Author Archive for
Marty Lederman

The U.S. Perspective on the Legal Basis for the bin Laden Operation

by Marty Lederman

[Marty Lederman is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown Law. He was was Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2009 to 2010 and an Attorney Advisor in OLC from 1994-2002. This post is cross-posted at Balkinization.] Shortly after the recent military operation against Osama bin Laden, several [Anderson] voices [Belllinger] in the blogosphere expressed puzzlement that the Obama Administration (allegedly) had not provided a sufficiently thorough legal justification for the use of lethal force in Abbottabad. What is truly distinctive about the bin Laden case, however, is not the absence of legal explanation (after all, military forces rarely provide a public legal account when they use force against a particular target in an armed conflict), but instead that the Executive has been so unusually forthcoming about its views on the legal aspects of the bin Laden operation.

For starters, the President’s initial address to the Nation on the evening of May 2d did not refer expressly to the law, but the President’s remarks revealed the careful attention that had been given to proportionality and distinction—fundamental requirements of the use of force under the laws of armed conflict: the possible lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts “was far from certain” and “took many months to run . . . to ground,” until “we had enough intelligence to take action”; the operation was “targeted” and the forces “took care to avoid civilian casualties.” (Shortly thereafter, the Administration also pointedly adverted to the careful and deliberate efforts to effect a Muslim burial. That and the President’s subsequent decision not to release the death photos also reflect a sensitivity to humanitarian principles, whether or not those choices were thought to be required by international law.)

Then, on May 4th, the President’s chief spokesperson recited verbatim from an official statement designed specifically to address legal concerns that had begun to be heard. He emphasized that the operation was conducted in accord with the laws of war:

Q: The U.N.’s top human rights official said yesterday that she hoped the administration would release full details about the operation in order to settle any questions about whether it was legally justifiable. Does the administration feel or have any plans that it needs to say anything more about how the operation was carried out, the rules of engagement, to justify the action that happened on— MR. CARNEY: Well, let me address that question and I’ll—forgive me, I’m going to read so I’m very precise here. The team had the authority to kill Osama bin Laden unless he offered to surrender; in which case the team was required to accept his surrender if the team could do so safely. The operation was conducted in a manner fully consistent with the laws of war.The operation was planned so that the team was prepared and had the means to take bin Laden into custody. There is simply no question that this operation was lawful. Bin Laden was the head of al Qaeda, the organization that conducted the attacks of September 11, 2001. And al Qaeda and bin Laden himself had continued to plot attacks against the United States. We acted in the nation’s self-defense. The operation was conducted in a way designed to minimize and avoid altogether, if possible, civilian casualties. And if I might add, that was done at great risk to Americans.Furthermore, consistent with the laws of war, bin Laden’s surrender would have been accepted if feasible.

Finally, this past Thursday, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh provided a more detailed legal explanation here at Opinio Juris. From these and other Administration statements, I believe it’s possible to piece together in some detail the Administration’s views of the legal basis for the bin Laden killing (with one possible and understandable exception, noted below). In this post, I’ll try to canvass what appear to be the Administration’s views of relevant international and domestic law questions, respectively. Please note that I don’t intend this post to be a defense of each and every one of these legal propositions; my objective here is simply to enumerate in one convenient place the various legal rationales that the Administration can fairly be thought to have adopted—which I hope will, among other things, help to facilitate debate and discussion with respect to the distinct legal questions. Although my recent service in the Department of Justice, including at the time of Harold Koh’s earlier speech to the American Society of International Law, obviously provided me with some insight on these matters, my observations here are based entirely on public sources, and do not reflect any classified or other confidential information to which I might have had access when I worked at DOJ. And, of course, I do not here speak for the Administration. As noted below, in some instances I am merely speculating as to the Administration’s views; and in others, my suppositions might be mistaken, or might reflect views the Executive branch has not yet settled upon conclusively. As for international law… (Continue reading after the jump)

Quick al-Marwalah Follow-Ups

by Marty Lederman

Well, Ben, much as I look forward to dining with you to discuss these issues further, I won’t take that bet, because I tend to agree with you that al-Marwalah could be detained under the laws of war themselves, if the evidence could fairly be read, as you suggest, to indicate that he was engaged in combat against coalition forces under the direction of the Taliban. Such detention would, as in Hamdi, be for the purpose of incapacitating him from returning to the field of battle under our enemy’s command in Afghanistan. If and when the Taliban gives up the fight, such detention would end.

If that’s all you meant to say about al-Marwalah, then I apologize for overreading that portion of your book. I had assumed, however, that al-Marwalah was your lead example of the need to authorize detention on “premises [that] differ fundamentally from those of wartime detentions,” namely, incarcerations “designed to keep extremely dangerous individuals from acting on their deeply held murderous beliefs and instincts.” Why did I think this? Because you write that “the reason to detain men like Al-Marwalah . . . [is] that trained ‘Arab fighers’ who ‘don’t know’ if they’re Al Qaeda members pose a prospective menace to American lives.” (my itals)…

The al-Marwalah Detention

by Marty Lederman

I’m tentatively encouraged by Ben’s new articulated test for detainability, which is not everything I’d hope for (especially if the “impracticability of criminal trial” prong is read broadly), but begins to bridge the gap.

Ben’s proposal in his book, however, is much more troubling.

My premise, and that of the judges in al-Marri, is that the detention authority Congress conferred in the AUMF — the maximum authority that the Constitution allows, per Judge Wilkinson — must be viewed as analogous to the traditional wartime detention authority, as translated to the new context of this noninternational conflict against a terrorist organization, and informed by the laws of war.

The detention authority Ben would have Congress authorize, by contrast, is one whose “premises differ fundamentally from those of wartime detentions” (p.162). In what way? Well, a “responsible” Congress “would treat these detentions openly and candidly for what they are: preventive incarcerations designed to keep extremely dangerous individuals from acting on their deeply held murderous beliefs and instincts.” According to Ben, this acknowledgement is “a psychological Rubicon we simply need to cross.”

Sorry, but I’m staying on this (constitutional) side of that line…

What Should a 2009 Detention Statute Look Like?

by Marty Lederman

A brief attempt to frame the questions for Ben and others on the issue of preventive detention:

I think Deborah is absolutely right to insist upon distinguishing the GTMO problem from everything else. Most of the GTMO detainees have been incarcerated for more than six years. Finally, they are receiving a serious opportunity to contest their detentions in the D.C. habeas proceedings, and we should allow those proceedings to run their course before offering any statutory fixes. The GTMO regime was designed primarily for interrogation purposes, rather than for the sort of incapacitation that is the focus of Ben’s book. That explains the fairly indiscriminate collection of prisoners, based on sketchy evidence, and the manner in which the detainees have been treated there. (Imagine how different GTMO, or an equivalent U.S.-based facility, would look if incapacitation were the principal aim — it’d probably resemble the U.S.’s historical POW facilities, housing (primarily) detainees about whom we have more certainty of dangerousness, and in humane conditions.) If Ben’s book and the Parhat example are any indication, in many of the GTMO cases the government probably will not be able to demonstrate that the detainees are among those whose detention Congress has authorized — particularly if the habeas courts begin to use a detention standard similar to that articulated by Judge Wilkonson last week in al-Marri. And, as I argued a few days after Boumediene was decided, the habeas proceedings will provide almost all of the procedural fixes that Ben proposes.

Accordingly, any statute to be considered in 2009 (and Ben agrees that Congress and the new President should wait until then) should be focused not so much on the GTMO detainees, but instead on (i) the thousands of detainees we are holding elsewhere, such as at Bagram; and (ii) future detainees….

Assessing the Threat: One More Meta-Question for Ben and the Group

by Marty Lederman

Before we move on to the specific questions of detention and interrogation, I’m curious about Ben’s, and others’, reactions to one other fundamental question. Orin Kerr, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, mentioned to me offline that perhaps some of our differences in this symposium are premised on our “very different assessments of the terrorist threat.” I responded that I was skeptical of this — that I assumed there was not much distance between most of us, Ben included, on the nature of the threats (plural explained below), but only on how we think Congress, the courts, the Constitution and international law should respond to such threats.

For what it’s worth, my starting assumption has been that it is important to identify and distinguish two distinct sorts of threats. First, although there is a very interesting and important debate/discussion now underway as to whether and how al Qaeda is gaining or losing strength, I assume that al Qaeda is and will for the foreseeable future remain a chronic but intermittent threat with respect to what I will reluctantly call “familiar” terrorist acts — terrible acts of violence, but roughly within the range of what the West has been confronting for the past two or three decades: incidents such as the African embassy bombings and the London and Madrid bombings, as well as intermittent suicide bombs in subways, malls, etc. Some of those terrorist acts will occur in the U.S., more overseas. Perhaps, on occasion, something more dramatic, akin to the 9/11 attacks…

Not Enough Law? Compared to What?

by Marty Lederman

As I was saying, it is a central theme of Law and the Long War that “we do not have a lot of law here” (p.11).

Boy, that sure would be news to David Addington! If we don’t have a lot of law here, then why is it that the Bush Administration has spent the past seven years writing memo after memo arguing that it may disregard, or disingenuously construe, a whole slew of laws that constrain the President in his campaign against al Qaeda? And why has Addington crafted countless signing statements indicating that the President will circumvent Congress’s more recent handiwork?

Perhaps the more pertinent question is: “not a lot of law” compared to . . . what, exactly? Is there any previous war or armed conflict in which the Commander in Chief has been met with remotely as much law governing a military campaign? (David Barron and I argue, for what it’s worth (see pages 712-715), that a major reason why this conflict involves so much more law regulating the Commander in Chief than past conflicts is that this military “campaign” centrally involves detention and intelligence-gathering — subjects that Congress has commonly regulated — and that these activities are occurring not only on traditional battlefields overseas, but in civilian settings here at home, and affecting U.S. persons, such that the legislature has a greater interest in putting brakes on the executive.)

Let’s see…

The Real Lessons of Law and The Long War

by Marty Lederman

Thanks so much to the Opinio Juris folks for the opportunity to participate in this wonderful symposium. Ben’s book truly is indispensable — a must-read for all those interested in these important topics. In particular, Ben’s descriptions of the difficult questions, and his narrative of how we got to this unfortunate point with respect to many of them, are thorough, precise, and (most importantly) lucid — which is saying quite a lot when it comes to these debates. I am almost inclined to say that if I had to recommend a single volume to someone to inform them of where we’ve been and where we’re going in the conflict with al Qaeda, it would be this one.


Justice Stevens Almost Gets It Right

by Marty Lederman

In the beginning of his concurrence in Medellin, Justice Stevens reads Article 94 not to require the Texas state courts to take steps to ensure that the U.S. complys with the ICJ judgment. I disagree with his interpretation of “undertakes to comply,” but he’s almost convinced me that it’s a close question, at least with respect to whether the treaty (plus the Supremacy Clause) imposes an obligation on the state court to entertain a habeas petition that state law would otherwise foreclose.

In any event, and more to the point, Justice Stevens then includes (page 4-5) a remarkable paragraph that in my view gets right to the heart of the matter, which is not whether the ICJ judgment is “enforceable in court,” but instead whether the State of Texas as a whole has a constitutional obligation to see to it that the ICJ judgment is honored:

Under the express terms of the Supremacy Clause, the United States’ obligation to “undertak[e] to comply” with the ICJ’s decision falls on each of the States as well as the Federal Government. One consequence of our form of government is that sometimes States must shoulder the primary responsibility for protecting the honor and integrity of the Nation. Texas’ duty in this respect is all the greater since it was Texas that—by failing to provide consular notice in accordance with the Vienna Convention—ensnared the United States in the current controversy. Having already put the Nation in breach of one treaty, it is now up to Texas to prevent the breach of another.

OK, so Texas (as well as the federal government) has a constitutional obligation to prevent the U.S. from breaching Article 94. I agree. And if Texas were to execute one of the 51 defendants before they were afforded “review and reconsideration” of their sentences by someone, Texas would then cause the U.S. to breach Article 94, which Texas may not do.

Having read this paragraph, one might expect Justice Stevens to then conclude that, even if there is no way (absent federal statute) to judicially enforce this obligation against Texas, nevertheless Texas is constitutionally required to do the right thing.

But for some reason, Justice Stevens pulls his punches at the last minute: Instead of writing that “The Court’s judgment, which I join, does not change the fact that the State of Texas is required to take appropriate action to prevent a breach,” Stevens writes that “The Court’s judgment, which I join, does not foreclose further appropriate action by the State of Texas.”

As though Texas has a choice in the matter.

Can anyone reconcile this closing sentence with Stevens’s earlier paragraph (quoted above), which (correctly, in my view) speaks of Texas’s constitutional “duty” and “obligation”?

Texas Wins Medellin

by Marty Lederman

Six to three. The decision is here. My very quick and preliminary reaction, after having read only a bit of the opinion, is that the presidential power question is not the most important aspect of the opinion. That would be, instead, the Court’s interpretation of Article 94 of the U.N. Charter as merely imposing a future obligation on the U.S. federal political branches to do something to comply with its requirement — and not to impose any independent obligation on the United States, including Texas, to actually take steps to comply with an ICJ judgment. This strikes me as an implausible interpretation, and as potentially very troubling for construction of treaty obligations going forward.

The article reads that the U.S. “undertakes to comply with with the decision of the [ICJ] in any case to which it is a party.”

The Court reads this obligation not to actually require the United States and its component parts to, uh, actually comply with an ICJ decision. Indeed, it apparently permits Texas (part of the U.S., last time I checked) to intentionally refuse to comply with such a decision.

What will this sort of treaty interpretation portend for, say, article 16 of the CAT, which provides that “each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”?” Apparently, that no longer means we are forbidden from intentionally inflicting such treatment on detainees — or so the Chief Justice reasons.