Trials for Alleged 9/11 Plotters Resume at Guantanamo Bay

Lost in the shuffle during a week where the NSA scandal has dominated headlines is more news coming out of Guantanamo Bay.  On Monday, the government released the identity of Guantanamo’s “indefinite detainees,” or those who the government has deemed too dangerous for release regardless of whether they can be tried in a military court.  The government has already announced that a number of these detainees will be held indefinitely even though they cannot be tried due to lack of evidence. The names have been kept secret since 2009 when multiple agencies investigated files on detainees in order to support President Obama’s initial effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Normally these detainees could not be constitutionally held without the possibility of trial, but in 2001 Congress authorized the practice with the “Authorization of Military Force” bill.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international have condemned the idea of “indefinite detainees,” calling for the release of all prisoners that the government has no intention of trying in a court of law.  Some men on the “indefinite detainees” list are actively involved in the well-documented hunger strikes.  At least two, both Afghani men, are deceased, with one committing suicide and the other dying of natural causes in Camp 6.  While the practice of holding detainees without the possibility of trial may be controversial, the release of their identities is a small step towards the transparency and legitimacy that human rights groups have been calling for in recent years.

In other Guantanamo-related news, pre-trial hearings for five men accused of plotting the September 11th attacks resumed on Monday, four months after CIA listening devices were discovered in conference rooms used by the detainees’ attorneys.  Included in this group is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.  The hearings included statements from defense attorneys claiming that CIA personnel tortured the detainees while they were being held in overseas prisons prior to their transfer to Guantanamo Bay.  They have also filed motions to dismiss the case due to meddling by senior military officials.

Also present in the courtroom were two victims and family members of three other victims that perished in the attacks.  The observers met with prosecutors and defense attorneys earlier in the week and pleaded for a quick and efficient trial.  At least one victim, a firefighter who was injured by falling rubble in the aftermath of the attacks, is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.  As one could imagine, the trials will probably not be very speedy.  Detainee trials at Guantanamo have been ridiculed for many reasons, one of the biggest being that they are inefficient and often take years to complete.  These particular observers have been waiting on an outcome for some twelve years.  Although the trials are resuming, we may have to wait a lot longer to see a resolution.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Chemical Weapons Use by Syrian Government Leads to Direct U.S. Military Aid to Rebels

Syria, a country scarred by decades of violent repression, erupted into civil war in mid-2011. Students were tortured for anti-government sentiments and live ammunition was routinely fired into crowds of protesters. The Human Rights Watch revealed in July 2012 that the Syrian government maintained at least 27 torture centers. In time, an insurgency arose, resorting to militant means to overthrow the Assad government.

The US has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s affairs, though the plea for help has grown stronger with each passing month. Despite the $515 million in humanitarian assistance delivered to the Syrian opposition, Congress has been pressuring the Obama administration to provide munitions (including missiles) and to declare of a no-fly zone. The most notable opposition derives from Republican Sen. McCain: “This is not only a humanitarian issue. It is a national security issue. If Iran succeeds in keeping Bashar al Assad in power, that will send a message throughout the Middle East of Iranian power.” In addition, Democratic Sen. Casey urges that even provision of heavy weaponry may not be enough support for the Syrian opposition.

On June 13, 2013, intelligence confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government on at least four occasions. The weapons have reportedly killed between 100 and 150 people. In response, President Obama announced that the Assad regime had crossed the “red line” the US had drawn and authorized direct military aid to rebel forces. The White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications stated, “The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

So begins a new chapter in the Syrian civil war: Hope. A chapter the U.S. will help write.

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Phone Surveillance Scandal Sparks Different Reactions

On Wednesday, The Guardian released a story detailing how the National Security Agency obtained a secret court order compelling telephone giant Verizon Wireless to hand over phone records detailing all domestic calls made by its customers.  Specifically, the order, signed by a federal judge on April 25th, gave the NSA unlimited authority to collect phone numbers, location data, time and duration of calls, and other unique identifying data until July 19th.  As the article points out, the court order was unusual in that it targeted such a wide range of people.  Normally, this type of court order would be limited to an individual or a small group of people.

Now, I would venture to say that when most Americans first heard about this story, they envisioned a government agent sitting in a van with headphones on, listening to their individual phone calls.  However, as a follow-up article by The Washington Post explains, this is probably not the case.  Information obtained regarding the court order made no actual mention of audio recordings.  Although it is not out of the question that the NSA may have other programs aimed at obtaining audio files, they would not be able to acquire them under this order.  It appears that the NSA is only seeking paper and electronic records at this point.

But why would the NSA want these phone records?  Although the reasoning behind the court order is largely unknown at this point, the White House responded quickly by claiming that this was an anti-terrorism move.  Particularly, the NSA is probably seeking out patterns in the records that could reveal possible terrorist plots against the United States.  Even if this is the case, the methods the NSA uses to find these patterns have not been proven and have actually been questioned by experts in recent years.

The story has already sparked a great deal of outrage among the American public.  We have a high expectation of privacy and tend to think that we are immune to this type of surveillance, especially when it has not been proven to be effective.  But since specific details are still being withheld, we can’t be sure whether the NSA’s program is actually constitutional.  Putting that aside, there are a few different ways to look at the situation.  Like I said before, we tend to place a high value on privacy in the U.S.  The idea that the government can monitor our phone calls without notice of permission is unsettling to most, and understandably so.  Even if the government is not actively listening to our phone calls, it’s hard to say what else they ARE monitoring.  Prior to the enactment of the Patriot Act, this kind of surveillance would have been unthinkable.

On the other hand, some Americans are ok with the idea of the government monitoring private phone calls.  The program even received some support in Congress.  Senator Lindsey Graham defended the NSA’s program on Fox News, stating that it was a necessary step toward thwarting “homegrown terrorism.”  There are undoubtedly some Americans who agree and are ok with trading some amount of privacy for increased national security.  In the post-9/11 era, this is also understandable.  After all, what does the average American have to worry about if they have nothing to hide?  It’s not like the government has released the actual records to the public.  This might be true, and that argument might hold water, but the fact is that we don’t know where it stops.  Just to reiterate, specifics regarding the program are still unknown, and the NSA may have place self-imposed limitations on their surveillance, but we just won’t know until more details are released.  That’s the part that makes so many Americans uneasy.

Until then, we again have to ask ourselves a question that been asked over and over for the past decade:  What amount of privacy and liberty are we willing to give up in the name of national security?

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Court of Appeals upholds denial of FOIA request seeking Bin Laden photos

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday decided to uphold a district court ruling that the US did not have to release photos of taken during and after the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The photos were sought by a conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, under a Freedom of Information Act request. The court found, however, that since the photos were used to conduct facial recognition to verify the body as Bin Laden, releasing the photos could endanger intelligence methods.

While I do not dispute that ruling, I am happy about the outcome on another ground altogether. John Bennett, director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, described the photos in a declaration to the court as “quite graphic, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to and other similarly gruesome images of his corpse.” And according to the Appeals Court,

“As the district court rightly concluded, however, the CIA’s declarations give reason to believe that releasing images of American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al-Qaida could cause exceptionally grave harm.”

To my mind, this decision validates an important reason for the Freedom of Information Act: informational transparency. Congress did not pass it to give the media free access to salacious material to boost their ratings.

As citizens of an open democracy, Americans have a right to information about their government and its activities. But where the government has a legitimate reason for withholding a document, even if it is on grounds such as diplomatic “embarrassment,” as happened in the Bradley Manning Wikileaks case, a FOIA request should as a matter of policy only be granted if there is a legitimate informational purpose. Judicial Watch could identify no cognizable information contained in the pictures that was not already publicly known. Thus, releasing the photos would not serve FOIA’s purpose of informational transparency, only the media’s purpose of generating buzz.

A vastly undervalued aspect of protecting our rights as citizens of an open society is to avoid abusing those rights. One example of the dangers that fear of unwarranted disclosure can cause can be found in the case of the CIA interrogation tapes. Fearing that these tapes may at some point become public, the CIA destroyed them. The courts yesterday thus did us a favor in protecting the government from unnecessary disclosure of gruesome photos, helping to ensuring that the government can do its job without fear that anything and everything will wind up on Fox, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

 

President Obama to give speech on counterterrorism policy, drones, and GMTO

President Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on Thursday at the National Defence University on the administration’s counterterrorism policies, and how it intends to bring those policies in line with his long-standing pledge to honor the rule of law.

According to a White House official, speaking anonymously to the Washington Post Saturday, President Obama will “discuss our broad counterterrorism policy, including our military, diplomatic, intelligence and legal efforts.”

“He will review the state of the threats we face, particularly as the al-Qaeda core has weakened but new dangers have emerged,” the official said. “He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones. And he will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.”

This speech could go some way toward fulfilling the promise that President Obama made in his 2013 State of the Union address, in which he proclaimed that his new administration would “ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” Many, including myself, have been disappointed with the level of transparency the administration has maintained regarding national security efforts over the last 4 years or so. 

The speech comes at a time of increasing unrest in the national security arena. Indeed, it has already been delayed due to the hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and the brouhaha over the Justice Department’s subpoena of the AP’s phone records. While the events at Guantanamo Bay can to some degree be attributed to the policies of the Bush administration (in opening the prison) and to Congress (in refusing to allow it to close), the AP seizure is something that rests firmly in Obama’s lap, and is indicative of his Justice Department’s approach in general. Rather than increasing transparency, Obama’s Justice Department has been ruthless in suppressing leaks and punishing leakers.

While I have no sympathy for the likes of Bradley Manning, the number of prosecutions related to national security leaks has been higher under Obama than his predecessors, with at least some chilling effect on the “unofficial transparency” that leaks tend to serve. And while Obama has recently pushed for a new Federal shield law to protect reporters’ sources, his downright schizophrenic approach to transparency has been a bitter disappointment. Hopefully, Thursday’s speech will help to alleviate that disappointment.

 

 

Speedy trial chickens may be coming home to roost

In a previous post, I mentioned the possibility of speedy trial problems arising if terrorism suspects are treated differently than other violent criminals. And we are now seeing signs that this may be true.

The defense for Guantanamo Bay prisoner Ahmed Gilani, who is so far the only GTMO detainee to be tried in Federal court rather than in a Military Tribunal, is now seeking to have his conviction overturned due to his long detention prior to trial (see also, here). Gilani was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya. After his capture in Pakistan in 2004, he was held in incommunicado by the CIA for two years, then by the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba until 2009, when the Obama Administration transferred him to civilian custody for trial.

But I suspect that while this delay is truly significant, and under normal circumstances would be a clear violation of the constitutional requirement for a speedy trial, I think there is a clear difference between this case and the Boston bombing case. Where Tsarnaev was a civilian captured in the US with no apparent ties to a foreign enemy entity (state-based, state-sponsored, or otherwise), Gilani was captured on foreign soil in the course of a foreign war authorized by Congress. As such, the US was authorized to hold Gilani without charge as a suspected enemy combatant, regardless of his activities in 1998.

Where one might decide to draw the line between these two poles, with arrest under civilian authority on the one end, and capture under foreign relations/law of war authority on the other, I don’t exactly know. However, it is clear that these two cases fall on opposite sides of that divide. So even if Gilani’s speedy trial appeal is defeated, as I suspect it will, that does not limit the concern that such an appeal could lead to the release of convicted terrorists if pre-trial detention is prolonged for intelligence-gathering purposes. Such concerns are very real, and should not be taken lightly.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Drone Courts and Transparency

On March 31, Greg McNeal, a national security law professor at Pepperdine, spoke with NPR’s Weekend Edition about targeted killing accountability and transparency, including the possibility of a drone court. A short clip is available at Lawfare, where McNeal has been blogging on drones and targeted killing for a couple of months. I haven’t followed his work at Lawfare (though I will assign my self the task of catching up), but I am heartened to hear that he appears to agree with the stance I have taken in previous posts on this site (here, and here, and here), and for many of the same reasons. He goes on, however, to very insightfully explain the dynamics that cause Congress to be, heretofore, unwilling to draw red lines on drones and targeting killing abroad.

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