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How to Avoid Rubber-Stamping another Drone Execution: Leave

NPR’s Carrie Johnson reports that OLC head Virginia Seitz quietly left OLC before Christmas.

Virginia Seitz, who won Senate confirmation after an earlier candidate under president Obama foundered, resigned from federal service after two-and-a-half years on the job. The timing is unusual because her unit plays a critical role in drawing the legal boundaries of executive branch action —at a time when President Obama says he will do more to bypass a divided Congress and do more governing by way of executive order.

And while DOJ’s official line is that Seitz left entirely for personal reasons, two sources told Johnson the ongoing discussions about whether to drone kill another American were another factor.

Two other sources suggested that aside from the tough work, another issue weighed heavily on her mind over the last several months: the question of whether and when the US can target its own citizens overseas with a weaponized drone or missile attack. American officials are considering such a strike against at least one citizen linked to al Qaeda, the sources said.

While a “law enforcement” source (but wait! the entire point of drone assassinations is they replace law enforcement with intelligence entirely!) suggests the decision has not yet been made.

A law enforcement source told NPR the controversy over the use of drones against Americans in foreign lands did not play a major role in Seitz’s decision to leave government, since the OLC is continuing to do legal analysis on the issue and there was no firm conclusion to which she may have objected or disagreed.

Which is sort of funny, because Kimberly Dozier’s report on the American in question says DOD, at least, has made its decision.

But one U.S. official said the Defense Department was divided over whether the man is dangerous enough to merit the potential domestic fallout of killing an American without charging him with a crime or trying him, and the potential international fallout of such an operation in a country that has been resistant to U.S. action.

Another of the U.S. officials said the Pentagon did ultimately decide to recommend lethal action.

And remember, as I’ve pointed out, this potential drone execution target is differently situated from Anwar al-Awlaki, in that there appears to be no claim this one is targeting civilians in the US.

But let’s take a step back and consider some other interesting details of timing.

First, on November 29 of last year, Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich released a letter they sent to Eric Holder asking for more clarity on when the President could kill an American.

[W]e have concluded that the limits and boundaries of the President’s power to authorize the deliberate killing of Americans need to be laid out with much greater specificity. It is extremely important for both Congress and the public to have a fully understanding of what the executive branch thinks the President’s authorities are, so that lawmakers and the American people can decide whether these authorities are subject to adequate limits and safeguards.

Retrospectively, it seems this letter may have pertained to this new execution target, particularly given the different circumstances regarding his alleged attacks against the US. I might even imagine this serving as a public demand that DOJ not simply rely on the existing Awlaki drone assassination memo, creating the need to do a new one.

Now consider how (currently acting OLC head) Caroline Krass’ confirmation hearing plays in. On December 17, Wyden asked her who had the authority to withdraw an OLC opinion (the opinion in question pertains to common commercial services in some way related to cybersecurity, but I find it interesting in retrospect).

Wyden: But I want to make sure nobody else ever relies on that particular opinion and I’m concerned that a different attorney could take a different view and argue that the opinion is still legally valid because it’s not been withdrawn. Now, we have tried to get Attorney General Holder to withdraw it, and I’m trying to figure out — he has not answered our letters — who at the Justice Department has the authority to withdraw the opinion. Do you currently have the authority to withdraw the opinion?

Krass: No I do not currently have that authority.

Wyden: Okay. Who does, at the Justice Department?

Krass: Well, for an OLC opinion to be withdrawn, on OLC’s own initiative or on the initiative of the Attorney General would be extremely unusual.

She said she did not “currently have that authority.” Was she about to get that authority in days or hours?

Then finally there are the implications for Krass’ confirmation. The leaks about this current drone execution target almost certainly came from Mike Rogers’ immediate vicinity. He’s torqued because Obama’s efforts to impose some limits on the drone war have allegedly made it more difficult to execute this American with no due process.

And while Rogers doesn’t get a vote over Krass’ confirmation to be CIA General Counsel, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss do. And their efforts to keep CIA in the drone business may well have an impact on — and may have been motivated by — our ability to assassinate Americans.

I don’t recall Krass getting questions that directly addressed drone killing, though she did get some that hinted at the edges of such questions, such as this one:

Are there circumstances in which a use of force, or other action, by the U.S. government that would be unlawful if carried out overtly is lawful when carried out covertly? Please explain.

ANSWER: As a matter of domestic law, I cannot think of any circumstances in which a use of force or other action by the U.S. government that would be unlawful if carried out overtly would be lawful when carried out covertly, but I have not studied this question.

This seems to be a question she would have had to consider if she had any involvement in OLC’s consideration of a new drone execution memo.

All that said, she hasn’t yet gotten her vote (though any delay may arise from holds relating to the Senate Torture Report).

It just seems likely that — as we did in May 2005 when Steven Bradbury reapproved torture in anticipation of a promotion to head OLC — we’re faced yet again with a lawyer waiting for a promotion being asked to give legal sanction to legally suspect activity. My impression is that Krass has far more integrity than Bradbury (remember, she’s the one who originally imposed limits on the Libya campaign), so I’m only raising this because of the circumstances, not any reason to doubt her character.

It just seems like if you need lawyers to rubber stamp legally suspect activities, there ought to be more transparency about what promotions and resignations are going on.

The Common Commercial Services OLC Opinion Affecting Cyber Policy Is Over a Decade Old

 

I’ve been meaning to go back to an exchange that occurred during Caroline Krass’ confirmation hearing to be CIA’s General Counsel back on December 17. In it, Ron Wyden raised a problematic OLC opinion he has mentioned in unclassified settings at least twice in the last year (he also wrote a letter to Eric Holder about it in summer 2012): once in a letter to John Brennan, where he described it as “an opinion that interprets common commercial service agreements [that] has direct relevance to ongoing congressional debates regarding cybersecurity legislation.” And then again in Questions for the Record in September.

Having been ignored by Eric Holder for at least a year and a half (probably closer to 3 years) on this front and apparently concerned about the memo as we continue to discuss legislation that pertains to cybersecurity, he used Krass’ confirmation hearing to get more details on why DOJ won’t withdraw the memo and what it would take to be withdrawn.

Wyden: The other matter I want to ask you about dealt with this matter of the OLC opinion, and we talked about this in the office as well. This is a particularly opinion in the Office of Legal Counsel I’ve been concerned about — I think the reasoning is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law and as I indicated I believe it needs to be withdrawn. As we talked about, you were familiar with it. And my first question — as I indicated I would ask — as a senior government attorney, would you rely on the legal reasoning contained in this opinion?

Krass: Senator, at your request I did review that opinion from 2003, and based on the age of the opinion and the fact that it addressed at the time what it described as an issue of first impression, as well as the evolving technology that that opinion was discussing, as well as the evolution of case law, I would not rely on that opinion if I were–

Wyden: I appreciate that, and again your candor is helpful, because we talked about this. So that’s encouraging. But I want to make sure nobody else ever relies on that particular opinion and I’m concerned that a different attorney could take a different view and argue that the opinion is still legally valid because it’s not been withdrawn. Now, we have tried to get Attorney General Holder to withdraw it, and I’m trying to figure out — he has not answered our letters — who at the Justice Department has the authority to withdraw the opinion. Do you currently have the authority to withdraw the opinion?

Krass: No I do not currently have that authority.

Wyden: Okay. Who does, at the Justice Department?

Krass: Well, for an OLC opinion to be withdrawn, on OLC’s own initiative or on the initiative of the Attorney General would be extremely unusual. That happens only in extraordinary circumstances. Normally what happens is if there is an opinion which has been given to a particular agency for example, if that agency would like OLC to reconsider the opinion or if another component of the executive branch who has been affected by the advice would like OLC to reconsider the opinion they will  come to OLC and say, look, this is why we think you were wrong and why we believe the opinion should be corrected. And they will be doing that when they have a practical need for the opinion because of particular operational activities that they would like to conduct. I have been thinking about your question because I understand your serious concerns about this opinion, and one approach that seems possible to me is that you could ask for an assurance from the relevant elements of the Intelligence Community that they would not rely on the opinion. I can give you my assurance that if I were confirmed I would not rely on the opinion at the CIA.

Wyden: I appreciate that and you were very straightforward in saying that. What concerns me is unless the opinion is withdrawn, at some point somebody else might be tempted to reach the opposite conclusion. So, again, I appreciate the way you’ve handled a sensitive matter and I’m going to continue to prosecute the case for getting this opinion withdrawn.

The big piece of news here — from Krass, not Wyden — is that the opinion dates to 2003, which dates it to the transition period bridging Jay Bybee/John Yoo and Jack Goldsmith’s tenure at OLC, and also the period when the Bush Administration was running its illegal wiretap program under a series of dodgy OLC opinions. She also notes that it was a memo on first impression — something there was purportedly no law or prior opinion on — on new technology.

Yet for some reason, it was not among the opinions Goldsmith chose to withdraw in 2004 (assuming he didn’t write it), nor will Eric Holder even respond to questions about why he won’t withdraw it now.

I wonder if Wyden has asked whether some opinion written since that time relies back on that 2003 opinion, just as the illegal wiretap programs relied back on Yoo’s Fourth Amendment stripping one?

Leon Panetta Torture Review Agrees with Senate Torture Report

I’m watching the confirmation hearing for Caroline Krass to be General Counsel of the CIA.

When his turn, Mark Udall just started by saying that after the review process between CIA and Senate Intelligence Committee, “I’m more confident than ever of the factual accuracy of the Committee’s 6300 page study.” He then repeated it again.

He went on to reveal that CIA is still withholding certain cables the Committee needs to finish the report.

Finally, he revealed that Leon Panetta did a review of the torture program. And that review came to the same conclusion as the Senate Intelligence Report.

Which raised two questions, for Udall. First, given that Panetta, as CIA DIrector, came to largely similar results as the Senate did, why has the CIA spent a year fighting the release of the Torture Report?

More importantly, why has — as Udall revealed — refused to turn over the Panetta review to the Committee?

Very good questions.

OLC Memo as Time Machine

I’m going to have more to say about the Libya memo the Administration released yesterday. But I just wanted to point out something about the structure of it.

Here’s the first paragraph:

This memorandum memorializes advice this Office provided to you, prior to the commencement of recent United States military operations in Libya, regarding the President’s legal authority to conduct such operations. For the reasons explained below, we concluded that the President had the constitutional authority to direct the use of force in Libya because he could reasonably determine that such use of force was in the national interest. We also advised that prior congressional approval was not constitutionally required to use military force in the limited operations under consideration. [my emphasis]

This is not the advice authorizing the Libyan engagement. Rather, it is a document written the day after–the memo notes–the Administration turned over control to NATO, claiming to memorialize the advice given before the Libyan engagement (therefore, presumably, before March 19).

Is this all the advice OLC gave the President? Did OLC authorize further activities? Did Obama’s description of why bombing Libya was in the national interest before March 19 match what appears in this memo, written after the fact?

This fundamental structural reality is all the more striking given the role of Section I of the memo: it provides a narrative of the Libyan engagement starting in mid-February and leading right up to the March 31 turnover of control to NATO. In other words, a key function of this memo is to provide the Administration’s own mini-history of the Libyan engagement, written the day after an artificial “end date” for the engagement, which it uses to lay out the national interest of bombing Libya and the limits to our engagement in it that the memo says justify the engagement. Two key elements in this history–Obama’s address to Congress on March 21 and his address to the nation on March 28–took place after the real advice OLC offered Obama to authorize this engagement.

But the memo claims to have offered its advice before the start of the bombing. It is basically using Presidential statements made up to 9 days after the advice it gave to “memorialize” the advice it gave 9 days earlier. The memo uses limits Obama described after the advice was actually given to claim the advice itself had limits.

I’m envisioning a discussion like this:

Bob Bauer: Caroline, can you give us a verbal okay for this engagement?

Caroline Krass: Do you want a written memo?

Bauer: Not yet. Let’s wait until it’s all done so we can tailor the legal authorization of it to what we really end up doing. It’ll make it easier for us to thread the needle between authorizing what we do while still claiming to believe Executive Power is limited.

Krass: Okay, Bob.

Pretty remarkable, isn’t it, the way a memo written after the fact authorizes precisely the engagement that Obama ultimately used, all the while highlighting limits to the use of unilateral presidential power?