President Obama’s program of using drone attacks, often referred to as targeted killings or targeted assassinations, was recently challenged in federal court by the father of one of the alleged targets. Nasser Al-Aulaqi brought the suit on behalf of his son, Anwar Al-Aulaqi. Anwar Al-Aulaqi is a dual citizen of the United States and Yemen and he is believed to be an active member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The lawsuit claims that the President’s unilateral decision to target Al-Aulaqi without some form of judicial process is a violation of his 4th and 5th Amendment rights and is a violation of the Alien Tort Claims Act. Last week a federal court dismissed the suit based upon lack of standing and the political question doctrine.
In its decision, the court did note that the case raised challenging questions, including whether the “Executive can order the assassination of a U.S. citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization.” A New York Times Op-Ed following the dismissal of the case called for the creation of a secret court similar to the FISA court now used to authorize wiretaps of foreign agents within the United States, to conduct a judicial review of the terrorist suspect targets chosen by the President before any targeting could take place. In the paragraphs below Professors Dargo and Hansen debate the creation of such a secret court.
Professor Hansen: I agree that some scrutiny is in order, but I disagree that the scrutiny should come from the courts. Such a review is outside of a court’s competence and federal judges, even holding hearings in secret, are not competent to make — or review — targeting determinations. In dismissing the Al-Aulaqi case the court correctly noted, “To be sure, this Court recognizes the somewhat unsettling nature of its conclusion — that there are circumstances in which the Executive’s unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas is ‘constitutionally committed to the political branches’ and judicially unreviewable. But this case squarely presents such a circumstance.” Even having some kind of secret process reviewed by a FISA type court would not address very real concerns that the Executive may need to act quickly because of the nature of the threat. It would be unprecedented and unwise for courts to get involved in this level of targeting decisions. Should courts review all battle plans before execution to make sure that they are in compliance with the laws of war?
The primary limits on the President’s authority in this context come first from the inherent right of self defense and from the laws of armed conflict. Certainly there is an open question as to the contexts in which the law of armed conflict should apply. For example, should its limits be tied to the territory where most of the actual fighting is taking place? Or should the law of armed conflict and the right to target an individual like Al-Aulaqi follow the individual terrorist and allow him to be targeted wherever he or goes? While there are no clear answers to these questions, the fact that these questions are being asked suggests that the law of armed conflict and the inherent right to self defense constrain the President’s authority.
Congress and not the courts should be checking Presidential authority in this instance. Congress has the constitutional authority, the competence, and the power to place limits on such a program if Congress believes that the President is exceeding his authority.
Professor Dargo: I do agree that Congress should attempt to regulate this in some way. But your major approach — to look at it through the prism of “the laws of war and armed conflict” — I think is mistaken. As I see it, it should be viewed from the context of basic constitutional principles which govern the government and protect individual American citizens. Ours is a government of limited and specified powers, and even though those of the President are not as enumerated as those in Article I, this does not mean that the President’s powers are unlimited. The basic principle is that the federal government — any of its branches — can only act upon authority which has been granted to it and not by some unlimited and vague assertion of necessity. Under Article I, Section 8 (necessary and proper clause), the Congress can give powers to the Executive in order to enable it to carry out its implied powers — for example, to protect the country. That would at least give it some color of respectability under such landmark cases as Youngstown Sheet and Tube (Justice Jackson’s concurring opinion). Then, of course, there is the rights aspect — rights which are enumerated as a further check on the exercise of unlimited power. And the right in question, which is also part of the equation, of course would be Due Process. As the Times editorial notes, and the judge seems to say or imply, it makes no sense to require process to authorize electronic surveillance, but not to take away life. I just find that your approach — viewing this through the lens of the laws of war — does not adequately address the full dimensions of this issue.
Professor Hansen: No question that there are many dimensions to this issue. So let’s look at this issue in a more traditional battlefield context. Assume that during World War II, a U.S. solider decided to abandon his unit and join the German Army. Certainly, under the law of armed conflict and the inherent right to self defense, that solider could now be targeted and killed by U.S. forces without any resort to judicial review. If the law of armed conflict and the inherent right to self defense similarly applies in the Al-Aulaqi context, then the outcome should be the same. If, on the other hand the law of armed conflict and the inherent right to self defense do not apply (and that is an issue for debate), then the President has exceeded his authority. The point here is that the Executive’s authority is not unbounded. The check comes by way of the law of armed conflict and the inherent right to self defense. Congress, as the other political branch with the constitutional authority to oversee the Executive’s actions, not the courts, should act if it believes that the President has exceeded his authority.
Professor Dargo: We seem to be in agreement that Congress should establish some sort of mechanism for the purpose of authorizing executive action in this circumstance. The AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) adopted soon after the September 11th attacks are not sufficient for this purpose. To hold that the AUMF is sufficient would be to give a “blank check” to the President to conduct the so-called War on Terror against any persons, anywhere, anytime for any purposes he deems a threat to the security of the United States. I believe that Congress had no such intention back in 2001. Accordingly, in the absence of any other relevant authorizing power, then the President’s action in ordering targeted assassination would be acting on the basis of his own Article II powers which, under Justice Jackson’s formulation, would be a very weak reed indeed. For these reasons, I believe that targeted assassinations of American citizens in places like Yemen are beyond the powers of the President.