Targeted Killing of U.S. Citizens at Odds with the Constitution

In a recent post on the blog TomDispatch.com, Peter Van Buren published a piece condemning the United States’ drone policy, particularly in regards to the recent news that the U.S. is considering the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad. In the piece, “Drone Killing the Fifth Amendment: How to Build a Post-Constitutional America One Death at a Time,” Van Buren explores the constitutionality of the U.S.’s drone policy, and argues that “They’ve thought about it [targeted killing]. They’ve set up the legal manipulations necessary to justify it.”

It is no great secret that both the legality and the morality of targeted killing has been a hot topic in recent months, Van Buren argues that the practice is at odds with the values our country is based on, as the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen denies him the due process guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Essentially, Van Buren’s point is that we are in a post-Constitutional America, and have strayed dramatically from the values of our Founding Fathers.

As someone who tends to agree with the loose constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, I side with Van Buren on this. Broadly, I believe that a document written over 200 years ago was never intended to be followed to the letter. Try as they might, our Founding Fathers had no way of predicting what our country would look like and the problems we would face in 2014. What Van Buren is saying, however, is that we have strayed too far from the values our country was built upon. While one would be hard-pressed to find the phrase “targeted killing” or “drone strikes” anywhere within the four corners of the Constitution, we still need to abide by the guiding principles outlined in the document. We are allegedly a country that values freedom, liberty, and due process. If we kill our own citizens in drone strikes, is that truly constitutional?

Kelly Ann Taddonio
Senior Research Fellow

February 18, 2014

 

KSM Releases Lengthy ‘Nonviolence’ Manifesto, Shows Nothing Has Changed

 

High-value Guantanamo detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (“KSM”) has released a 36-page ‘nonviolence’ manifesto, filled with deeply extremist religious ramblings and advocating that Muslims should avoid using violence to spread Islam. What KSM fails to realize however, is that, while what he likely means is avoiding force, his hate-filled, extremist rant is nonetheless promoting violence, hate, and intolerance.  Continue reading

Re-visiting Mefloquine Use at Guantanamo: A Guest Post by Dr. Remington Nevin

Dr. Remington Nevin is a consulting physician epidemiologist board certified in Public Health and General Preventive Medicine by the American Board of Preventive Medicine. Dr. Nevin specializes in the evaluation and diagnosis of adverse reactions to antimalarial medications, particularly the neurotoxic quinoline derivative mefloquine. A long-time advisor to the Center for Policy & Research, he advised us on our report exploring the government’s use of mefloquine at Guantanamo, Drug Abuse: An Exploration of the Government’s Use of Mefloquine at Guantanamo. Continue reading

A Week at Guantanamo Bay

In August of 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Guantanamo Bay to represent Seton Hall Law’s Center for Policy and Research as an NGO observer at the 9/11 trials.  In particular, I was able to watch one of many pretrial hearings in the case of the United States v. Mohammed, in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali (AKA al-Baluchi), and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi are named as defendants.  The five detainees are accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks that lead to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Continue reading

Senate Panel Debates the Close of Guantanamo

Yesterday afternoon, for the first time since 2009, a Senate committee took to the issue of closing the Guantanamo detention center. The hearing was called by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, and Civil and Human Rights. In his opening remarks, Sen. Durbin referred to the prison as a sad chapter in American history, a place he had “never imagined in 2013… would still be open.”

“Every day it remains open, Guantanamo prison weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies, and calls into question our commitment to human rights.” – Sen. Durbin

Sen. Durbin has long been critical of Guantanamo Bay. In 2009 he stated that he would be OK with accepting detainees into the Illinois supermax facility. Earlier this month, along with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Durbin asked President Obama to order the Pentagon to stop routinely force-feeding the hunger strikers, challenging the military claim that the enteral feedings were humane and modeled after the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Opposing Sen. Durbin’s request to close the prison, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) harped on the threat of detainee recidivism. Quoting from a recent study by the Director of National Intelligence which found that 28 percent of detainees previously released from Guantanamo were suspected or confirmed to have joined up with terrorist groups upon leaving US custody, Sen. Cruz emphasized the risk we face by releasing the detainees. In agreement, Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney stated that moving prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. could result in attacks on domestic prisons as well as the spread of radical Islam to other inmates.

As of now, little progress has been made on the closing of Guantanamo. Congress appears to be divided, even among its own factions. I tend to agree with Sen. Durbin and propose that we close Guantanamo. We give the detainee’s their day in court and either send them back to their country of origin if that country is willing to accept them, or we place them in supermax prisons within the United States. Mr. Gaffney’s concerns are ludicrous. We hold hundreds of terrorists in supermax facilities – to my knowledge, there have been no attacks or major issues stemming from the domestic detention of detainees. In fact, a detainee in the general population of a prison will probably have more to fear from us than we will of him. Furthermore, should we allow the detainees to return to their country of origin and something goes wrong – another Abu Ghraib-type escape or a detainee returning to a terrorist cell – just look at what happened to Saeed al-Shiri. While I am not proposing or endorsing the use of drones, I am pointing out that the Obama administration clearly has no problem finding more permanent solutions when it deems necessary. On top of that, the study Sen. Cruz referred to only took into account the number of detainees associated with militant groups, not the number who have actually engaged in violent activities themselves. If I were to guess, the majority of detainees that we saw fit for release were more concerned with starting families and their lives than plotting more attacks.

So what comes next? Most likely nothing. The Pentagon finally announced that they will be establishing Periodic Review Boards – two years after the Obama administration called for their creation (no official dates as of yet). Force feeding and genital searches are still a go. Another day, another story. Maybe next time there is a senate hearing, the Obama administration will actually show up.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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

David Rothkopf on American responses to terrorism: Not All Terror is Created Equal

Shortly after the Boston bombings, Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf posted a very insightful article on CNN.com, which is very well worth reading. In it he compares recent terror events, such as the Boston bombings and the ricin letters sent to the President and others, with the non-terrorist events like gun violence.

“Terror and terrorists are real and their stories are compelling, but we ought to remember that by far the biggest threats we face come from elsewhere—from what might be corporate negligence or greed; from natural disasters or the heedless abuse of the environment; from people who find it far too easy to get their hands on guns or from leaders who twist their interpretation of the Constitution to overreact to one threat even while ignoring and exacerbating another.”

“In short,” he asks,  “how much damage are we doing to ourselves in our efforts to stay safe or pursue justice?”

Paul W. Taylor, Senior 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