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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.

Judge Collyer’s Factually Erroneous Freelance Rubber Stamp for Killing American Citizens

As I noted on Friday, Judge Rosemary Collyer threw out the Bivens challenge to the drone killings of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.

The decision was really odd: in an effort to preserve some hope that US citizens might have redress against being executed with no due process, she rejects the government’s claims that she has no authority to decide the propriety of the case. But then, by citing precedents rejecting Bivens suits, including one on torture in the DC Circuit and Padilla’s challenge in the Fourth, she creates special factors specifically tied to the fact that Awlaki was a horrible person, rather than that national security writ large gives the Executive unfettered power to execute at will, and then uses these special factors she invents on her own to reject the possibility an American could obtain any redress for unconstitutional executions. (See Steve Vladeck for an assessment of this ruling in the context of prior Bivens precedent.)

The whole thing lies atop something else: the government’s refusal to provide Collyer even as much information as they had provided John Bates in 2010 when Anwar al-Awlaki’s father had tried to pre-emptively sue before his son was drone-killed.

On December 26, Collyer ordered the government to provide classified information on how it decides to kill American citizens.

MINUTE ORDER requiring the United States, an interested party 19 , to lodge no later than January 24, 2014, classified declaration(s) with court security officers, in camera and ex parte, in order to provide to the Court information implicated by the allegations in this case and why its disclosure reasonably could be expected to harm national security…, include[ing] information needed to address whether or not, or under what circumstances, the United States may target a particular foreign terrorist organization and its senior leadership, the specific threat posed by… Anwar-al Aulaqi, and other matters that plaintiff[s have] put at issue, including any criteria governing the use of lethal force, updated to address the facts of this record.

Two weeks later, the government moved to reconsider, both on jurisdictional grounds and because, it said, Collyer didn’t need the information to dismiss the case.

Beyond the jurisdictional issue, the Court should vacate its Order because Defendants’ motion to dismiss, which raises the threshold defenses of the political question doctrine, special factors, and qualified immunity, remains pending. The information requested, besides being classified, is not germane to Defendants’ pending motion, which accepts Plaintiffs’ well-pled facts as true.

As part of their motion, however, the government admitted to supplementing the plaintiffs’ facts.

Defendants’ argument that decedents’ constitutional rights were not violated assumed the truth of Plaintiffs’ factual allegations, and supplemented those allegations only with judicially noticeable public information, the content of which Plaintiffs did not and do not dispute.

The plaintiffs even disputed that they didn’t dispute these claims, pointing out that they had introduced claims about:

  • AQAP’s status vis a vis al Qaeda
  • Whether the US is in an armed conflict with AQAP
  • The basis for Awlaki’s listing as a Special Designated Global Terrorist

Ultimately, even Collyer scolds the government for misstating the claims alleged in the complaint.

The United States argued that the factual information that the Court requested was not relevant to the Defendants’ special factors argument because special factors precluded Plaintiffs’ cause of action, given the context in which the claims, “as pled,” arose––that is, “the alleged firing of missiles by military and intelligence officers at enemies in a foreign country in the course of an armed conflict.” Mot. for Recons. & to Stay Order at ECF 10. The United States, however, mischaracterizes the Complaint. Read more

Judge William Martini Endorses Hunting for Terrorists in Muslim Girls Schools

Picture 41The AP correctly captures the jist of Judge William Martini’s rejection of a lawsuit against the NYPD for spying on Muslims.

The core of his logic is that Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo have injured NYC’s Muslim community by providing them proof of the spying targeted at them.

The ruling also singled out The Associated Press, which sparked the suit with a series of stories based on confidential NYPD document showing how the department sought to infiltrate dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds in New York and elsewhere.

“Nowhere in the complaint do the plaintiffs allege that they suffered harm prior to the unauthorized release of documents by The Associated Press,” Martini wrote. “This confirms that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries flow from the Associated Press’s unauthorized disclosure of the documents. … The Associated Press covertly obtained the materials and published them without authorization. Thus the injury, if any existed, is not fairly traceable to the city.”

But it doesn’t expose the other part of his shoddy logic clearly enough. Martini said all this spying was cool because it was designed to find Muslim terrorists hiding among Muslims.

The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself. While this surveillance Program may have had adverse effects upon the Muslim community after the Associated Press published its articles; the motive for the Program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law – abiding Muslims.

As I emphasized here, when it was first reported, NYPD wasn’t hunting for Muslim terrorists in places where the 9/11 terrorists were known to hang out — cheap hotels, gyms, cybercafes, and a bunch of other businesses catering to anonymity rather than Muslims. Rather, the NYPD was hunting terrorists in schools in Newark, including the one above teaching girls in fifth to twelfth grade, and another teaching first through fourth graders.

The NYPD was hunting terrorists in a girls school.

And Judge William Martini thinks that makes a whole bunch of sense.

Nasser al-Awlaki: “My Grandson Was Killed by His Own Government”

While the nation grieves over the senseless death of Trayvon Martin and the missed opportunity to hold his killer responsible for that death, there is another senseless death of an American teenager of color where an attempt is continuing, after previous failures, to hold accountable those responsible for the lawless way in which this life was arbitrarily ended.

Exactly one year ago today, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit (pdf) on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki (father of Anwar al-Awlaki and grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) and Sarah Khan (wife of Samir Khan). The defendants in the case are former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Commander of Special Operations Command William McRaven, Commander of Joint Special Operations Command Joseph Votel and former CIA Head David Petraeus. The complaint cites violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments as well as violation of the Bill of Attainder Clause in the targeted killings of Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrahaman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Oral arguments on the suit begin tomorrow.

Given what is known about the role of Barack Obama in these killings and his personal authorization of the “kill list” in his Terror Tuesday meetings, I find it perplexing that he is not also a defendant in this case.

The complaint seeks damages in an amount to be determined at the trial and any other relief the court deems just and proper.

Coincident with the filing of the complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia a year ago, the video above was released. Today, an op-ed by Nasser al-Awlaki was published in the New York Times, helping to focus attention on tomorrow’s opening arguments. The video and op-ed are truly gut-wrenching.

From the op-ed:

I LEARNED that my 16-year-old grandson, Abdulrahman — a United States citizen — had been killed by an American drone strike from news reports the morning after he died.

The missile killed him, his teenage cousin and at least five other civilians on Oct. 14, 2011, while the boys were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant in southern Yemen.

The grandfather describes his anguish as he seeks answers to the question of why his grandson was killed:

Nearly two years later, I still have no answers. The United States government has refused to explain why Abdulrahman was killed. It was not until May of this year that the Obama administration, in a supposed effort to be more transparent, publicly acknowledged what the world already knew — that it was responsible for his death.

Nasser al-Awlaki describes the huge impact an education in the United States made on his life and how he put that education to use when he returned to Yemen. More importantly, he puts the actions of the United States in killing his son and grandson significantly at odds with the values of the United States when he was a student here:

A country that believes it does not even need to answer for killing its own is not the America I once knew. From 1966 to 1977, I fulfilled a childhood dream and studied in the United States as a Fulbright scholar, earning my doctorate and then working as a researcher and assistant professor at universities in New Mexico, Nebraska and Minnesota.

/snip/

After returning to Yemen, I used my American education and skills to help my country, serving as Yemen’s minister of agriculture and fisheries and establishing one of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning, Ibb University. Abdulrahman used to tell me he wanted to follow in my footsteps and go back to America to study. I can’t bear to think of those conversations now.

The op-ed closes with a direct and haunting question:

The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn’t it at least have to explain why?

Sadly, we can state with confidence that even before the proceedings open the government will argue that it does not have to explain why it killed Abdulrahman. Because terror. Even more sadly, it is quite likely that the court will side with this senseless and lawless argument. Because terror.

What has our country become?

Obama (Almost) Capitulates to ACLU on Drone Killing Standards

Actually, that headline overstates things. Obama will never capitulate to ACLU, the organization. As I’ve shown, his Administration has gone to absurd lengths to defeat ACLU in Court, even holding up legitimate congressional oversight to do so.

But Eric Holder’s letter to Congress yesterday suggested that the government’s new drone rulebook will almost adhere to the standard the ACLU tried to hold the President to almost 3 years ago. Holder claims,

This week the President approved and relevant congressional committees will be notified and briefed on a document that institutionalizes the Administration’s exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities; these standards are either already in place or are to be transitioned into place.

[snip]

When capture is not feasible, the [new drone] policy provides that lethal force may be used only when a terrorist target poses a continuing, imminent threat to Americans, and when certain other preconditions, including a requirement that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat are satisfied.

That’s very close to the standard Nasser al-Awlaki, the ACLU, and Center for Constitutional Rights sought in August 2010 when they sued to prevent the government from killing Anwar al-Awlaki unless he was such an imminent threat.

Plaintiffs seek a declaration from this Court that the Constitution and international law prohibit the government from conducting targeted killing 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.

When I noted the Administration was now embracing the standard it had refused in 2010, ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer responded on Twitter,

Is it? What’s the function of the word “continuing”?

He’s got a point. Read more

Ten Human Rights Groups Unified in Opposition to Drone and/or Targeted Killing Court

A group of 10 human rights groups have written President Obama a letter calling for him to fulfill his State of the Union promise of more openness about drone and/or targeted killing.

The letter calls for obvious sorts of transparency (including the public release of all CIA, DOD, and DOJ documents pertaining to drone and/or targeted killing, as well as sharing of information Congress needs to conduct oversight) and warns that several of the interpretations adopted by the US (for example, its overly broad definition of imminence) don’t abide by international law.

But I’m most interested in this passage:

Judicial review is a central pillar of checks and balances. It is essential for accountability and transparency. Yet, the administration’s position is that judicial review is “not appropriate” in targeted killings cases and it has invoked broad interpretations of the political question and immunity doctrines, Bivens special factors, and the state secrets privilege to obstruct litigation.

We do not believe that accountability and transparency will be improved by recent proposals to establish a FISA-like court to sanction lethal targeting operations. On the contrary, a special targeted killing court would give a veneer of judicial review to decisions to launch lethal strikes without offering a meaningful check on executive power. Instead, we urge the administration to cease making broad claims of non-justiciability or political question, to prevent cases alleging human rights or constitutional violations from being heard on their merits. [my emphasis; footnotes removed]

That all 10 groups — including ACLU, Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Open Society Foundations, as well as some smaller institutions — would agree on this point makes a powerful statement. It denies the Administration of whatever sanction it hoped a drone and/or targeted killing court might give to their extrajudicial killing program.

The Administration is still more likely to be influenced by increased reporting on the lies they’ve been telling about the program than even these human rights groups. But it is important to see this unified statement undercutting the Administration’s (and Dianne Feinstein’s) efforts to make this program look better by burying it in a secret court.

Will the Government Finally Use a Lawsuit as an Opportunity to Explain the Anwar al-Awlaki Killing?

When the ACLU and CCR represented Nasser al-Awlaki in a suit to prevent the government from killing Nasser’s son Anwar unless the government could prove he was an imminent threat, Judge John Bates threw the case out on standing grounds. The civil rights groups think they’ll face no such problem on the suit alleging wrongful death they just filed suing Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, SOCOM Commander William McRaven, and JSOC Commander Joseph Votel. That’s because Nasser al-Awlaki–suing on behalf of both his son and grandson, Abdulrahman–and Sarah Khan–suing on behalf of her son Samir, who was killed in the strike on Anwar–represent the estates of the dead men, so they should clearly have standing.

If that’s right, the courts will have to find some other way to punt on this issue. Alternately, for the first time, the government will have to provide evidence to a court to judge whether or not it wrongly killed three American citizens.

That’s one of the big issues behind this suit–an issue which I hope to follow up on later. As the Director of ACLU’s National Security Project, Hina Shamsi, noted, while the facts alleged against Anwar (though not against his son or Samir Khan) are very serious, none of them have been attested in court yet (the government submitted some of the facts in the Abulmutallab sentencing, but only after the trial was over).

We don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the allegations [against Anwar al-Awlaki]. It is the role of the courts to distinguish between actual evidence and mere allegations.

She describes this as an opportunity for the government. If the government has evidence Awlaki presented an imminent threat, this case is an opportunity to present the evidence so it can be tested.

Of course, the government has had that opportunity three times before: in the earlier Nasser al-Awlaki suit, the Abdulmutallab trial, and the FOIA response. The government’s efforts to avoid using that opportunity have gotten more and more ridiculous. But since they appear to have no shame on this point, I’m betting they find a way to avoid doing so now.

SCOTUS Cert Grant In Clapper Takes Key 9th Circuit Cases Hostage

Marcy noted briefly Monday morning, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Clapper v. Amnesty International:

SCOTUS did, however, grant cert to Clapper v. Amnesty, which I wrote about here and here. On its face, Clapper is just about the FISA Amendments Act. But it also has implications for wiretap exceptions–and, I’ve argued–data mining exceptions to the Fourth Amendment. In any case, SCOTUS seems interested in reversing the 2nd Circuit opinion, which had granted standing to people whose work had been chilled by the passage of the FAA. Also, as I hope to note further today, SCOTUS’ Clapper decision may also impact the Hedges v. Obama ruling from last week.

As Marcy indicated, there is nothing good afoot from SCOTUS taking cert in Clapper; if they wanted to leave the very nice decision of the 2nd Circuit intact, they simply leave it intact and don’t grant review. Oh, and, yes, Marcy is quite right, it’s a very safe bet that Clapper will “impact” the also very nice recent decision in Hedges, which is, itself, headed with a bullet to the 2nd Circuit.

There was, of course, much discussion of the significance of the Clapper cert grant yesterday on Twitter; one of the best of which was between Marcy, Lawfare’s Steve Vladeck and, to a lesser extent, me. To make a long story a little shorter, I said (here and here):

See, and I HATE saying this, I think Kennedy will do just that+then same 5 will kill al-Haramain once it gets to SCOTUS and then they will have capped the Bush wiretapping well completely and closed off standing significantly for the future.

Yikes, I did not contemplate just how true this statement was; the Clapper cert grant has already had a far deeper and more pernicious effect than even I suspected. This morning, in a move I do not believe anybody else has caught on to yet, the 9th Circuit quietly removed both al-Haramain and the CCR case encaptioned In Re: NSA Telecommunications Litigation/CCR v. Obama from the oral argument calendar that has long been set for June 1 in the old 9th Circuit Pasadena courthouse. The orders for both al-Haramain and CCR are identical, here is the language from the al-Haramain one:

Argument in this case scheduled for June 1, 2012 in Pasadena, California, is vacated pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l, No. 11- 1025. The court may order supplemental briefing following the Supreme Court’s decision. Oral argument will be rescheduled.

Whoa. This is extremely significant, and extremely unfortunate. Also fairly inexplicable. Entering the order for CCR makes some sense, since it involves the same “fear of surveillance” standing issue as is at issue in Clapper; but doing it for al-Haramain makes no sense whatsoever, because al-Haramain is an “actual” surveillance standing case.

There simply is no issue of the claimed, putative, standing concern that permeates Clapper and CCR. Well, not unless the 9th Circuit panel thinks the Supreme Court might speak more broadly, and expand the parameters wildly, in Clapper just as they did in Citizens United. That would be a pretty ugly path for the Supreme beings to follow; but, apparently, not just a cynical bet on my part, but also a bet the 9th Circuit immediately placed as well.

To be fair, even positive forward thinking players, like Steve Vladeck, thought the lower courts might be copacetic, or that the Supremes might comply. Maybe not so much. I know, shocking. Here is a glimpse, through Vladeck, of the situation:

But at a more fundamental level, there’s one more point worth making: Readers are likely familiar with Alex Bickel’s Passive Virtues, and his thesis that, especially on such sensitive questions where constitutional rights intersect with national security, courts might do best to rely on justiciability doctrines to duck the issue—and to thereby avoid passing upon the merits one way or the other. [Think Joshua at the end of WarGames: “The only winning move is not to play.”] And at first blush, this looks like the perfect case for Bickel’s thesis, given the implications in either direction on the merits: recognizing a foreign intelligence surveillance exception and thereby endorsing such sweeping, warrantless interceptions of previously protected communications vs. removing this particular club from the government’s bag…

And yet, the foreign intelligence surveillance exception only exists because it has already been recognized by a circuit-level federal court, to wit, the FISA Court of Review. Whether the passive virtues might otherwise justify judicial sidestepping in such a contentious case, the fact of the matter is that this is a problem largely (albeit not entirely, thanks to the FISA Amendments Act) of the courts‘ making. To duck at this stage would be to let the FISA Court of Review—the judges of which are selected by the Chief Justice—have the last word on such a momentous question of constitutional law. In my view, at least, that would be unfortunate, and it’s certainly not what Bickel meant…

Back to al-Haramain and the effects in the 9th Circuit. Here is the latest, taken from the Motion for Reconsideration filed late yesterday by al-Haramain, Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor:

The question presented in Clapper is thus wholly unrelated to the issues presented on the defendants’ appeal in the present case. The Supreme Court’s decision in Clapper will have no effect on the disposition of the present case. Thus, there is no reason to delay the adjudication of this appeal pending the decision in Clapper, which would only add another year or more to the six-plus years that this case has been in litigation.

It makes sense for the Court to have vacated the oral argument date for Center for Constitutional Rights v. Obama, No. 11-15956, which involves theories of Article III standing similar to those in Clapper. It does not, however, make sense in the present case, where Article III standing is based on proof of actual past surveillance rather than the fear of future surveillance and expenditures to protect communications asserted in Clapper.

Yes, that is exactly correct.

And, therein, resides the problem with Vladeck’s interpretation of what is going on with the Clapper case. Steve undersold, severely, just how problematic Clapper is. Both the discussion herein, and the knee jerk action of the 9th Circuit, the alleged liberal scourge of Democratic Federal Appellate Courts, demonstrate how critical this all is and why Clapper is so important.

Clapper has not only consumed its own oxygen, it has consumed that of independent, and important, nee critical, elements of the only reductive cases there are left in the United States judicial system in regards to these ends. That would be, at an irreducible minimum, al-Haramain in the 9th Circuit.

If you have forgotten about al-Haramain, and the proceedings that took place in the inestimable Vaughn Walker’s, court, here it is. Of all the attempts to attack the Bush/Cheney wiretapping crimes, al-Haramain is the only court case that, due to its unique circumstances, has been successful. It alone stands for the proposition that mass crimes were, in fact, committed. al-Haramain had a tough enough road ahead of it on its own, the road has become all the more treacherous now because of Clapper.

The 9th Circuit should grant the motion for reconsideration and reinstate al-Haramain on the oral argument calendar, but that is quite likely a longshot at this point. Expect the DOJ to file a very aggressive response, they are undoubtedly jumping for joy at this stroke of good fortune and will strive to protect it.

Saleh: “I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible.”

In a meeting on September 6, 2009–at a time when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was already in Yemen, seeking Anwar al-Awlaki–President Ali Abdullah Saleh assured John Brennan that the US Government had unfettered access in Yemen for counterterrorism efforts, but with that bore all responsibility in case of an attack on US targets.

(S/NF) In a September 6 meeting with Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, President Saleh insisted that Yemen’s national territory is available for unilateral CT operations by the U.S. Dissatisfied with current levels of USG funding and military training provided to the ROYG’s CT forces, Saleh asserted that the USG has produced “only words, but no solutions” to the terrorism issue in Yemen. Saleh repeatedly requested more funds and equipment to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while at the same time placing responsibility for any future AQAP attacks on the shoulders of the USG now that it enjoys unfettered access to Yemeni airspace, coastal waters and land. (NOTE. The USG has been actively engaged since 2001 in training elements of Yemen’s CT forces, including the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), the Yemen Special Operations Force (YSOF), the Presidential Guard, the Yemeni Border Troops, Yemen Air Force (YAF), and the Yemen Coast Guard (YCG). The USG has expended over $115 million equipping CT forces since FY02. In 2009 alone, U.S. teams have instructed Yemeni CT forces in training valued at $5 million. END NOTE.)

(S/NF) While Saleh offered assurances that the ROYG is “determined to continue the war against al-Qaeda because they’re targeting U.S. and Yemeni interests,” he continued to link increased U.S. access to AQAP targets with full responsibility for achieving CT goals. Highlighting the potential for a future AQAP attack on the U.S. Embassy or other Western targets, Saleh said, “I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible.” [my emphasis]

The public availability of the cable reporting this conversation is just one of the things that makes ACLU’s (with CCR) FOIA of details on the December 17, 2009 missile strike in Yemen so interesting.

The FOIA asks, for example, for details of the understanding between Yemen and the US at the time of the strike.

All records pertaining to agreements, understandings, cooperation or coordination between the United States and the government of Yemen regarding the strike on al-Majalah, including but not limited to records regarding:

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This Gitmo Anniversary Needs to Be about Bagram, Too

On a near daily basis in the last week or so, Jason Leopold has tweeted some quote from the daily White House press briefing in which a journalist asks Jay Carney a question about detention, to which Carney responds by insisting the Administration still intends to close Gitmo.

Q    One other topic.  Wednesday is apparently the 10th anniversary of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and I’m wondering what the White House says now to critics who point to this as a pretty clear broken promise.  The President had wanted to close that within a year.  That hasn’t happened for a lot of the history that you know of.  And now it’s like there’s really no end in sight.  How do you respond to the criticism that this is just a big, broken promise?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, the commitment that the President has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign.  We all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the President wanted to get it done, what they were and the fact that they continued to persist.  But the President’s commitment hasn’t changed at all.  And it’s the right thing to do for our national security interests.

That has been an opinion shared not just by this President or members of this administration, but senior members of the military as well as this President’s predecessor and the man he ran against for this office in the general election.  So we will continue to abide by that commitment and work towards its fulfillment.

And that response usually succeeds in shutting the journalist up.

No one has, as far as I know, asked the more general question: “does the Administration plan to get out of the due process-free indefinite detention business?” That question would be a lot harder for Carney to answer–though the answer, of course, is “no, the Administration has no intention of stopping the practice of holding significant numbers of detainees without adequate review.” Rather than reversing the practice started by the Bush Administration, Obama has continued it, even re-accelerated it, expanding our prison at Bagram several times.

That question seems to be absent from discussions about Gitmo’s anniversary, too. Take this debate from the NYT.

Deborah Pearlstein takes solace in her assessment that Gitmo has gotten better over the last decade.

In 2002, detention conditions at the base were often abusive, and for some, torturous. Today, prisoners are generally housed in conditions that meet international standards, and the prison operates under an executive order that appears to have succeeded in prohibiting torture and cruelty. In 2002, the U.S. president asserted exclusive control over the prison, denying the applicability of fundamental laws that would afford its residents even the most basic humanitarian and procedural protections, and rejecting the notion that the courts had any power to constrain executive discretion. Today, all three branches of government are engaged in applying the laws that recognize legal rights in the detainees. Guantánamo once housed close to 800 prisoners, and most outside observers were barred from the base. Today, it holds 171, and independent lawyers, among others, have met with most detainees many times.

But she doesn’t mention that the Administration still operates a prison alleged to be abusive, even torturous, still rejects the notion that courts have any power to constrain executive discretion over that prison. And that prison holds over 3,000 men in it!

Sure, Gitmo has gotten better, but that only serves to distract from the fact that our detention practices–except for the notable fact that we claim to have ended the most physical forms of torture–have not.

David Cole scolds those in Congress who “don’t seem troubled at all about keeping men locked up who the military has said could be released, or about keeping open an institution that jeopardizes our security,” yet doesn’t mention that Bagram does the same. Nor does he note the part of the Administration’s NDAA signing statement that suggested Congress’ salutary effort to expand detainee review would not necessarily apply to Bagram. How can it all be Congress’ fault when Obama isn’t fulfilling the letter of the law providing more meaningful review to those we’re holding at Bagram?

Even the brilliant Vince Warren focuses on the “legal black hole” that is Gitmo, without mentioning the bigger legal black hole that is Bagram.

Among the four participants in the debate, only Eric Posner even mentions Bagram, suggesting that that’s one less optimal alternative to keeping prisoners at Gitmo.

To be sure, there are other options. Detainees could be placed in prison camps on foreign territory controlled by the U.S. military, where they lack access to U.S. courts and security is less certain.

But then Posner misconstrues the issue.

Some critics believe that the whole idea of a war on terror is misconceived, that Congress could not have lawfully declared war on Al Qaeda, and that therefore suspected members of Al Qaeda cannot be detained indefinitely like enemy soldiers but must either be charged in a court or released. This position has been rejected repeatedly by the courts, but even if it were correct, Guantánamo would remain a legitimate place to detain enemy soldiers picked up on “hot” battlefields wherever they may be now or in the future — places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and maybe soon Iran, to name a few.

There’s a difference between what is legal under international law developed for very different wars and what is just or what is the best way to conduct that war. And the problem with Gitmo (mitigated somewhat over the decade)–and the problem with Bagram, still–is that we’re spending unbelievable amounts of money to detain and abuse people that we haven’t even adequately reviewed to make sure we need to detain them. That’s not a smart way to conduct a war, particularly not one its backers insist will never end, particularly one that depends on our ability to win support among Afghans and other Muslims.

The only thing that was and is problematic about Gitmo that is not also problematic about Bagram is the publicity surrounding it (presumably, though, just here and in Europe–I imagine Afghans, Pakistanis, and al Qaeda members know as much about Bagram as they do about Gitmo). That is, by treating–and allowing the Administration to treat–Gitmo as the problem, rather than due process-free and possibly abusive indefinite detention generally, we’re all acting as if the problem is that people know we’re conducting due process-free indefinite detention, not that we’re doing it at all. We’re letting the Administration off easy with its claims that mean old Congress has prevented it from closing Gitmo, when Bagram offers proof that it wants to do so not for the right reasons–because it is wrong, because it damages our ability to claim to offer something better than corrupt regimes–but because what America has become and intends to stay is embarrassing, politically inconvenient.

I understand that this anniversary will attract general attention to Gitmo. I’m thrilled that, for once, people are listening to the reporters and activists and lawyers and guards and especially the detainees who have fought to close it. But by allowing the myth that Gitmo is the problem to go unchallenged, and not our due process-free indefinite detention generally, we’re simply pretending that unjust and stupid actions that occur outside of the glare of the press don’t matter as much as those that make the news.