Update on UN Drone Investigator

After a recent secret visit to Pakistan, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism (see my previous posts here and here), released a statement that the Pakistani government “emphasized its consistently-stated position that drone strikes on its territory are counter-productive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that they should cease immediately.” 

The US has previously relied on the contention that Pakistan consented to these strikes, and it has a lot of support to back it up. In fact, diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks confirm that Pakistani leaders did not oppose the use of drones on their soil, and even encouraged it. It is true that Pakistani officials have made public statements that the attacks are not welcome and should stop. But as pointed out by Ben Farley in his thoughtful piece on the D.C. Exile blog, it is not always clear from public sources when consent has been given or revoked, as when then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh consented to US drone strikes on its territory, but under the pretense that they were the actions of his own air force. No one who witnessed such a strike would therefore know that it was not a breach of Yemeni sovereignty.

Emmerson, however, has apparently adopted a black and white view of the issue after his meetings with Pakistani officials, claiming that “[t]he position of the Government of Pakistan is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory.” But it is not clear.

Ben Farley’s conclusion is a more thorough and eloquent presentation of my own thoughts on the issue than I could hope to achieve:

Pakistan’s behavior in general has been at best ambiguous.  Despite having the capacity to “‘trace and detect any aircraft’” operating near its border with Pakistan and (apparently) the ability to shoot such aircraft down, there have never been reports of Pakistan shooting down a U.S. drone.  Although the absence of public reports of such downings is not dispositive, the fact that U.S. drones carry out any strikes even though they are slow moving, are not maneuverable, and carry no air defense countermeasures, strongly suggests that Pakistan ischoosing not to interdict drones.  Additionally, Pakistan has a modern air force that is at least as capable as the Iranian air force but, while Iran has chased a number of U.S. air force drones over the Persian Gulf in recent months, there have never been any similar reports from Pakistan.  Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Pakistan has not taken the sort of concrete steps vis-à-vis the United States for drone strikes as it has for other violations of Pakistani sovereignty.  For example, in November 2011, a frontier incident between U.S. and Pakistani troops (that resulted in the death of 26 Pakistanis), led Pakistan to both close its border with Afghanistan to NATO convoys and to kick U.S. drones out from their Pakistani bases.  Pakistan also upgraded its Afghan-border air defense systems.  Similarly, after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in January 2011, Pakistan ousted all CIA contractors and reduced the number of U.S. special operators allowed in Pakistan for training missions from 120 to 39.  Not only has Pakistan not taken such steps in response to U.S. drone strikes, at least until the Wall Street Journal report at the end of September 2012, Pakistan  continued to clear the parts of its air space in which the CIA indicated it would conduct drone strikes.  That is to say, not only is Pakistan not intervening to prevent drone strikes, it is taking affirmative steps to facilitate those strikes.  Thus, Pakistan’s behavior at least renders its public statement ambiguous and, more likely, supersedes those statements altogether.  Again, consent must be clearly stated but clearly stated to the recipient of that consent not the outside world.

If the United States is operating without Pakistan’s consent within Pakistan, it is violating Pakistan’s sovereignty—and it may be violating international law.  However, Emmerson’s conclusion notwithstanding, it is far from clear that, as a matter of international law, the United States is violating Pakistani sovereignty.

 

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Former DOD Lawyer Frowns on Drone Court

Last week Jeh Johnson, the general council for the Department of Defense during President Obama’s first term, warned at a conference at Fordham Law School that the President’s targeted killing policies breeds mistrust among the public:

“The problem is that the American public is suspicious of executive power shrouded in secrecy. In the absence of an official picture of what our government is doing, and by what authority, many in the public fill the void by imagining the worst.”

However, he was skeptical about recent calls for a “drone court” to review and approve or deny targeted killing decisions:

“To be sure, a national security court composed of a bipartisan group of federal judges with life tenure, to approve targeted lethal force, would bring some added levels of credibility, independence and rigor to the process, and those are worthy goals.”

“But, we must be realistic about the degree of added credibility such a court can provide. Its proceedings would necessarily be ex parte and in secret, and, like a FISA court, I suspect almost all of the government”s applications would be granted, because, like a FISA application, the government would be sure to present a compelling case. … [While] the New York Times editorial page promotes a FISA-like court for targeted lethal force, it derides the FISA court as a ‘rubber stamp’ because it almost never rejects an application. How long before a ‘drone court’ operating in secret is criticized in the same way?”

Apparently not long, since I have already raised this criticism in a previous post. However, I coupled this criticism with a proposed solution: using ex post review, rather than ex ante. By removing from the judge’s consideration the concern for the pressing national security need involved in deciding whether a proposed target is an imminent threat, ex post review would allow the judge to be more critical of the Administration’s case, and make the court less likely to become another “rubber stamp.”

Mr. Johnson raised other several issues with the concept of a national security court for targeted killing decisions, as well. Interestingly, all of these concerns would be eliminated or greatly mitigated by removing the assumption that the court would authorize the killings, rather than ratify them afterward.

First, Johnson notes, as others have, that judges would be loath to issue the equivalent of death warrants, first of all on purely moral grounds, but also on more political grounds. Courts enjoy the highest approval ratings of the three branches of government, yet accepting the responsibility to determine which individuals may live or die, without that individual having an opportunity to appear before the court would simply shift some of the public opprobrium from the Executive to the Judiciary. However, if the court exercised ex post review, it instead would be in its ordinary position of approving or disapproving the Executive’s decisions, not making its decisions for it.

Another concern raised by Johnson is that the judges would be highly uncomfortable making such decisions because they would be necessarily involve a secret, purely ex parte process. While courts do this on a daily basis, as when they issue search or arrest warrants, the targeted killing context stands apart in that the judge’s decision would be effectively irreversible. Here again, the use of ex post process would free the courts from this problem, and place it in the executive (which includes the military, incidentally, an organization which deals with this issue as a matter of course).

Johnson also notes that even the determination of the facts is fraught with problems. The first three of Holder’s criteria for the legality of a targeted killing operation, feasibility of capture, imminence of threat, and senior leadership in an enemy organization, are time-sensitive determinations. Feasibility, Johnson notes from personal experience, can change several times in one night. That imminence may change over time is obvious to anyone with a dictionary. And while a target’s position as a senior leader in al-Qaeda is unlikely to change very often, it does on occasion (take the case of Mokhtar Belmokhtar). Requiring a court to determine these facts in advance would also require that the executive would have to notify the court when any change has occurred that might effect that determination. Meanwhile, use of ex post review would allow the court to look at a single point in time, when the executive “pulled the trigger” on the operation, thus crystallizing the facts and obviating this problem.

The last of the Holder criteria, too, causes problems. This criterion requires that the operation be executed in compliance with the law of war. Of course, this is capable of determination only after the fact. Thus, no ex ante review will be able to determine if this requirement is satisfied. An ex post review, however, could.

Johnson also raised a very significant separation of powers concern. While the President’s duties and powers are not well enumerated in the Constitution, one thing is made clear: the President is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. According to Johnson, the President therefore cannot abdicate his responsibilities as Commander in Chief to another branch of the government, nor can Congress remove those powers to itself or the Judiciary. While this is not an entirely settled question of law (note the War Powers Act and Congress’ power of the purse strings), it can be easily avoided by conducting the review ex post. After all, ex post review of the execution of nearly any of the President’s powers is fully within the authorities of the Judicial Branch.

Johnson also notes that any requirement for ex ante review of a national security issue will require an exception for exigent circumstances. Johnson asks, “is it therefore worth it?” Without coming to a conclusion on this question, ex post review would obviate the concern. No exigent circumstances can occur after the the deed is done.

Lastly, there is the concern of creating perverse incentives: whether a person’s name or identity is known has never been a factor in determining the legality of targeting an otherwise-lawful military target. But by creating a separate legal regime for known targets, we could create a disincentive to collect information about a target. We do not want a military or intelligence agency that keeps itself intentionally uninformed. Nor do we want to halt a military operation in progress simply because one of the targets is recognized late. Conducting the review ex post would not eliminate these issues, but it would substantially mitigate them. The military (or CIA, if it keeps its program), would not fear an interruption of its operations, and could even have an incentive to collect more information in order to later please a court that has plenty of time to look back at the past operations and question whether an individual was in fact targeted.

Not mentioned in Mr. Johnson’s comments, but related to his concern regarding perverse incentives, is another concern. The Executive, or some agency within it, may attempt to evade the jurisdiction of the court by claiming that it did not “specifically target” the individual, but was targeting under general constitutional authorities “someone” that appeared to be an imminent threat to the US–and now the case is moot. No court could enforce its jurisdiction before it knows that the individual is targeted, but it can enforce its jurisdiction after the targeting is brought to completion. In an ex post review, if the claim is made that the killing was not “targeted,” and thus that no review is necessary, the court will be able to employ its power to determine its own jurisdiction to enquire into the process leading to the killing, which in this type of review would be half the job.

Thus, for each of Mr. Johnson’s concerns about the wisdom or legality  of a “national security court” to review targeted killing decisions, it is the reliance on ex ante review that causes all or most of the problem. However, ex-post review will give the public the assurance that it seeks that the Executive is not abusing and will not abuse its vast military might, while still providing it the room to carry out its responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is not something that many people seem to devote much attention to.

(The full text of Mr. Johnson’s address is here.)

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Ramifications of Federal Court Trials vs. Military Commission

 

Earlier this month, on March 8, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Usama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy to kill Americans in a federal courthouse in Manhattan.  Although his connections with the infamous 9/11 attacks are disputed, he is charged with publically praising the attacks and providing support to Al Qaeda for roughly 15 years.  This will undoubtedly be one of the most high-profile terrorist-related trials to take place since the beginning of the War on Terror given the Abu Ghaith’s alleged ties with Bin Laden, but the circumstances surrounding it have already given rise to harsh criticism from politicians and the general public.

In particular, the main cause for concern is the curious decision to try Abu Ghaith in a federal court rather than a military commission trial at Guantanamo Bay, as is normally the course of action in terrorism-related cases.  Lawmakers argue that this decision could have far-reaching implications not only for the Abu Ghaith trial, but for future terrorism-related trials as well.

But what are these implications?  For starters, the Abu Ghaith trial begins a new chapter in a fight between President Obama’s administration and Congress.  In 2009, President Obama announced that he would transfer five Guantanamo detainees to the United States to face criminal charges in federal court.  Opponents of Obama’s plan argued that transferring suspected terrorists to U.S. soil would compromise national security and could lead to wrongful acquittals of guilty parties.  Those in favor of the plan countered by pointing out the efficiency and fairness of the American justice system.

Congress ultimately responded by enacting legislation that froze the funds needed to make those transfers happen.  The Obama administration has seemingly found a loophole in the Congressional act, which only covers Guantanamo detainees, by bringing suspected terrorists to the United States without first holding them at Guantanamo.

Beyond policy considerations, there are legal implications at the heart of the discussion.  In regard to the Abu Ghaith trial, critics argue that Abu Ghaith will be granted rights under the Due Process clause of the Constitution during his trial in federal court that would not exist if he were tried at Guantanamo Bay.  For instance, a military commission does not grant the right to a speedy trial that would be applicable in federal court.  However, the Supreme Court has yet to voice its opinion on whether these rights would also be applicable in a military court, which leaves some uncertainty as to whether these concerns are legitimate.

The type of evidence allowed also differs between military commissions and federal courts.  While both would allow coerced testimony obtained at the point of capture, military commissions typically allow hearsay evidence, which will be barred in federal court.  This will be a significant difference, especially because the federal prosecutor will have a higher burden of proof than a military commission would require.  However, this burden may not pose problem that critics cite, as federal courts have had a 91% conviction rate in terrorism-related cases since the 9/11 attacks.

Along those same lines, defendants in the federal court system may have greater access to witnesses than in military commissions.  In military commissions, the defendant would have no right to subpoena witnesses.  Also, although the judge in a military commission has the power to compel witnesses to appear, he does not have to do so depending on the circumstances.  During the course of his trial, Abu Ghaith will have a better opportunity to call witnesses in support of his defense.  Critics argue that these differences may lead to a wrongful acquittal of a suspected terrorist.  However, the extra burden may not pose the problem that critics cite, as federal courts have had a 91% conviction rate in terrorism-related cases since the 9/11 attacks.

The human rights group Human Rights First points out that a trial at federal court will protect defendants from being convicted ex-post facto.  In other words, defendants will not be convicted of crimes that were not articulated by the legislature at the time they were allegedly committed.  Military commissions allow such convictions, meaning that a defendant may have no prior notice that he is committing a criminal act at the time of his actions.

Finally, the process of selecting the judge and jury are much different in federal court than in a military commission.  In a military commission, the U.S. military handpicks the judge and selects the panel (the equivalent of a jury) from the enlisted military.  In federal court, judges are appointed for life before hearing any cases and the jury is picked from the general public.  Those in favor of federal court trials argue that these procedural steps will lead to a fairer trial for defendants.

 

As the son-in-law of Usama Bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith’s trial will naturally catch the public’s eye.  The publicity will only be heightened by the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s decision to try Abu Ghaith in federal court rather than in a military commission, the type of trial Guantanamo Bay was created specifically for.  With so many differences in procedural, evidential, and political matters, it will be interesting to see how the Abu Ghaith trial plays out.

Christopher Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

A New Look at Targeted Killing Authorities

The Obama administration is reportedly taking another look at the legal foundations of its use of drones for lethal counterterrorism operations. And none too soon, with the changes in the structure of al-Qaeda stretching the AUMF to the breaking point.

Like the war in Afghanistan, the targeted killing campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere was undertaken under legal auspices of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That law allowed the administration “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 9/11 attacks or who “harbored such organizations or persons”.

However, with the continuing tactical successes of the dogged and technologically sophisticated campaign to target the core al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan over the last several years, the terrorist network has become much more diffuse.  This makes finding the necessary connections to the al- Qaeda senior leadership much more difficult, thereby undermining the legal justification for using lethal force. In fact, even detaining these individuals would require that they fall under the AUMF or some other legal authority (something critics of targeted killing often overlook).

This diffusion of al-Qaeda—and the legal authorities for use of force—is not a particularly new phenomenon. After all, after the invasion of Afghanistan, and the routing of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, many al-Qaeda operatives left the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater altogether, dispersing across the globe. They were not going into hiding, per se, but looking for new places to recruit, plan, and carry out their terrorist operations. When the US subsequently invaded Iraq, some al-Qaeda operatives followed us there to take root in the security void we created.

The courts have taken an expansive view of the AUMF, allowing the administration to target these “associated forces,” or what many analysts have called al-Qaeda 2.0. However, these individuals and groups had clear, direct connections to the original, core al-Qaeda element run by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri which planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Most al-Qaeda 2.0 groups were founded and run by his lieutenants, and remained in contact with Bin Laden. This is not true of the newest crop of terrorist groups cropping up across the Middle East and Africa. Instead, the leadership of these new groups often learned their trade as lieutenants to al-Qaeda 2.0 leaders and have only the most tenuous connections to the core al-Qaeda group. This makes fitting them into the AUMF scheme difficult, creating questionable legal authority to use lethal force.

According to a senior Obama administration official,

“The farther we get away from 9/11 and what this legislation was initially focused upon, we can see from both a theoretical but also a practical standpoint that groups that have arisen or morphed become more difficult to fit in.”

Even the leaders with the firmest connections often pose legal problems: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former fighter in Afghanistan and later leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had broken ties with AQIM and formed his own group, the al-Mulathameen Brigade operating in Algeria and Mali. The threat he poses to the to the US is not diminished, however. He was the mastermind of the Algerian gas plant attack, which lead to the deaths of three US citizens. However, because he is no longer a part of al-Qaeda or one of its franchises, the administration determined that the AUMF would apply to him.

When those like Belmokhtar and the Benghazi attackers kill Americans, the US could capture them based on criminal law enforcement authorities. However, should we have to wait for US citizens to be victimized before we allow the government to take action, when we know that an individual or group has nefarious intentions? Should we also have to wait until they show up somewhere that we can execute an arrest without undue danger to our agents?

The Obama administration is now looking for ways to square this circle, and create a more permanent framework for dealing with these issues. However, they apparently do not like their options. Simply expanding the current AUMF is unappealing. “You can’t end the war if you keep adding people to the enemy who are not actually part of the original enemy,” according to one person who participated in the administration’s internal debates. But relying solely on the constitutional authority of the President are not appealing either.

And while the administration may be correct that there is little political appetite for it, what is needed is a new authorization, allowing the executive broader authorities to kill or capture terrorists that target US interests, not just those connected to specific prior attacks. But these authorities must be coupled with judicial and congressional oversight procedures to protect against abuse or overuse. In fact, failure to create these authorities with built-in checks will encourage future presidents to rely on their inherent authority to act to defend the country from foreign threats, thus seizing all of the power with none of the constraints.

A more comprehensive “Counterterrorism Operations Powers Act” would create checks on the President’s powers, while still giving him the ability to carry out his duty to protect the nation. It would also help to elucidate the line between law enforcement situations and national security/counterterrorism situations.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith Prosecution Begins in NYC

This morning Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Usama Bin Laden, pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiracy to kill Americans. Interestingly, this took place not in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, but in federal court in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.

While Abu Ghaith’s connection to the 9/11 attacks is disputed, he is charged with publicly praising the 9/11 attacks and supporting al Qaeda/UBL for nearly 15 years. Numerous sources cite him as being the most senior al Qaeda member to be tried in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the decision to hold his trial in federal court has drawn significant criticism from the press, politicians, and the public- and it was just announced yesterday. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg is quoted as saying “Would I prefer to have it [the prosecution of Abu Ghaith] elsewhere? I’m not going to get involved in that because I don’t want to make the president’s job any more difficult.” Other political leaders were not so diplomatic, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte described the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Abu Ghaith in federal court as “sneaky” and contradictory to the will of Congress.

Today was just a simple 20-minute arraignment, but given the press and publicity Abu Ghaith has received thus far, his prosecution seems like it will be a lengthy and contentious process.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research