For American communities of color, the latest revelations about U.S. government surveillance, at home and abroad, has been met without much surprise and with a long memory of the injustice suffered by minority groups since our nation’s inception.
“We are a settler-colonial nation,” explained Fahd Ahmed. “Race and social control are central to the project.” As the legal and policy director for Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization dedicated to organizing and amplifying the voice of immigrant workers, Ahmed has seen first-hand how the government isolates and targets vulnerable populations. In particular, he noted the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD under the supposition of anti-terrorism efforts, but was careful to emphasize the broader scope of the present danger. “These practices won’t be limited to one community,” he said. “After all, surveillance has a purpose – to exert the power of the state and control the potential for dissent.”
Other panelists reached similar conclusions. Surveillance is “not anything new” for people of color, observed Adwoa Masozi, a communications specialist and media activist. Recalling the COINTELPRO programs of the 1960s and 1970s, she named the major difference between then and now: “The government is just more open about it.”
Alfredo Lopez, the founder of May First/People Link, called the recent news an indication that “the ruling class is figuring out how to rule a society that is rapidly changing beneath it.”
Seema Sadanandan of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Capital Area Affiliate called the last few months a “tough time for white people,” whose relatively unchallenged faith in the Bill of Rights has been profoundly shaken.
Still, the next steps were harder to assess. For example, what role do lawyers and the law have in movements against this kind of surveillance? And how should activists interact, if at all, with the Internet and popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
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.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of a little-known but remarkably important document: Executive Order 12866, issued by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Executive Order 12866 replaced an order issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Both of these documents set out a process whereby the White House – acting through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – would review major agency rules before they were issued.
Executive Order 12866, and the Reagan order before it, ushered in a new era in administrative law, one in which the White House would become the dominant force in administrative rulemaking and in which cost-benefit analysis would become the overarching framework for evaluating the wisdom of rules. Professional career staff in the agencies, steeped in the technical fields relevant to the agencies’ work, would see their work product changed, sometimes dramatically, by professional career staff in OIRA. Political management at the agencies would find their actions scrutinized, revised, and sometimes stopped altogether by political operatives at the White House.
Even where statutes (as most do) charged a particular agency with making a particular technical finding and set forth a decision-making framework other than cost-benefit analysis, the White House process of regulatory review displaced those agency decision makers and supplanted the statutory standard with a cost-benefit test. The executive orders under both Reagan and Clinton qualified their reach by stating that they were to be applied “to the extent permitted by law,” but administrative law developments in the Supreme Court subsequent to the Reagan executive order – in particular, the famous Chevron decision – give tremendous leeway to agencies in interpreting the statutes they administer, and OIRA has taken upon itself to instruct agencies how to interpret these laws. Thus the constraint of following existing law is more illusory than real.
Twelve years ago, as the nation was reeling from the worst terrorist attack in its history, Congress authorized the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the September 11th attacks.” Notably, Congress refused the Bush administration’s much broader proposal to authorize the use of force to “deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” Thus, even as the nation was reeling from the worst terrorist attack in its history, Congress rejected a broad-scale “war on terrorism,” and instead passed a relatively limited force authorization against those responsible for the September 11th attacks, for the express purpose of “prevent[ing] any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Over time, however, the authorization (the “AUMF”) has been augmented by interpretive gloss. Both the Bush and Obama administrations – with subsequent ratification by Congress with respect to detention – have defined the AUMF to cover the use of force against not just al Qaeda and the Taliban as the groups directly responsible for Sept. 11, but their “associated forces” as well. This interpretation provides the green light for hundreds of lethal operations in Yemen and Somalia directed at members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda associated elements of al Shabaab. Some have suggested that members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (operating in Mali) and the al-Nusra Front (operating in Syria) should be – or already are – covered by the 2001 AUMF and are therefore legitimate targets as well. To add to the confusion, the Obama administration refuses to publicly state which groups fall within the scope of “associated forces,” thereby raising fears of an ever-expanding war against an ever-expanding enemy based on an ever-expanding interpretation of the AUMF.
It was an encouraging development for the rule of law when President Obama decided to ask Congress for legislative authorization to take military action in Syria. When Obama took office in 2009, it was reasonable to expect that his administration would move away from the Bush-Cheney-Yoo unitary executive model, which was essentially an argument for unchecked presidential power. However, while the Obama administration has certainly not embraced the outlandish unitary executive theory, it has, at times, found ways to skirt limits on presidential power. The most prominent examples are probably the targeted killing, without judicial hearing, of U.S. citizens believed to be terrorist leaders and the administration’s decision to order military action in Libya in 2011. As I have argued elsewhere, in each case, executive branch lawyers in the Obama administration found ways to justify unilateral presidential action unchecked by the other branches of government.
Obama’s decision to involve Congress in the debate over the use of military force in Syria suggests a meaningful acknowledgment that presidential power is accountable to checks and balances. As I have written for the Los Angeles Times, Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval was required by the Constitution since the United States has not been attacked by Syria. However, it was far from clear that Obama would turn to Congress. Advocates of presidential power point out that past practice -- including Obama’s own action in Libya -- supports the conclusion that presidents can more broadly use military force when it is in the national interest, and not only when the U.S. is attacked. The fact that Obama did not act on his own is a positive sign and may help prevent future presidents from unilaterally using military force (picture a hypothetical President Ted Cruz deciding the national interest justified an attack against Canada).
There is reason to contain one’s optimism, though, when it comes to setting new limits on the use of presidential power. Obama has stated that he reserves the right to use military force even if Congress declines to pass authorizing legislation. That is disconcerting, and simply does not make a great deal of sense. What is the point of Congress making a decision if it is merely an advisory opinion? If Congress decides not to authorize the use of military force in Libya, Obama should respect that decision and should not act on his own. Unilateral action under these circumstances would be a dangerous decision for the Constitution, and could also be a bad political move. Some Republican members of Congress have made clear that they are eager to find a reason, any reason, to impeach President Obama and remove him from office. To date, there is no legitimate reason to support such an idea. However, if Obama ordered military action in defiance of Congress, that could provide his political opponents with a legitimate argument for impeachment.