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International Law in U.S. Courts

A Response to Bobby Chesney — Part II (Article II)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In the first part of my response to Bobby, I argued (after meandering around a bit) that Title 50’s “fifth function” provision cannot be used to authorise the CIA to kill Americans overseas — a necessary condition of any argument that the CIA is entitled to a public-authority justification with regard to 18 USC 1119, the foreign-murder statute. (Bobby kindly responds here.) I thus ended that post by asking where else that authority might be found.

Which brings me to the second argument Bobby makes: namely, that the President’s authority to permit the CIA to kill Americans overseas derives from Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which deems him the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Here is what Bobby writes:

OK, fine, but aren’t covert action programs bound to comply with federal statutes, including 1119?

They sure are, and it is important to the continuing legitimacy of the covert-action instrument that it be subject to American law in this way. But the question remains: Does the covert drone strike program violate 1119 as applied to al-Aulaqi? Kevin argues that it does because the AUMF should be read to exclude CIA, and thus that section 1119 is violated, and thus that the requirement that covert action programs comply with statutes is violated too. I don’t agree, however, for I don’t think the AUMF is the only possible domestic law explanation for the CIA’s role; Article II likely applies here as well, and performs the same function as the AUMF in this respect.

There are two ways to read Bobby’s argument. The first is that the President’s Article II authority simply empowers him to ignore duly-enacted federal statutes like the foreign-murder statute. That is John Yoo’s position, encapsulated so memorably when he said, with regard to the federal torture statute, that the President could authorise an interrogator to crush the testicles of a detained terrorist’s child if he felt it was necessary to protect the United States. I doubt Bobby shares Yoo’s sentiments.

The second way to read Bobby’s argument is as follows: (1) the President cannot rely on Article II to violate duly-enacted federal statutes; but (2) he can rely on his Article II authority to authorise the CIA to kill Americans overseas, which means (3) the CIA has the same public authority to kill that the military has under the AUMF; therefore, (4) the CIA is no less entitled than the military to the public-authority justification with regard to the foreign-murder statute.

That is a much more sophisticated argument, and no doubt the one that Bobby endorses. Unfortunately, once we understand the nature of the public-authority justification, it’s simply a more sophisticated way of arguing that Article II permits the President to violate a duly-enacted statute…

A Response to Bobby Chesney — Part I

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friend Bobby Chesney has responded at Lawfare to my previous post arguing that Title 50 does not provide the CIA with a public-authority justification to kill Americans overseas. He disagrees with both of the limits on presidential authority to authorise covert action I discussed. I will address the Article II question in a separate post; in this post I want to discuss the “traditional military activity” (TMA) exception to Title 50’s definition of “covert action.” Here is what Bobby writes:

CIA Drone Strikes Don’t Qualify as TMA: As an initial matter, I think one part of his argument depends on a mistaken assumption regarding the meaning of TMA, and that drone strikes do indeed constitute covert action within the meaning of Title 50. The TMA exception to covert action has a complicated and often-misunderstood history, which I recount in detail in this paper (pp. 592-601 especially). The concept was the subject of extensive negotiations between the White House and Congress, ultimately resulting in the following agreement. An activity that otherwise would qualify as covert action would instead count as TMA, thus avoiding the requirement of a written presidential finding and reporting to SSCI and HPSCI, if the following conditions were met.

The operation:

1) was commanded and executed by military personnel, and

2) took place in a context in which overt hostilities either were

(a) ongoing, or

(b) “anticipated (meaning approval has been given by the National Command Authorities for [i] the activities and for [ii] operational planning for hostilities).”

The CIA drone strike program as a general matter almost certainly does not satisfy this test, especially the first prong. This is why it has been long considered by both the Bush and Obama administrations to be covert action, not TMA. If the covert-action statute is capable of conferring the benefits of the public-authority justification, then, it does so here.

I think this response elides the difference between two different situations: (1) where the military wants to use force covertly against al-Qaeda; and (2) where the CIA wants to use force covertly against al-Qaeda. As Bobby’s article brilliantly explains, the TMA language was included in Title 50 because neither President Bush nor the military wanted a presidential finding — with its attendant reporting requirements — to be required every time the military engaged in a covert action. They wanted, in other words, the military to have the right to covertly engage in its traditional warfighting activities without having to acknowledge it was doing so. After much negotiation, Congress ultimately agreed to carve out a category of military actions that would not qualify as “covert actions” for purposes of Title 50, even when not acknowledged: namely, actions that satisfied the two requirements Bobby quotes. The TMA exception thus permits the military to use force covertly against al-Qaeda without a presidential finding as long as the action in question is commanded and executed by the military (check) and takes place in the context of ongoing hostilities (check).

The TMA functions very differently in the context of covert action by the CIA. There is no question that the military is authorised to engage in the kind of activities against al-Qaeda that, when done covertly, may fall under 50 USC 3093.  The military is always authorised to use force against enemy combatants in an armed conflict. The AUMF is simply the latest example of such authorisation. The CIA, however, is in a completely different situation. For all the reasons I discussed in an earlier post, the AUMF does not authorise the CIA to use force against al-Qaeda at all. So the primary question is not whether the CIA can use force against al-Qaeda covertly, but where the CIA gets its authority to use force against al-Qaeda in the first place.

The most obvious answer is, of course, 50 USC 3093

Why Title 50 Does Not Provide the CIA with a Public Authority Justification

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I noted in my previous post, my co-blogger Deborah Pearlstein has suggested that a covert operation authorised by the President under Title 50 of the US Code could function as the CIA’s equivalent to the AUMF in terms of its authority to kill an American citizen overseas. Here is what she has argued:

Here, even if the AUMF was not meant to authorize the CIA to do anything, the CIA has broad authority under Title 50 of the U.S. Code to engage in operations overseas, provided it has relevant Presidential approval and complies with requirements of congressional notification. In other words, I can imagine a straightforward explanation for why such an exception would apply to the CIA as well. That it is not evident from the memo is, I suspect, far more a function of redaction than absence of legal authority.

With respect to Deborah, I don’t think the Title 50 argument works. There is no question that 50 USC 3093 provides the President with considerable authority to authorise “a covert action by departments, agencies, or entities of the United States Government” that he determines “is necessary to support identifiable foreign policy objectives of the United States and is important to the national security of the United States.” But the President’s authority is not unlimited; indeed, Title 50 contains two important restrictions that very strongly suggest the President could not legally have authorised the CIA to kill an American citizen overseas, and particularly not Anwar al-Awlaki.

The first limit is provided by 50 USC 3093(e), which defines “covert action” for purposes of Title 50 generally (emphasis mine):

As used in this subchapter, the term “covert action” means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include 

(1) activities the primary purpose of which is to acquire intelligence, traditional counterintelligence activities, traditional activities to improve or maintain the operational security of United States Government programs, or administrative activities;

(2) traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities;

(3) traditional law enforcement activities conducted by United States Government law enforcement agencies or routine support to such activities; or

(4) activities to provide routine support to the overt activities (other than activities described in paragraph (1), (2), or (3)) of other United States Government agencies abroad.

The US government has consistently argued that its drone program, both in Yemen and elsewhere, only targets combatants who are involved in a non-international armed conflict between the US and al-Qaeda. While serving as the State Department’s Legal Advisor, for example, Harold Koh claimed that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and its associate forces,” and that “in this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks.” Indeed, the new White Paper, like the previous memorandum, emphasizes (p. 12) that “the frame of reference” for whether the CIA is entitled to the public-authority justification regarding Anwar al-Awlaki “is that the United States is currently in the midst of an armed conflict, and the public-authority justification would encompass an operation such as this one were it conduct by the military consistent with the laws of war.”

There is no question, then, that the US government views the use of lethal force against an American citizen who is “a senior leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces” — such as al-Awlaki — as a “traditional military activity.” But if that’s the case, 50 USC 3093(e)(2) specifically prohibits the President from relying on Title 50 to authorise the CIA to engage in such targeting.

Moreover, even if it could somehow be argued that targeting “a senior leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces” in the “armed conflict” between those forces and the US is not a “traditional military activity,” 50 USC 3093(a)(5) would still prohibit the President from authorising the CIA to kill any such leaders who is an American citizen. Section 3093(a)(5) provides that a Presidential finding “may not authorize any action that would violate the Constitution or any statute of the United States.” The foreign-murder statute, 18 USC 1119, is undeniably a “statute of the United States.” The President thus has no authority whatsoever to authorise the CIA to violate section 1119.

That conclusion, it is important to note, is not affected by whether 18 USC 1119 incorporates the public-authority justification — which I believe it does. In order to claim the justification as a defence to a violation of section 1119, the defendant must obviously have the requisite public authority to kill an American overseas. And 50 USC 3093(e)(2) and 50 USC 3093(a)(5) each independently deny the President the right to bestow that authority on the CIA via a covert-action finding under Title 50.

In short, and contrary to the new White Paper, neither the AUMF nor Title 50 provide the CIA with a get-out-of-jail-free card with regard to 18 USC 1119. So unless there is some other source of the CIA’s supposed public authority to kill Americans overseas — and I can’t imagine what it could be — Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing by the CIA is indeed properly described as murder.

NOTE: Marcy Wheeler offers some similar thoughts here.

When Treaties Supersede Statutes

by Roger Alford

Anyone familiar with foreign relations law hears the common refrain that treaties almost never supersede statutes under the last-in-time rule. Until recently, it was certainly my understanding that the ancient Supreme Court case of Cook v. United States was the only significant example in which a self-executing treaty trumped an earlier conflicting statute. But my recent research on the last-in-time rule indicates that there are several examples in which that rule has been applied to give effect to a self-executing treaty that conflicts with an earlier federal statute.

In particular, numerous mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) have been adopted to facilitate effective investigation and prosecution of criminal activities. These MLATs streamline the process of letters rogatory and guarantee that the United States will provide greater legal assistance with respect to discovery requests by foreign governments for use in criminal proceedings abroad. These treaties are self-executing and conflict with an earlier statute, 28 U.S.C. 1782, which grants courts significant discretion to deny discovery requests based on substantive protections relating to, inter alia, privileged evidence and foreign discoverability. In other words, pursuant to the MLATs, discovery requests are direct and automatic, not indirect and discretionary as required under Section 1782.

For example, in In re Premises Located at 840 140th Avenue NE, Bellevue Washington, the Ninth Circuit held that “a ratified self-executing treaty generally stands on the same footing as a federal statute, that is, a later in time self-executing treaty has the same effect on an existing federal statute as a later-in-time act of Congress.” Consequently, the Ninth Circuit held that, in light of the US-Russia MLAT, courts do not have the broad discretion conferred by Section 1782 to deny the Russian’s request for legal assistance in gathering evidence in the United States.

Similarly, in In re Commissioner’s Subpoenas, the Eleventh Circuit interpreted the US-Canada MLAT as a self-executing treaty that need not comply with the substantive obligations of Section 1782. “A treaty, when ratified, supersedes prior domestic law to the contrary, and is equivalent to an act of Congress…. [T]he Treaty substantively stands on its own as a law and therefore such MLAT requests need not comply with the substantive restrains associated with requests made solely under 28 U.S.C. 1782.” The foreign discoverability requirements recognized by Section 1782 did not apply and the MLAT required issuance of the subpoenas.

Finally, in In re Erato, an American mother had challenged a Dutch discovery request pursuant to Section 1782’s recognition of foreign privilege laws. If Section 1782 controlled the mother would not have to testify against her son because Dutch law recognizes parent-child privilege. The Second Circuit held that “existing law under Section 1782 does not control this case…. the [US-Netherlands MLAT] Treaty is self-executing and … will amend and supplement preexisting law in several aspects. We are bound to give effect to the Treaty because it is self-executing…. To the extent that the Treaty is inconsistent with a preexisting statutory provision, the Treaty supersedes that provision.” Consequently, the court prevented application of foreign testimonial privilege and required the mother to testify against her son.

These cases do not obviate the general point that the last-in-time rule typically results in the enforcement of subsequent statutes that conflict with earlier treaties. But they should at least put to rest the canard that the last-in-time rule never results in the enforcement of self-executing treaties over earlier federal statutes.

Who Knew Al-Qassam Was the Most Moral Army in the World?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today’s Jerusalem Post features an article discussing testimony by a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan that purports to demonstrate the IDF takes more care in avoiding civilian casualties than any other army in the world. Here is a snippet:

Israel’s ratio of civilian to military casualties in Operation Protective Edge was only one-fourth of the average in warfare around the world, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. (res.) Richard Kemp told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Wednesday.

Kemp pointed out that, during the operation, there was approximately one civilian casualty for ever terrorist killed by the IDF, whereas the average in the world is four civilians for every combatant, and that, when taking into consideration Hamas’s use of human shields, this shows how careful the IDF is.

“No army in the world acts with as much discretion and great care as the IDF in order to minimize damage. The US and the UK are careful, but not as much as Israel,” he told the committee.

Kemp, who has long openly admired the IDF’s military tactics and testified in Israel’s favor to the Goldstone Commission following Operation Cast Lead in 2009, visited Israel during Operation Protective Edge.

If this is the metric we should use to determine how much “care” a military takes in its operations, it’s worth noting that the IDF actually runs a distant second in the care department to Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Brigades have killed 65 IDF soldiers and four Israeli civilians during Operation Protective Edge — a staggering 16-1 combatant:civilian kill ratio. According to Col. Kemp’s logic, therefore, the al-Qassam Brigades are at least 4X more careful than the IDF regarding collateral damage to civilians — and 16X more careful than the world army average. Amazing!

NOTE: I do not actually believe that al-Qassam is the most moral army in the world. I provide the analysis to illustrate that absolutely nothing can be learned about how much care a military takes by comparing — in an utterly decontextualised way —  the combatant:civilian kill ratio in one of its operations to the combatant:civilian kill ratios in different conflicts fought by different militaries. To begin with, the jus in bello concept of proportionality is operation-specific: we determine whether an attack is proportionate by comparing anticipated military advantage to expected civilian damage. Inter-conflict comparisons are irrelevant. Moreover, the proportionality of an attack tells us very little about whether that attack was indiscriminate: an indiscriminate attack can involve low civilian casualties, or even none at all, because the concept of discrimination focuses on methods, not on outcomes. Indeed, were it otherwise, it would be difficult to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as indiscriminate, given that more than 12,000 rockets have killed fewer than 30 Israelis in the past 13 years. Those rocket attacks are indiscriminate because they cannot distinguish between legitimate military objectives and civilians, not because they have led to high civilian casualties.

Rolling Stone on Chevron’s Dirty Tricks in the Lago Agrio Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about Chevron’s “Rainforest Chernobyl” — the company’s deliberate dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste-water into Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region. But I want to call readers’ attention to a blockbuster new article in Rolling Stone that details the wide variety of dirty tricks Chevron has used to avoid paying the multi-billion-dollar judgment against it in Ecuador. (The plaintiffs filed the suit in the US. Chevron demanded that it be moved to Ecuador, where it expected a friendly government to ensure it would win.) Here is my favorite snippet, discussing the $2 million Chevron paid one of its contractors to create fake laboratories the company could use to “test” Lago Agrio field samples:

We don’t know everything about the soil-and-water testing phase of the trial. But we do have hours of recorded conversations between Santiago Escobar, an Ecuadorean living in Toronto, and a Chevron contractor named Diego Borja.

Borja was already part of the Chevron extended family when the company hired him to transport coolers containing the company’s field samples to supposedly independent labs. His uncle, a 30-year Chevron employee, owned the building housing Chevron’s Ecuadorean legal staff. As he carried out his work, Borja collected more than one kind of dirt. In recorded calls to Escobar in 2009, Borja explained how Chevron’s Miami office helped him set up front companies posing as independent laboratories. (Among his Miami bosses was Reis Veiga, one of the lawyers indicted for corruption in the 1997 Texaco remediation settlement with the Ecuadorean government.)

Borja contacted Escobar because he thought his information might be valuable to the other side. “Crime does pay,” he told Escobar. In the calls, Borja suggests Chevron feared exposure and prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “If [a U.S.] judge finds out that the company did cooked things, he’ll say, ‘Tomorrow we better close them down,’ you get it?” He boasted of possessing correspondence “that talks about things you can’t even imagine … things that can make the Amazons [plaintiffs] win this just like that.” In awe of Chevron’s power, Borja said the company has “all the tools in the world to go after everyone. Because these guys, once the trial is over, they’ll go after everyone who was saying things about it.” Still, the benefits of working with them were great. “Once you’re a partner of the guys,” he told Escobar, “you’ve got it made. It’s a brass ring this big, brother.”

Borja’s brass ring was ultimately worth over $2 million. Sometime around 2010, he was naturalized at Chevron’s expense and moved into a $6,000-a-month gated community near Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, California. Why the company finds his loyalty worth so much is hard to say, because Judge Kaplan blocked further discovery. When asked if Borja is still being paid by the company, Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said, “Not as far as I know.”

“Kaplan gave Chevron unlimited access to our files,” says Donziger, “but allowed them to maintain a complete iron curtain of privilege over everything related to the misconduct of non-attorneys like Borja and its network of espionage operatives.”

I’m skeptical the Lago Agrio plaintiffs will ever receive the justice they deserve — particularly in a US courtroom. But at least articles like this one help illuminate the lengths to which multinationals like Chevron will go to avoid being held responsible for their actions.

Can the U.S. President Enter into a Legally Binding Climate Change Agreement Without Congress?

by Julian Ku

The New York Times is running a big report today on the U.S. plan to sign a “sweeping” climate change agreement without having to go to Congress for approval or ratification.  Instead of a typical treaty requiring ratification by the Senate, the U.S. has a different more creative strategy.

American negotiators are instead homing in on a hybrid agreement — a proposal to blend legally binding conditions from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges. The mix would create a deal that would update the treaty, and thus, negotiators say, not require a new vote of ratification.

Countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies — but would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify those nations that did not meet their cuts.

Jack Goldsmith is already out with a typically smart analysis of this approach, and he concludes the new agreement is intended to sound like a big deal, but will be unlikely to commit the U.S. to do anything meaningful.  I think that is probably right, although I can’t really tell based on the incomplete details in this NYT article.  I think there might be a little bit of domestic legal effect, and may also create an important precedent on what the President can do to bind the US on the international level.

Surely, the President can sign a political agreement that pledges voluntary cuts and to channel money to poorer countries. Such an agreement would have no domestic legal effect until Congress acted to implement the legislation.   But can the President bind the U.S. under international law, even if it has no domestic legal effect?

The President can, in limited circumstances, bind the US under international law via a sole executive agreement.  It has done so especially in the areas of post-conflict settlements such as the famous Algiers Accords that released US hostages and also sent seized Iranian and US assets to an international arbitration tribunal.  US courts have given those agreements limited domestic effect.  But the line between what the President can do via a sole executive agreement and what he must do via a treaty is not completely clear (although there is a line!).  Maybe the President is claiming some delegated authority from the original 1992 Framework Convention, which might bolster his ability to bind the U.S. internationally. I don’t see any obvious basis in that treaty for this delegation, but I suppose experts on the Framework Convention might come up with something.

So I think the President might be able to sign the US up to a binding international agreement on climate change, but it would be pretty unprecedented and its legal effect uncertain.  Such an agreement would be unlikely to have domestic legal effect on its own, but the President could cite the agreement as the basis for executive orders he is already implementing on climate change.  I don’t think it would carry the policy much farther than he is already doing under creative interpretations of the Clean Air Act, but it might provide just a little bit more support for his domestic orders.

I think it will be important to look at the details of the proposed agreement, and to ask the US administration to explain its legal authority for the new agreement.  Will it be the 1992 Framework Convention?  Or is it going to be just the President’s general Article II executive power?  If the latter, this may be an important precedent for future sole executive agreements under the US Constitution.  In any event, President Obama is certainly exploring the outer limits of his Article II powers.

More on the Troubling, But Emerging Article II Humanitarian Intervention Power

by Julian Ku

Now that President Obama and his advisors have offered some more detail on the domestic legal basis for U.S. military’s action in Iraq, I think it is even more clear now than when I first posted on this subject that the administration is relying on some sort of Article II Commander-In-Chief power to “prevent an act of genocide” against a Iraqi minority group.  In reading the administration briefing, it is clear that the need to protect U.S. persons and property is a separate justification for a separate set of air strikes.  I don’t think the Administration is arguing that protecting U.S. life and property requires striking at the ISIS forces threatening the trapped Iraqi civilians.

Both Marty Lederman and Jack Goldsmith have also picked up on this point, with Goldsmith suggesting this would be a troubling extension of the President’s already expansive Article II Commander-in-Chief power. Ilya Somin dismisses this whole approach as going against the text of the Constitution.   I agree with Ilya that this approach is hard to square with either the text or even the history of Article II’s drafting and subsequent interpretations. And I also agree with Goldsmith that this expansion is troubling. But I also think that the President’s invocation of the need to “prevent an act of genocide” as the legal basis for air strikes, along with apparent acquiescence by Congress (so far), sets an important legal precedent for future U.S. presidents.

The Article II “Humanitarian Intervention” War Power

by Julian Ku

Assuming there really was authorization from the Iraqi government, I don’t have any doubt that the U.S. has the right under the international law to launch new airstrikes in Iraq.  But the domestic authority for the U.S. airstrikes is much more murky, and, as Ilya Somin argues here, Congress might need to authorize continuing military action.

Jack Goldsmith goes through the domestic legal bases for action here: the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda, the 2002 AUMF to conduct hostilities in Iraq, and the President’s inherent power under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. I agree with Jack that, for political reasons, the Administration seems to be relying on the President’s inherent powers under Article II of the Constitution rather than on either of the statutory authorizations passed by Congress.  But even under Article II, Presidents have usually cited rationales such as the need to act quickly to protect U.S. citizens and their property or to prevent an imminent attack on the U.S or a treaty ally, or a threat to U.S. national security.

But President Obama does not cite any of these reasons in his explanation of why he is authorizing airstrikes to prevent the deaths of the Iraqi civilians trapped in a mountain region.  Instead, he cited the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” in his remarks yesterday. So it turns out that Article II also can be invoked for a purely humanitarian intervention where no U.S. citizens or property are threatened, and the national security interest is not cited.  While I do think there is a very plausible national security rationale for these airstrikes, it is worth noting that President Obama does not cite national security directly in his remarks.  When one looks back at his similar rationale for Article II-based airstrikes in Libya, I think one of President Obama’s legacies will be a new reading of Article II that will allow future presidents to use military force for humanitarian reasons without the authorization of Congress.

Argentina Defaults (Again) and Issues a Frivolous Threat to Sue the U.S. For Causing the Default

by Julian Ku

According to Standard & Poor’s, Argentina has defaulted on at least some of its sovereign bonds, after last minute negotiations failed to reach a deal with its holdout bondholders, who had won a series of victories in U.S. court.  Although there are reports that some U.S. banks representing the rest of the bondholders are exploring ways to buy out the holdout bondholders on Argentina’s behalf (no doubt by having Argentina borrow even more money to do so), Argentina seems ready to go to the mattresses, so to speak. Or, at least in this case, to take the U.S. to the ICJ:

[Argentina Cabinet Chief] Capitanich said Argentina would denounce the “vulture funds” before the International Court of Justice at The Hague and the United Nations General Assembly.

Argentina has been going all out to try to convince other countries and the international community to support its cause including full page ads in major US newspapers, a diplomatic offensive at the recent Organization of American States meeting, and finally this threat to sue the U.S. government for failing to reign in its courts in the holdout creditor litigation against Argentina.

As far as the ICJ goes, this is a pretty idle threat. The ICJ would not have compulsory jurisdiction over the U.S. in this matter, so at best the ICJ would be asked to issue an advisory opinion.  But even in that case, what exactly is Argentina’s claim? That the U.S. has violated international law by blocking some of Argentina’s debt payments?  What international law obligation is being violated? Until someone explains what the legal theory is, I will classify this part of Argentina’s campaign to justify its latest default as just more hot air.

2013 U.S. Digest Now Available

by Duncan Hollis

Just a quick note for those of you who, like me, have a fondness for the Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law; the 2013 volume is now available on the State Department’s website (see here).   I find the Digest to be one of the great resources on U.S. views of international law; it regularly includes letters, reports, and other documents that are hard (if not impossible) to locate elsewhere. In doing so, it also offers a contemporary glimpse of where the Executive Branch stands on manifold questions of international law and practice. Here’s how the accompanying press release describes this year’s Digest and the series as a whole:

The Department of State is pleased to announce the release of the 2013 Digest of United States Practice in International Law, covering developments during calendar year 2013. The Digest provides the public with a record of the views and practice of the Government of the United States in public and private international law. The official edition of the 2013 Digest is available exclusively on the State Department’s website at: www.state.gov/s/l/c8183.htm. Past Digests covering 1989 through 2012 are also available on the State Department’s website. The Digest is edited by the Office of the Legal Adviser.

The Digest traces its history back to an 1877 treatise by John Cadwalader, which was followed by multi-volume encyclopedias covering selected areas of international law. The Digest later came to be known to many as “Whiteman’s” after Marjorie Whiteman, the editor from 1963-1971. Beginning in 1973, the Office of the Legal Adviser published the Digest on an annual basis, changing its focus to documentation current to the year. Although publication was temporarily suspended after 1988, the office resumed publication in 2000 and has since produced volumes covering 1989 through 2012. A cumulative index covering 1989-2006 was published in 2007, and an updated edition of that index, covering 1989-2008, was published in 2010.

The CIA and the Public Authority Justification: A Response to Orr

by Kevin Jon Heller

Jamie Orr has responded to my previous post on the drone memo, in which I argue that the OLC fails to adequately defend its conclusion that the CIA is just as entitled to the public-authority justification (PAJ) as the DoD. It’s a thoughtful response, and I appreciate Dean Orr taking the time to write it. But I don’t find his arguments convincing.

Orr begins by citing Art. 43 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which defines the armed forces as “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates.” In Orr’s view, that means the CIA qualifies as “armed forces” under Art. 43, because the CIA is responsible to President Obama, the Commander in Chief:

The CIA may not be a part of the US military, not subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, but it is hard to claim it is not in any way an armed “group” or “unit” which is under the Command of the responsible party – the same person with responsibility for the military services, namely the Commander in Chief.

Orr’s argument, however, proves too much. By his logic, every armed organisation in the federal government that is ultimately responsible to Obama would qualify as the “armed forces” of the US — the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, even the US Marshals Service. That can’t possibly be correct.

To be fir, Orr recognises that it is not evident a “paramilitary” group like the CIA qualifies as the armed forces of the US and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. In particular, he acknowledges that, at a minimum, the CIA would have to comply with the four criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention (GC III): (1) responsible command; (2) a fixed distinctive sign; (3) open carry of arms; and (4) compliance with IHL. Here is his argument that it does:

(a) and (c) seem to apply (remotely piloted aircraft are operated in the open). The claim is made that (d) applies. Does (b)? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.

I don’t think it’s hard to say at all that (b) is not satisfied. CIA agents does not wear uniforms, nor do they wear anything that identifies them as CIA — particularly at a distance. And why would they? The CIA is an intelligence organisation that operates almost exclusively in secret; as noted by its own website, the CIA’s mission is “conducting effective covert action as directed by the President.” Fixed distinctive signs are the last thing CIA agents would ever wear.

Indeed, that’s almost certainly why Orr downplays the role of a fixed distinctive sign, saying that its “hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.” But that comment gives away the ballgame. Orr is not really arguing that the CIA is entitled to participate in hostilities because its members comply with the four criteria in GC III, art. 4. On the contrary, he is arguing that the CIA only has to comply with three of the four criteria — conveniently, the three with which it can comply. The inconvenient fourth criteria is simply wished out of existence. (And note that the question is not whether the CIA’s weapons have a fixed distinctive sign; it’s whether the CIA’s agents have one. Which they don’t.) Lex ferenda, not lex lata.

Jamie Orr has responded to my previous post on the drone memo, in which I argue that the OLC fails to adequately defend its conclusion that the CIA is just as entitled to the public-authority justification (PAJ) as the DoD. It’s a thoughtful response, and I appreciate Dean Orr taking the time to write it. But I don’t find his arguments convincing.

Orr begins by citing Art. 43 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which defines the armed forces as “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates.” In Orr’s view, that means the CIA qualifies as “armed forces” under Art. 43, because the CIA is responsible to President Obama, the Commander in Chief:

The CIA may not be a part of the US military, not subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, but it is hard to claim it is not in any way an armed “group” or “unit” which is under the Command of the responsible party – the same person with responsibility for the military services, namely the Commander in Chief.

Orr’s argument, however, proves too much. By his logic, every armed organisation in the federal government that is ultimately responsible to Obama would qualify as the “armed forces” of the US and be entitled to participate in hostilities — the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, even the US Marshals Service. That can’t possibly be correct.

To be fair, Orr recognises that it is not evident a “paramilitary” group like the CIA qualifies as the armed forces of the US and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. In particular, he acknowledges that, at a minimum, the CIA would have to comply with the four criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention (GC III): (1) responsible command; (2) a fixed distinctive sign; (3) open carry of arms; and (4) compliance with IHL. Here is his argument that it does:

(a) and (c) seem to apply (remotely piloted aircraft are operated in the open). The claim is made that (d) applies. Does (b)? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.

I don’t think it’s hard to say at all that (b) is not satisfied. CIA agents does not wear uniforms, nor do they wear anything that identifies them as CIA — particularly at a distance. And why would they? The CIA is an intelligence organisation that operates almost exclusively in secret; as noted by its own website, the CIA’s mission is “conducting effective covert action as directed by the President.” Fixed distinctive signs are the last thing CIA agents would ever wear.

Indeed, that’s almost certainly why Orr downplays the role of a fixed distinctive sign, saying that its “hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.” But that comment gives away the ballgame. Orr is not really arguing that the CIA is entitled to participate in hostilities because its members comply with the four criteria in GC III, art. 4. On the contrary, he is arguing that the CIA only has to comply with three of the four criteria — conveniently, the three with which it can comply. The inconvenient fourth criteria is simply wished out of existence. (And note that the question is not whether the CIA’s weapons have a fixed distinctive sign; it’s whether the CIA’s agents have one. Which they don’t.)

It is important to recognize, though, that Orr’s argument concerning Art. 43 of AP I and Art. 4 of the GC III is ultimately beside the point. Orr may think that, as a matter of international law, the CIA is part of the US’s armed forces and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. But the US government doesn’t. Footnote 44 in the drone memo makes that exquisitely clear…