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