unilaterally. But the use of force in foreign territory would be consistent with these international legal principles if conducted, for example, with the consent of the nation involved – or after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States.
Furthermore, it is entirely lawful – under both United States law and applicable law of war principles – to target specific senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associated forces. [my emphasis]
Strip this passage of its American exceptionalism, and here’s what it justifies: Continue reading
I just watched a scintillating panel at the Aspen Security Forum. It featured former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, Alberto Gonzales, ACLU’s Anthony Romero, John Yoo, and David Cole, moderated by Dahlia Lithwick.
The panel itself was notable for the staging of it. The panelists were seated right next to each other, with no table in front. Gonzales sat right next to Romero; Yoo sat right next to Cole. So when Romero corrected Lithwick’s assertion that the Bush Administration had showed respect for using civilian trials with terrorists by recalling that Gonzales had argued for holding American citizen Jose Padilla without trial, Gonzales shifted notably, uncomfortably, by my read. And when Cole rehearsed the language people like Michael Mukasey and Jack Goldsmith used to describe Yoo’s memo all the while pointing with his thumb at Yoo sitting next to him–”solvenly,” he emphasized–Yoo also shifted, though aggressively towards Cole. Before it all ended, Romero started reading from Yoo’s torture memo; Yoo accused him of using Dickensian dramatic delivery.
The physical tension of these men, attempting to contain the contempt they had for each other while sitting in such close proximity, was remarkable.
There were a number of other highlights: John Yoo made the ridiculous claim that no one in the human rights community had come out against drone strikes (Romero came back later and reminded him the ACLU had sued on precisely that issue, representing Anwar al-Awlaki’s family). Gonzales insisted there should be accountability (no matter that he escaped it, both when he politicized DOJ and when he took TS/SCI documents home in his briefcase). Romero hailed Obama’s “willingness to shut down secret sites,” apparently missing Jeremy Scahill’s recent scoop about the CIA-paid prison in Somalia. Yoo, as is typical, lied to protect his actions, not only repeating that canard that torture helped to find Osama bin Laden (rather than delayed the hunt as is the case), but also to claim that warrantless wiertaps helped find the couriers; they did, but those were warrantless wiretaps in the Middle East, not the US!
Just as interesting, though, were the questions. Yoo was somewhat stumped when an IAVA member and former officer asked what an officer who had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution should do if he received what he believed was an unconstitutional order.
Finally, most interesting came when Richard Ben-Veniste–the former Watergate prosecutor and 9/11 Commissioner–asked questions. He said, first of all, that Mohammed al-Qahtani had been providing information before he was tortured (a claim I’m not sure I’ve heard before, made all the more interesting given that we know the Commission received interrogation reports on a running basis). But then his torture turned him into a “vegetable,” which meant the US was unable to prosecute him.
And then Ben-Veniste raised something that the panel, for all its discussion about accountability, didn’t mention. The 9/11 Commission recommended a privacy board to ensure that there was some balance between civil liberties and security. Bush made a half-assed effort to fulfill that requirement; after 2006, at least, there was a functioning Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. But Obama has all but spiked it, killing it by not appointing the Board.
Particularly given Ron Wyden’s and Mark Udall’s concerns about secret law, it’s time the civil liberties community returned its focus on Obama’s refusal to fulfill the law and support this board. That board is precisely the entity that should be balancing whether or not the government is making appropriate decisions about surveillance.
Update: David Cole corrected for John.
From a joint press release:
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) today filed a lawsuit challenging the government’s asserted authority to carry out “targeted killings” of U.S. citizens located far from any armed conflict zone.
The authority contemplated by the Obama administration is far broader than what the Constitution and international law allow, the groups charge. Outside of armed conflict, both the Constitution and international law prohibit targeted killing except as a last resort to protect against concrete, specific and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury. An extrajudicial killing policy under which names are added to CIA and military “kill lists” through a secret executive process and stay there for months at a time is plainly not limited to imminent threats.
“The United States cannot simply execute people, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world based on its own say-so,” said Vince Warren, Executive Director of CCR. “The law prohibits the government from killing without trial or conviction other than in the face of an imminent threat that leaves no time for deliberation or due process. That the government adds people to kill lists after a bureaucratic process and leaves them on the lists for months at a time flies in the face of the Constitution and international law.”
The groups charge that targeting individuals for execution who are suspected of terrorism but have not been convicted or even charged – without oversight, judicial process or disclosed standards for placement on kill lists – also poses the risk that the government will erroneously target the wrong people. In recent years, the U.S. government has detained many men as terrorists, only for courts or the government itself to discover later that the evidence was wrong or unreliable.
According to today’s legal complaint, the government has not disclosed the standards it uses for authorizing the premeditated and deliberate killing of U.S. citizens located far from any battlefield. The groups argue that the American people are entitled to know the standards being used for these life and death decisions.
“A program that authorizes killing U.S. citizens, without judicial oversight, due process or disclosed standards is unconstitutional, unlawful and un-American,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “We don’t sentence people to prison on the basis of secret criteria, and we certainly shouldn’t sentence them to death that way. It is not enough for the executive branch to say ‘trust us’ – we have seen that backfire in the past and we should learn from those mistakes.”
CCR and the ACLU were retained by Nasser Al-Aulaqi to bring a lawsuit in connection with the government’s decision to authorize the targeted killing of his son, U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi, whom the CIA and Defense Department have targeted for death. The complaint asks a court to rule that using lethal force far from any battlefield and without judicial process is illegal in all but the narrowest circumstances and to prohibit the government from carrying out targeted killings except in compliance with these standards. It also asks the court to order the government to disclose the standards it uses to place U.S. citizens on government kill lists. [my emphasis]
The ACLU and CCR just had a conference call to talk about their suit challenging the licensing scheme the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control uses to prevent lawyers from representing those on OFAC’s designated terrorist list. Much of the discussion pertained to whether Anwar al-Awlaki could be legitimately considered an enemy combatant given his alleged incitement of attacks on the US.
But I was most interested in the timing. As the CCR summary notes, Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, first retained the ACLU and CCR in “early July” to challenge the assassination order on his son on due process grounds. Within weeks, on July 16, 2010, the government designated Anwar al-Awlaki a specially designated global terrorist. At that point, ACLU and CCR had to stop their work on suing the government and apply for a license allowing them to represent the Awlakis. As ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero noted, listing Awlaki put lawyers in neutral, “while we were in 3rd or 4th gear a few weeks ago” as they wait for the bureaucratic process of getting a license play out.
I asked whether they thought this was intentional–that is, whether they thought the government had designated Awlaki a terrorist so as to make it harder for the ACLU and CCR to represent him. Romero admitted the timing of the listing “did raise our eyebrows.” He said the timing raises the question of “whether OFA is being used to impede lawyers’ ability to challenge” programs like the kill list. And ACLU Attorney Ben Wizner noted how long after the government put Awlaki on the kill list it was before they started to designate him a terrorist and freeze his assets.
Implicit in my question was how the government knew the ACLU and CCR were representing the Awlakis. I will work to clarify that, though Romero did say that the lawyers on the case had traveled to Yemen and started meeting with the family.
In any case, add the timing of the government’s designation of Anwar al-Awlaki as a terrorist to the list of other things that already stink about the government’s efforts to kill him with no due process.
Note: The quotes in this are my transcriptions of the call itself. Since I’m mid-move, I didn’t manage to record the call, but will check the quotes for attribution and accuracy later this PM.