Executive power

  • May 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Sam Kleiner, a law student at Yale Law School and member of the ACS Yale Law School Chapter.

    In his widely-noted speech at the Oxford Union, Harold Koh (pictured) invited us to imagine a different response to September 11. It's easy to think that the path taken by the Bush administration was driven by a pre-destined sense of necessity, and Koh's invocation of a President Gore (a timely counter-factual with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's musings on that election and the Supreme Court’s involvement), offers an alternative/hypothetical response in the time-tested law enforcement approach.

    At Lawfare, Ben Wittes defends the Bush administration’s record as oriented on a law enforcement approach. Koh argued that the Obama administration's approach "combined a Law of War approach with Law Enforcement and other approaches to bring all available tools to bear against Al Qaeda" and Wittes countered that this description fit the Bush administration's approach. 

    Contrary to Wittes’ attempt to frame the Bush administration as focused on law enforcement, President Bush specifically rejected this approach and attacked candidate John Kerry for suggesting this path forward. In 2004, when Kerry emphasized his background as a prosecutor and urged that terrorism be considered through a law enforcement lens until it became a "nuisance," Bush attacked him vehemently. Kerry argued for an approach that was, "less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation." Bush responded: "I disagree -- strongly disagree. … After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States of America, and war is what they got." Wittes boasts of a more restrained argument from the Bush administration and he cites a 2006 speech by John Bellinger and a Bush administration brief filed in Boumediene (after losing hugely in RasulHamdi and Hamdan), of a more restrained vision of the war on terrorism. Bush did move away from the GWOT framing in his second term largely because he had been thwarted by the courts and Congress. What Koh invites us to ponder -  and Wittes fails to comprehend - is that you could have had a response to 9/11 that started with a deeply powerful law and order framework rather than heading down the rabbit hole by making outlandish claims of unilateral executive power that threatened constitutional order. By 2006, it was too little too late.

  • 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. 

  • May 22, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Some legal scholars and defenders of the indefinite war on terror are coming, mostly with strained arguments, to the defense of the Obama administration’s abuse of freedom of speech. The First Amendment’s speech clause includes protection for a free press, a fairly fundamental way people communicate.

    But the Obama administration, which has carried on some of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism tactics, and escalated others, such as the drone war, is obsessed with going after public officials and others suspected of leaking important details of counterterrorism activities and other national security concerns.

    The Department of Justice has trolled the phone records of Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation of the AP’s coverage of a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen, and spied on the work of Fox News correspondent James Rosen, in another leak case involving a 2009 story about North Korea’s announcement of launching a nuclear missile. The Washington Post reported that the DOJ “used a security badge to access records to track the reporter’s comings and goings from the State Department… and “traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser suspected of sharing the classified report.” The DOJ, The Post continues, obtained a search warrant for Rosen’s personal e-mails. The DOJ didn’t stop there. It’s arguing that Rosen may have been a co-conspirator in the leak. So now you have the federal government using the Espionage Act to go after alleged leakers, and a journalist, whose job partly entails keeping the public informed about its government.

    Gabe Rottman for the ACLU’s Blog of Rights says “never before has the government argued that newsgathering – in this case, asking a source to provide sensitive information – is itself illegal. That would, quite literally, make virtually any question by a reporter implicating classified information a potential felony.”

    Last week, when taking questions about his administration’s leak investigation involving secretly culling AP phone records, Obama said no apologies were necessary and provided a tired defense of his administration’s obsession with investigating and prosecuting leaks. Essentially Obama said trust the executive branch and leakers are bad.

    But as noted here before war, as George Orwell once wrote has the effect of not meshing terribly well with individual liberties. In Homage to Catalonia about the Spanish Civil War, Orwell wrote, “The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.”

  • May 22, 2013

    by Russell Wheeler, Visiting Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (CA-DC for short) has more vacancies, and a greater proportion of vacancies to judgeships, than any other federal appellate court. Appointees of President George W. Bush or his father hold four of the court’s 11 judgeships, and appointees of President Clinton hold three. Six senior judges, all but one Republican appointees, are on the draw but able to take reduced caseloads.

    Senate Republicans and their press allies believe the status quo is basically fine. They refused to allow a vote on one Obama nominee, Caitlin Halligan, bowing to National Rifle Association claims that she’s too liberal to serve in the federal judiciary. They appear willing to allow a vote on a second Obama nominee, the very capable Srikanth Srinivasan, who has served in both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments.

    But, they say, Srinivasan is enough. Why? The reason most commonly offered is that CA-DC doesn’t need more judges because it has a light caseload. Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Grassley said, correctly, that its 108 filings per judgeship in 2012 was lowest in the country.

    Others respond, just as correctly, that raw filings hardly tell the whole story of a court’s workload. It’s impossible to compare accurately the workloads of the 13 courts of appeals because the federal judiciary has developed no accurate way to “weight” different case types in those courts—as compared to the fairly sophisticated method for weighting district court caseloads.

    But there is no doubt that CA-DC has a heavy docket of appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies, appeals that do not benefit from initial review in the district courts. Former CA-DC chief judge Patricia Wald recently described them as “the most complex, time-consuming, labyrinthine disputes over regulations. . .cases [that] require thousands of hours of preparation by the judges, often consuming days of argument, involving hundreds of parties and interveners, and necessitating dozens of briefs and thousands of pages of record — all of which culminates in lengthy, technically intricate legal opinions.”

  • May 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Like his predecessor President Obama has embraced an aggressive, mostly secret and, at times, constitutionally suspect approach to waging a never-ending war on terror.

    Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has obsessively investigated leaks of information surrounding some of its counterterrorism efforts. The administration has launched at least six cases of alleged leaks, including one involving a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen that The Associated Press reported on last spring. As part of that investigation the Department of Justice secretly gathered and culled through phone records of AP reporters.

    Going on the information we have now it appears that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech including press from government interference, was too easily shunted aside in an over-the-top investigation of a leak. The AP was given no chance to challenge a government search of its phone records and have a judge decide whether national security interests trumped freedom of speech in this instance. Yes, Attorney General Eric Holder claims the leak was one of the most egregious he has seen in a long, long time. But he doesn’t explain how it was so terribly egregious, nor do the facts as we know them now support his sweeping assertion.

    And today, during a press conference, President Obama hardly appeared fazed by the criticism of the DOJ’s tactics, decrying leaks of counterterrorism efforts. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk, they can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk,” he said.

    But the May 7, 2012 reporting by the AP, had, according to its president, Gary Pruitt, been held until the White House assured the AP that “national security concerns" were no longer an issue. Pruitt added, “Indeed the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.”  

    Earlier this week The New York Times Editorial Board hammered the administration for its “zeal” for going after persons accused of leaking national security information. In the AP matter, The Times Editorial Board said the administration had offered no “credible justification for secretly combing through the phone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press in what looks like a fishing expedition for sources and an effort to frighten off whistle-blowers.”

    It’s rather lame to argue that just because Republicans howled loudly over the AP coverage of the foiled terrorist plot in Yemen that the DOJ’s obnoxious action of spying on the AP was somewhat mitigated. Moreover, it’s not like this administration has needed prodding to aggressively and obsessively go after alleged leakers.