I’ll have far more to say about this irresponsibly credulous accounting of the background to the Anwar al-Awlaki killing from the NYT tomorrow. But for the moment I wanted to point to an interesting detail about the genesis of the June-July 2010 OLC memo.
The NYT explains that David Barron and Marty Lederman wrote an initial short OLC memo to authorize Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing. But then, after reading a blog post that describes why such a killing would be a violation of 18 USC 1119, they decided they needed to do a more thorough memo.
According to officials familiar with the deliberations, the lawyers threw themselves into the project and swiftly completed a short memorandum. It preliminarily concluded, based on the evidence available at the time, that Mr. Awlaki was a lawful target because he was participating in the war with Al Qaeda and also because he was a specific threat to the country. The overlapping reasoning justified a strike either by the Pentagon, which generally operated within the Congressional authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda, or by the C.I.A., a civilian agency which generally operated within a “national self-defense” framework deriving from a president’s security powers.
They also analyzed other bodies of law to see whether they would render a strike impermissible, concluding that they did not. For example, the Yemeni government had granted permission for airstrikes on its soil as long as the United States did not acknowledge its role, so such strikes would not violate Yemeni sovereignty.
And while the Constitution generally requires judicial process before the government may kill an American, the Supreme Court has held that in some contexts — like when the police, in order to protect innocent bystanders, ram a car to stop a high-speed chase — no prior permission from a judge is necessary; the lawyers concluded that the wartime threat posed by Mr. Awlaki qualified as such a context, and so his constitutional rights did not bar the government from killing him without a trial.
But as months passed, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman grew uneasy. They told colleagues there were issues they had not adequately addressed, particularly after reading a legal blog that focused on a statute that bars Americans from killing other Americans overseas. In light of the gravity of the question and with more time, they began drafting a second, more comprehensive memo, expanding and refining their legal analysis and, in an unusual step, researching and citing dense thickets of intelligence reports supporting the premise that Mr. Awlaki was plotting attacks. [my emphasis]
This post — an April 8, 2010 post entitled “Let’s Call Killing al-Awlaki What It Is — Murder” — is almost certainly the blog post in question. There’s almost nothing else written on 1119 (there’s this legal journal article, but from Fall 2011), much less focusing specifically on Awlaki and published in a legal blog.
Which is interesting, because the post describes one of the possible bases for arguing that 1119 does not apply to the killing of Awlaki that Obama is just ignoring the statute as Commander-in-Chief.
Which leads us to the second possible explanation of why 18 USC 1119 does not apply: because Obama has authorized the CIA to kill al-Awlaki. That explanation seems implicit in much of the media’s coverage of the Obama administration’s decision; I have yet to see any reporter ask why Obama believes he has the legal authority to order Americans killed, given that 18 USC 1119 specifically criminalizes such killings. The argument, however, is deeply problematic — and eerily reminiscent of debates over the Bush administration’s authorization of torture. The Bush administration argued that Bush had the authority as Commander-in-Chief to ignore the federal torture statute, 18 USC 2340; the Obama administration seems to now be arguing, albeit implicitly, that Obama has the authority as Commander-in-Chief to ignore the foreign-murder statute.
As I noted, while the white paper, at least, plays a neat rhetorical game to collapse AUMF and Article II authorizations, ultimately it uses this language to explain why an Article II authorized killing of Awlaki would not violate 1119.
Similarly, under the Constitution and the inherent right to national self-defense recognized in international law, the President may authorize the use of force against a U.S. citizen who is a member of al-Qa’ida or its associated forces who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.
In other words, the white paper, at least, does precisely what Kevin Jon Heller warned might be so troubling — it said that if the President authorized Awlaki’s killing, it would mean 1119 would not apply.
To the extent that the white paper fairly reflects the content of the OLC memo, then, David Barron and Marty Lederman failed to find a counterargument to precisely the argument that appears to have convinced them to write a second, longer OLC memo in the first place.
Which may be why the NYT article goes to such lengths to try to explain away this apparent problem.