ASIL on Targeting
As usual, the American Society of International Law conference in Washington, D.C. is filled with panels of interest and great off line conversations with friends and colleagues. Good to see many OJ’ers there. Among many other things, I wanted to highlight yesterday’s lively discussions on targeted killing, including a panel featuring Daniel Bethlehem, Marco Sassoli, Hina Shamsi and David Glazier – a wonderfully thoughtful group. I take it the panel was available via live stream so would expect it will be posted in recorded form at some point as well. For now, a few assorted notes (in no particular order).
On Transparency. Most speakers echoed now familiar calls for the Obama Administration to be more forthcoming in publicizing the legal standards by which it conducts targeting operations. (Former State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh also emphasized in his evening panel remarks that he thought the Administration is “hurting itself” by its lack of transparency on these issues.) While I took Daniel Bethlehem to be supportive of the idea that the Administration must share its legal rationale for targeted attacks, he demurred somewhat to emphasize a point I’ve heard many fine administration lawyers make in various forms – namely, that the publication of legal advice per se is a bad idea because it will chill government lawyers from advising their clients as candidly as they should.
Whether one thinks of this idea in terms of a legal privilege or no, the concern is certainly a sound one. But two points. First, in the current targeting context, it seems to me there’s a great deal more transparent the administration could be well short of releasing actual legal advice. The long promised presidential speech. A flow chart of process. A list of groups it believes included among those “associated” with Al Qaeda. Its definition of imminence under international law. One could go on (see many earlier posts). Second, the formal opinions that emerge from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel – among the key documents on targeting the ACLU and Congress seek – aren’t just any legal advice. By statute and by tradition and by practical effect, they are statements of the law as understood by the executive branch of the U.S. government. Particularly on issues of legality bearing on security, they are sometimes the only statement there is. There does need to be a space for the delivery of candid legal advice. Given their function, though, hard to see how formal OLC legal opinions can be it.
On CIA, DOD & IHL. No dissent I could detect to the notion that it is generally a good idea to put the shooting end of targeting operations in the hands of DOD rather than CIA. More striking was a remark Bethlehem made almost in passing, to the effect that of course the United States can’t avoid its responsibility to comply with its international legal obligations simply because it claims to be acting under Title 50 of the U.S. code (authorizing CIA activity) as opposed to Title 10 (authorizing operations by the U.S. military). Bethlehem is certainly right about that, as I think all the panelists agreed. I’m just not sure that’s actually what many in the U.S. intelligence community – even the lawyers – think. Indeed, the impression I’ve taken both from public speeches and offline conversations is that many intelligence community (IC) lawyers think just the opposite. That is, the IC thinks that unless our international law obligations are separately implemented as U.S. law, as long as the IC has presidential authorization (as in the process provided for by Title 50), those obligations are, essentially, optional. Curious disconnect. Anyone more knowledgeable care to shed any light? Comments most welcome.
On the Armed Conflict. None of the panelists – none – thought the notion that the United States was involved in a global, non-international armed conflict with Al Qaeda and associated forces was plausible as a matter of international law. This of course isn’t news. But in a country in which every branch of domestic government has embraced the idea that the war we are fighting is (at a closest approximation) exactly that – it was a striking reminder of the distance between us and the rest of the world. It’s this distance I’ve worried we’ll be exacerbating if folks on the Hill interested in adopting an AUMF 2.0 prevail. As I heard it, Bethlehem seemed to feel the same way.