• March 20, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    ACS Board Member Linda Greenhouse writes in The New York Times about the challenge to the strict voter ID law in Wisconsin that the Supreme Court may hear this term.

    At The New Republic, David Dayen reports that a bank is finally on trial for its contributions to the financial crisis.

    Russell Berman looks at the new Oregon voter registration system in The Atlantic and considers whether voter registrations should be automatic.

    In The Wall Street Journal, Jess Bravin previews the upcoming arguments for the Supreme Court case that considers the controversy over free speech and Texas’s specialty license plates.

    At the blog for the Brennan Center for Justice, Rachel Levinson-Waldman examines the White House’s new memo on drones and privacy.

    Dana Milbank of The Washington Post calls the GOP’s delays on the Loretta Lynch confirmation “political malpractice.”

  • November 15, 2013
    Guest Post
    by Hillary B. Farber, Associate Professor of Law, University of Massachusetts School of Law, and author of a forthcoming article on the domestic deployment of drones in Vol.64 of the Syracuse Law Review
    Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 19, ACS is hosting a panel discussion on constitutional protections of privacy in a time of rapid technological innovation and increasing surveillance, featuring Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, Chris Calabrese of the ACLU, Stephen Vladeck of American University Washington College of Law and others.  We hope that you will join us for this important and timely conversation.  If you are interested in attending, please RSVP here.

    By the end of this decade it is estimated that 30,000 drones will occupy national airspace.  In 2012, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, which ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to promulgate regulations for the integration of drones into the national airspace. Law enforcement agencies around the country have purchased drones and are testing the new technology. As of May 2013, four Department of Justice (DOJ) divisions had acquired drones: the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); and, the U.S. Marshals Service.  On June 19, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that the FBI has deployed drones for surveillance on domestic soil and is developing guidelines for their future law enforcement use. 

    As compared with manned airplanes and helicopters, unmanned aerial surveillance bears unique risks to society's expectation of privacy. Drones, properly called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are practically invisible at altitudes where a manned aircraft could be seen with the naked eye. Smaller UAVs operate almost silently, making them significantly harder to detect. Moreover, UAVs can be equipped with sensory enhancing technologies such as thermal imaging devices, facial recognition software, Wi-Fi sniffers, GPS systems, license plate readers and cameras that can provide high resolution images from significant altitudes.  This type of aerial surveillance presents the potential for intrusion of privacy far more pervasive than the flyover of a plane or helicopter.  Drone surveillance has the potential to enable users to gather unprecedented amounts of information about people and retain it well into the future.
  • October 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In the wake of new reports from human rights groups about the toll America’s drone warfare has had on civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, an expert in constitutional law and international human rights suggests in an ACS Issue Brief released today that the government could take a bit more action to enhance procedures to reduce risk of civilian deaths.

    Deborah Pearlstein, assistant professor at Cardozo Law School, writes in “Enhancing Due Process in Targeted Killing,” that “it is worth taking seriously what procedural due process requires in targeted killings. Both the Supreme Court and the Executive Branch have now embraced due process to assess the legality of various U.S. uses of force against Al Qaeda and associates. As the Court has long recognized, U.S. citizens are protected by the Constitution wherever they are in the world. Even when they are deprived of their liberty in wartime, due process affords all ‘persons’ a right to notice of the reasons for the deprivation, and an opportunity for their opposition to be heard once any exigency has passed.”

    Pearlstein’s examination of Supreme Court precedent and American military procedure around constitutional due process comes on the heels of new reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that focus on civilian casualties of America’s escalating use of drone warfare overseas to attack alleged terrorists. Human Rights Watch’s report, “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda,” looks at six targeted killings in Yemen ranging from 2009 through 2013. The report concludes, in part, that two of those drone strikes “killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civil deaths.”

    Pearlstein, in her Issue Brief, says one should not easily dismiss “the application of constitutional due process in targeting as either hopelessly impractical, or hopelessly inadequate ....” She adds that her work is intended to “help advance our thinking of what process should be followed in targeting decisions when we do.”

    We know very little about the Obama administration’s drone warfare procedures. But earlier this year a white paper prepared by attorneys in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) was leaked providing a glimpse into a rather troubling procedure. That paper was, according to news reports, was gleaned from a larger memorandum on targeted killings. The ACLU lodged a legal action to obtain the entire document. But the white paper alone, according to Georgetown University’s David Cole provides a blueprint for making extrajudicial killings easier. The OLC white paper appeared to give little thought to due process and greater justification for killing of alleged terrorists overseas, even if it means killing civilians as well.

  • May 23, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama has come a long way since he declared during his first term that in fighting the so-called war on terror we should safeguard our fundamental values “as vigilantly as we protect our security.”

    During his much touted counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama tried to return to that lofty rhetoric and even suggested an end would come to the indefinite war on terror. At other times, Obama sounded a bit too much like his predecessor in defending an aggressive approach by the CIA and military to hunt down and kill suspected terrorist overseas by way of drone strikes, even if those actions happen to take out a few American citizens and innocent civilians.  

    “America’s actions are legal,” Obama said. “We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

    Regarding drone strikes, which the Department of Justice finally acknowledged has killed some American citizens, Obama offered an equally staunch defense.

    Obama said the “use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them, America cannot strike wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”

    The New York Times reported that the president would supposedly start “shifting control” of the drone strikes from the CIA to the military. But deeper in The Times story, it’s noted that the president “may not explicitly announce the shift in drones from the Central Intelligence Agency in his speech, since the agency’s operations remain formally classified ….” In a piece for Salon, Alex Pareene notes that formal classification, saying, “Maybe the president’s next policy shift can involve the absurd and ridiculous over-classification of everything to do with national security and the actions of our intelligence agencies.”   

    Reporting for The Times in April, Scott Shane said since the start of the Obama administration, nearly 3,000 people have been killed by the drone strikes. As noted here, McClatchy Newspapers also provided an extensive study, based on U.S. intelligence reports revealed that the drone strikes killed thousands of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and very few were top al Qaeda operatives. 

  • April 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A Senate panel sought to shed some light on America’s drone war, which according to various reports by human rights groups has killed thousands of people, many civilians, in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and possible other sites abroad. The drone program launched during the administration of George W. Bush and escalated by the Obama administration has been shrouded in secrecy, and laden with controversy.

    But increased coverage of civilian casualties of the drone strikes have helped spur more interest in the use of Reaper and Predator drones to hunt and kill suspected terrorists. Also a leaked “white paper” apparently summarizing a lengthier document produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), caught widespread attention for its strained analysis to provide the president legal cover for approving the killing of U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of having connections to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

    Before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee this week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the hearing, as the first-ever, to “address the use of drones in targeted killing” and said that the DOJ had provided him with the full OLC memos on the targeted killings of American citizens overseas. He noted, however, that he wished the administration would provide all legal documentation on targeted killings involving non-Americans as well. (Click on image for archived webcast of hearing.)

    At the outset, Durbin noted the president’s powers as Commander in Chief are constrained by the U.S. Constitution’s other principles, such as the protections of liberty, including due process. “At times in over the course of history our rules of law have been abused; when this occurs it challenges America’s moral authority and standing in the world.” Durbin also noted that civilian casualties related to the drone strikes can undermine the administration’s efforts to conduct an ongoing war against terrorism.

    Human rights groups and at least one of the committee’s witnesses suggest that the nation’s moral authority and standing have already been compromised by the drone war.

    Peter Bergen, with the New America Foundation, for example cited the significant escalation of the drone trikes and the public perception of those military actions in the places like Pakistan. “At this point, the number of estimated drone strikes from the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan – somewhere between 1,614 and 2,765 – is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration,” Bergen said in his written testimony before the committee.

    Addressing public perception of the drone war, Bergen later noted polling last year in 21 countries “found widespread global opposition to the CIA drone program. Muslim countries such as Egypt (89 percent) and Jordan (85 percent) expressed high levels of disapproval, while non-Muslim countries that are close American allies also registered significant displeasure with the program – Germany and France respectively polled at 59 and 63 percent disapproval.”

    Bergen, and another witness, Georgetown law school professor Rosa Brooks, however, highlighted that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes are hard to determine because of transparency. Brooks cited work by the New American Foundation, claiming that civilian casualties are “slightly lower” than those reported by human rights organizations.