As everyone on Twitter knows by now, the US government has released the notorious memorandum in which the OLC provides the supposed legal justification for killing Anwar al-Awlaki. I’m a bit disappointed not to get a mention in the memo; people in the know have suggested that a post I wrote in April 2010 led the OLC to substantially rewrite it. Vanity aside, though, I’m more disappointed by the memo’s failure to adequately address the most important issue regarding the “public authority justification,” which is at the heart of the memo’s conclusion that it would be lawful to kill al-Awlaki: how can the CIA be entitled to the public-authority justification when the CIA had no authority to use force against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)?
To understand why that’s a problem, let’s step back and consider what the memo says about whether the Department of Defense (DoD) had the legal authority to kill al-Awlaki. Remember, the memo was written before al-Awlaki was killed, at a time when it wasn’t clear which organisation — the DoD or the CIA — would actually kill him. (It was also written long after al-Awlaki was put on the kill list, as Hina Shamsi reminds us.)
The memo begins by emphasizing (p. 14) that its analysis — for both the DoD and the CIA — turns on whether 18 USC 1119, the foreign-murder statute, incorporates the “public authority justification” (PAJ). Indeed, it notes in n. 24 that the PAJ is the only defence it will consider. The memo then concludes (p. 20), after five pages of analysis, that in fact s 1119 does incorporate the PAJ. It’s an impressive analysis, and I find it convincing. So let’s grant that the PAJ potentially applies to the killing of al-Awlaki.
The question then becomes: who can invoke the public authority justification? The memo has little problem concluding that the DoD would be entitled to it, because (p. 20) “the operation would constitute the ‘lawful conduct of war’ — a well-established variant of the public authority justification.” In reaching that conclusion, the memo argues (1) that the AUMF covers AQAP, (2) that al-Awlaki qualifies as a targetable member of AQAP; (3) that the US is involved in a NIAC with AQ, making the laws of war applicable; and (4) that the DoD had pledged to obey the laws of war in any lethal operation.
I would quibble with much of the analysis, particularly the memo’s discussion of the scope of the non-international armed conflict between the US and “al-Qaeda.” But I’m prepared to accept that, in the abstract, the DoD would be entitled to invoke the PAJ. My problem is with the memo’s casual assertion that the PAJ applies equally to the CIA, which actually killed al-Awlaki. Here is its conclusion (p. 32)…