Department of Pre-Crime, Part 3: What Law Would the Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court Interpret?

I’ve been writing about the nascent plan, on the part of a few Senators who want to avoid hard decisions, to establish a FISA Court to review Drone (and/or Targeted Killings) of American citizens.

A number of people presumably think it’d be easy. Just use the AUMF — which authorizes the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States” — and attach some kind of measure of the seriousness of the threat, and voila! Rubber-stamp to off an American.

And while that may while be how it would work in practice, even assuming the reviews would be halfway as thorough as the Gitmo habeas cases (with the selective presumption of regularity for even obviously faulty intelligence reports adopted under Latif, as well as the “military age male” standard adopted under Uthman, habeas petitions are no longer all that meaningful), that would still mean the Executive could present any laughably bad intelligence report showing a military aged male was hanging around baddies to be able to kill someone. The Gitmo habeas standard would have authorized the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in spite of the fact that no one believes he was even a member of AQAP.

Then there’s the problem introduced by the secrecy of the Drone (and/or Targeted Kiling) Court. One of the several main questions at issue in US targeted killings has always been whether the group in question (AQAP, in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, which didn’t even exist on 9/11) and the battlefield in question (Yemen, though the US is one big question) is covered by the AUMF.

Congress doesn’t even know the answers to these questions. The Administration refuses to share a list of all the countries it has already used lethal counterterrorism authorities in.

So ultimately, on this central issue, the Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court would have no choice but to accept the Executive’s claims about where and with whom we’re at war, because no list exists of that, at least not one Congress has bought off on.

There’s an even more basic problem, though. John Brennan has made it crystal clear that we pick imminent threats not because of any crime they might have committed in the past, but because of future crimes they might commit in the future.

BRENNAN: Senator, I think it’s certainly worth of discussion. Our tradition — our judicial tradition is that a court of law is used to determine one’s guilt or innocence for past actions, which is very different from the decisions that are made on the battlefield, as well as actions that are taken against terrorists. Because none of those actions are to determine past guilt for those actions that they took. The decisions that are made are to take action so that we prevent a future action, so we protect American lives. That is an inherently executive branch function to determine, and the commander in chief and the chief executive has the responsibility to protect the welfare, well being of American citizens. So the concept I understand and we have wrestled with this in terms of whether there can be a FISA-like court, whatever — a FISA- like court is to determine exactly whether or not there should be a warrant for, you know, certain types of activities. You know…

KING: It’s analogous to going to a court for a warrant — probable cause…


BRENNAN: Right, exactly. But the actions that we take on the counterterrorism front, again, are to take actions against individuals where we believe that the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse except to take this action that may involve a lethal strike.

What law is it that describes what standards must be met to declare someone a pre-criminal?

Either there are no standards and the Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court would just have to take the Administration’s say-so — in which case it’s absolutely no improvement over the status quo.

Or, the courts would make up the standards as they go along, pretty much like the DC Circuit has been in habeas cases. But those standards would be secret, withheld from Americans in the same way the secret law surrounding Section 215 is.

Finally, there’s one more problem with assuming the AUMF provides a law the Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court would use to adjudicate pre-crime. The Administration has made it crystal clear that it believes it has two sources of authority for targeted killings; the AUMF and Article II. Which has another implication for a Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court.

The Executive has already said that the if the President authorizes the CIA to do something — like murder an American citizen overseas — it does not constitute a violation of laws on the books, like 18 USC 1119, which prohibits the murder of Americans overseas. The Administration has already said that the President’s Article II power supercedes laws on the books. What is a Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court supposed to do in the face of such claims?

This carries a further implication. If the Court were using the AUMF as its guide to rubber-stamping the President’s kill list, nothing would prevent the Executive from killing someone outside of that Court on its claimed Article II authority.

Until we make it clear that unilateral murder of American citizens is not an Article II authority, the President will keep doing it, whether there’s a Court or not.

Previous posts on the Pre-Crime Court:

Setting Up a Department of Pre-Crime, Part One: Why Are We Doing This?

Department of Pre-Crime, Part Two: The FISA Court Is Broken

SCOTUS Kills Habeas Corpus

SCOTUS has just declined to take all seven of the pending Gitmo habeas corpus petitions, including Latif and Uthman.

This effectively kills habeas corpus.

Consider what SCOTUS just blessed:

  • Holding a person indefinitely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time–including a school, a road, and a guest house–where suspect people are.
  • Holding a person indefinitely based on an admittedly error-ridden report the government wrote up itself.
  • Holding a person indefinitely based on pattern analysis.
  • Completely upending the role of District Court judges in the fact-finding process.


SCOTUS Reviews the “Military Age Male” Standard on Thursday

One of the most consistent statements of outrage I’ve seen from people just coming to the horrors of the drone program is the military aged male criterion: the Administration’s assumption that all military age males killed in a drone strike must be combatants.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Justin Elliott even got the Administration to reiterate the claim, albeit anonymously.

I gave the White House a chance to respond, and it declined to comment on the record. But speaking on condition of anonymity, an administration official acknowledged that the administration does not always know the names or identities of everyone in a location marked for a drone strike.

“As a general matter, it [the Times report] is not wrong that if a group of fighting age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it’s assumed that all of them are in on that effort,” the official said. “We’re talking about some of the most remote places in the world, and some of the most paranoid organizations on the planet. If you’re there with them, they know you, they trust you, there’s a reason [you’re] there.” [brackets original]

What no one seems to get, however, is that between them, the Bush and Obama Administrations have been using that standard to detain people for over a decade. Indeed, there are probably over 30 men (I suspect the number is closer to 50) still at Gitmo being held on that standard, most of them for over a decade.

More importantly, SCOTUS will decide whether to uphold that standard on Thursday (or whenever they get around to accepting or denying cert on the 7 Gitmo cases they’ve been agonizing over for weeks).

The case is question is Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman’s habeas petition. Here’s how his cert petition describes the issues presented by his case.

Whether the Authorization of Use of Military Force, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001) (‘‘AUMF”), authorizes the President to detain, indefinitely and possibly for the rest of his life, an individual who was not shown to have fought for al Qaeda, trained to fight for al Qaeda, or received or executed orders from al Qaeda, and was not claimed to have provided material support to al Qaeda.

The government has always yoked its detention authority closely to its targeted killing authority (see, for example, the reported justification for the Awlaki killing). And here you can replace “detain, indefinitely and possibly for the rest of his life” with “kill with a drone strike” and you’ve got precisely the authority that Obama (and Bush before him) claims to kill all men in the vicinity of suspected al Qaeda figures, even absent any claim they were al Qaeda fighters.

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The Problem with Equating Travel Routes and Terrorism: 34 Dead Civilians

A few weeks back, Seton Hall published a report showing that since the DC Circuit reversed the habeas petition of Mohammed al-Adahi, “the practice of careful judicial fact-finding was replaced by judicial deference to the government’s allegations. Now the government wins every petition.” The report traced a number of factors that, before al-Adahi, judges examined with some skepticism, but after, fairly regularly accepted as evidence that a detainee was a member of al Qaeda.

Among those factors were staying in certain guest houses and traveling a particular route that–the government effectively claimed–meant you were a terrorist. Thus, it no longer mattered whether you had fought for al Qaeda. In the absence of more direct evidence, the government argued that where you traveled was one piece of evidence that you should be detained as a terrorist.

Tellingly, while the government has a declaration they routinely submit in Gitmo cases on the significance of guest houses to al Qaeda, they have not (as far as I know) ever submitted a similar declaration providing evidence for a tie between travel routes and al Qaeda membership (the closest they have is a report on Tora Bora which seems to argue “if you were in this vicinity you must have been in Tora Bora and, Osama bin Laden!”). In fact, that’s part of what infuriated David Tatel in the Latif case–the way the majority opinion simply accepted the government’s evidence about Latif’s travel back to Pakistan–where hundreds of innocent of Arabs were picked up at the time–as corroboration for the error-ridden report the government submitted as its main proof that Latif could be detained.

Latif left Kabul in November 2001 and then traveled through Jalalabad before eventually arriving at the Pakistani border where Pakistani authorities detained him. According to the government, this path mirrors that of Taliban soldiers retreating from Kabul. Although not contending that this evidence is dispositive, the government argues that because Latif’s admitted route is consistent with that of Taliban soldiers and with information in the Report, it is a helpful piece in the puzzle, bolstering its claim that the Report’s inculpatory statements are accurate.

Fair enough, but how helpful? If this route is commonly used by innocent civilians, then the evidence is not that helpful at all. To understand why, consider a simple hypothetical. Suppose the government were to argue in a drug case that the defendant drove north from Miami along I-95, “a known drug route.” Familiar with I-95, we would surely respond that many thousands of non-drug traffickers take that route as well. Given what we know about our own society, the I-95 inference would be too weak even to mention. Cf Almerfedi, 2011 WL 2277607, at *4 n.7 (noting that some conduct such as possessing an AK-47 is so “commonplace in Afghanistan [that it] does not meaningfully distinguish an al Qaeda associate from an innocent civilian”). On the other hand, if the alleged drug trafficker had driven along an infrequently traveled country road, then a contention that that road was “a known drug route” would carry more weight. The burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate whether travel on a particular route to the Pakistani border, when considered in context, is mqre like the lonely country road and thus worthy of consideration when it comes to distinguishing between enemy combatants and innocent civilians.

I raise all this not just to point you to the Seton Hall report, which is well worth your time. But because today, SCOTUS will decide whether or not to accept two cases–Latif and Uthman–in which these issues are central (we won’t find out whether they’ll take the cases until Monday).

And because of this WSJ report, showing the tragic result of assuming that travel patterns must be indicative of terror ties: 34 dead civilians, targeted by Turkish warplanes after a US drone spotted a caravan of Kurdish smugglers using a route frequented by PKK guerrillas.

Above and out of sight, a U.S. Predator drone loitered. It was on a routine patrol when U.S. personnel monitoring its video feeds spotted the caravan just inside Iraq and moving toward the Turkish border, according to U.S. officials and the Pentagon’s assessment of the fatal strike.

U.S. military officers at the Fusion Cell in Ankara couldn’t tell whether the men, bundled in heavy jackets, were civilians or guerrilla fighters. But their location in an area frequented by guerrilla fighters raised suspicions. The Americans alerted their Turkish counterparts.


Then Turkish warplanes appeared. “It was like a lightning bolt,” Mr. Encu said. “I saw a bright light and the force of the explosion threw me to the ground…When I turned my head I could see bodies on fire and some were missing their heads.”

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