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Non-State Actors

ICC and Palestine Event at George Mason

by Kevin Jon Heller

The event at George Mason University on the ICC and Palestine is today. Here, again, is the flyer:

FINALFLYEROCTOBERPANELJpeg

If you cannot attend, the live-stream link is here.

The Invention of the Khorasan Group and Non-Imminent Imminence

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be back blogging regularly soon, but I want to call readers’ attention to a phenomenal new article at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain about how the US government has cynically manipulated public fears of terrorism in order to justify its bombing campaign in Syria. Recall that Samantha Power — the UN Ambassador formerly known as a progressive — invoked the scary spectre of the Khorasan Group in her letter to the Security Council concerning the US’s supposed right to bomb terrorists in Syria in “self-defence.” As it turns out, not only is there literally no evidence that the Khorasan Group intends to launch an imminent attack on US interests — unless “imminent” is defined as “sometime before the Rapture” — there is also very little evidence that the Khorasan Group actually exists in a form that could threaten the US. Here is a snippet from the article on the latter point:

Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorosan or its leader.”

Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ”We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from…. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.”

I don’t know for a fact that the Khorasan Group doesn’t exist. But it is profoundly troubling that the Obama administration has provided no evidence that it does — especially given that its case for the international legality of bombing Syria is based so heavily on the supposed threat the Khorasan Group poses to the “homeland.”

And let’s not forget that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to denude the concept of “self-defence” of all meaning. Here is the Intercept article on the “imminent” threat posed to the US by the maybe-existing Khorasan Group:

One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.

Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).

Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.” But now:

Senior U.S. officials offered a more nuanced picture Thursday of the threat they believe is posed by an al-Qaida cell in Syria targeted in military strikes this week, even as they defended the decision to attack the militants.

James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .

Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means… ‘imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.

According to the Obama administration, in short, the US is entitled to act in self-defence against “bad dudes” no matter when — or even if — those “bad dudes” might launch an armed attack against the US. This isn’t even the Bush administration’s “anticipatory self-defence.” This is, for lack of a better expression, “hypothetical self-defence.” Apparently, the US government believes it is entitled to use force against a non-state actor anywhere in the world as long as it can imagine a future state of affairs in which that actor would attack it.

The mind — and international law — reels.

The Unwilling or Unable Doctrine Comes to Life

by Jens David Ohlin

Today the U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS and other extremist groups within Syrian territory. In the past, airstrikes were limited to Iraqi territory, which came with the consent of the Iraq government (and were thus legally uncontroversial from the perspective of jus ad bellum). Today’s airstrikes require a sophisticated legal argument to explain the intrusion on Syria’s territorial sovereignty. Samantha Power’s letter to the United Nations indicates that the Obama administration is relying on a combination of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the “unwilling or unable” standard:

September 23, 2014

Excellency,

In Iraq’s letter to the United Nations Security Council of September 20, 2014, and other statements made by Iraq, including its letter to the United Nations Security Council of June 25, 2014, Iraq has made clear that it is facing a serious threat of continuing attacks from ISIL coming out of safe havens in Syria. These safe havens are used by ISIL for training, planning, financing, and carrying out attacks across Iraqi borders and against Iraq’s people. For these reasons, the Government of Iraq has asked that the United States lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria in order to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, and ultimately to enable and arm Iraqi forces to perform their task of regaining control of the Iraqi borders.

ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria are a threat not only to Iraq, but also to many other counties, including the United States and our partners in the region and beyond. States must be able to defend themselves, in accordance with the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 if the UN Charter, when, as is the case here, the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks. The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe-havens effectively itself. Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders. In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.

I request that you circulate this letter as a document of the Security Council.

Samantha J. Power

His Excellency
Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations
New York, NY

So the structure of the argument goes as follows. The right of response is originally Iraqi, and the U.S. right of intervention is parasitic upon the Iraqi claim. Iraq has been attacked by ISIS, thus triggering Iraq’s right of self-defense against ISIS. Furthermore, since Syria is apparently unable to adequately respond to the ISIS threat and prevent its forces from using Syria as a base of operations to launch attacks against Iraq, then Iraq is entitled to use military force against ISIS installations and forces in Syria, even without the consent of the Syrian government or authorization from the Security Council. In other words, this falls under the inherent right of self-defense that is carved out by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter as an exception to the general prohibition on the use of force contained in article 2 of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense.

A few observations here:

First, this was a predictable development. I don’t see another avenue for the U.S. to legally defend the intervention, unless it wanted to rely on the even more controversial RTP doctrine, which isn’t terribly relevant here. Nor was a Security Council resolution possible (given Russian and Chinese positions on Syria).

Second, it will solidify the growing interpretation of the customary international law on self-defense as applying to attacks by non-state actors. I view this position as absolutely correct, pace the International Court of Justice and its unsupported statement that the Article 51 right of self-defense only applies to attacks by states (which is nowhere mentioned in Article 51 anyway). In addition to the Security Council resolution after the 9/11 attacks, the world community’s reaction to the armed conflict against ISIS will be highly relevant for crystallizing the correct interpretation of self-defense as applying to attacks from state and non-state actors alike.

Third, the world reaction to the conflict against ISIS in Syria will help resolve the uncertain status of the unwilling or unable standard for force against non-state actors in third-party territory. Although the status of the doctrine has in the past been in doubt, international law is very much an evolving creature, and years from now the present conflict will no doubt be an important exhibit in that debate. In other words, even if “unwilling or unable” is not the current state of the law, it may well be very soon on account of the present conflict, the U.S. legal justification for it, and the world’ community’s reaction to same.

 

Ransom and Material Support

by Jens David Ohlin

The Foley family is furious that the US government did little to help them rescue their son, James Foley, from ISIS terrorists. In a recent New York Times article, the Foley family expresses frustration that European countries were quietly negotiating to pay ransoms for their nationals, while the US steadfastly refused to do so. As foreign nationals were gradually released for payments, detainees from the UK and the US remained behind because these two countries refuse to pay ransoms to terrorists. The Foleys figured this out late in the game and attempted a last-minute fundraising campaign to generate funds, but the effort came too late. They were also told by FBI agents that they could be prosecuted for paying a ransom to ISIS in exchange for their son.

I want to analyze in greater detail the claim that paying a ransom to ISIS could constitute a crime. I’m not aware of a specific federal statute banning the paying of ransoms to terrorist organizations. (If readers are aware of such a statute, please let me know in the comments section). Rather, I’m assuming that the FBI claim is based on the application of the material support provision of the federal code (18 U.S. § 2339B) which provides:

(a) Prohibited Activities.—

(1) Unlawful conduct.— Whoever knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. To violate this paragraph, a person must have knowledge that the organization is a designated terrorist organization (as defined in subsection (g)(6)), that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorist activity (as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act), or that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorism (as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989).

(2) Financial institutions.— Except as authorized by the Secretary, any financial institution that becomes aware that it has possession of, or control over, any funds in which a foreign terrorist organization, or its agent, has an interest, shall—
(A) retain possession of, or maintain control over, such funds; and
(B) report to the Secretary the existence of such funds in accordance with regulations issued by the Secretary.

The first question is whether the payment of ransom constitutes the knowing provision of material support or resources. I’m not sure what a jury would do with this question. On the one hand, any money, delivered for any reason, can be considered a type of resource. Furthermore, the statute criminalizes knowing support, not just purposeful support. If it was the latter, the Foleys could claim that their purpose was to free their son, not provide material support. But since the mens rea is knowingly, perhaps they would be liable even if their purpose was the freedom of their son.

The bigger issue is whether they could claim an affirmative defense. The most likely possibilities are necessity and duress.

Necessity applies when a defendant, in response to a threat or emergency, violates a criminal prohibition because doing so represents the lesser of two evils. In that sense, the necessity defense has a utilitarian or consequentialist logic stemming from its status as a justification. If the defendant produces a greater evil, then the defense no longer applies.

In contrast, duress applies when the defendant performs a criminal act due to a threat of grave injury or death to the defendant or a close associate, emanating from a third party. (In the past I’ve argued that the defense should apply even if the target of the threat is not a close associate.) The paradigm of duress involves an autonomy-reducing threat that requires a level of moral heroism that cannot be expected by the law. The third party “forces” the defendant to violate the criminal prohibition by virtue of a threat that cannot be reasonably ignored. As such, duress is an excuse which negates the culpability of the actor. As an excuse, duress should not require that the defendant selected the lesser of two evils, because the claim has nothing to do with the defendant’s selection of a better outcome. Indeed, in duress situations the defendant may have selected the worse outcome because they are unwilling to sacrifice the life of the threatened individual.

American jurisdictions impose restrictions on the application of both defenses. Under the rule from Dudley & Stephens, necessity and duress are unavailable in cases of murder. There is a complicated question of whether the same exclusion should apply in manslaughter cases.

It seems clear to me that the Foleys, if they had paid a ransom to ISIS, would be (and should be) entitled to a duress defense. If they paid the ransom to ISIS, they would be providing material support to ISIS only by virtue of the threat against their son, which they cannot reasonably be expected to ignore. The government position is that paying ransom endangers future US citizens who would be captured for ransom by a terrorist organization incentivized to repeat the strategy. This seems factually true, though this point is irrelevant: duress as an excuse applies even if the outcome produced by the defendant is worse. Duress is not a lesser-evils defense. Finally, even if it were relevant, the future lives endangered by paying a ransom are speculative and hypothetical, rather than actual and manifest.

As a final point, necessity is often excluded as a defense if the statutory provision embodies a specific legislative choice or policy to criminalize the decision made by the defendant. However, that exclusion does not apply to excuses such as duress. And even in the context of necessity, there is no evidence that Congress had in mind the specific situation of paying ransom to terrorists. If, in the future, Congress passes a specific statute outlawing the paying of ransom to terrorists by private citizens, then the exclusion would be relevant.

Consequently, the Foleys are entitled to the duress defense, and that seems like the right result. And it also helps to explain the popular outrage over the FBI’s heavy-handed techniques against the Foley family. For the FBI agents to suggest to the Foleys that they would be prosecuted for paying the ransom was not only tone deaf–but it also indicates that the FBI agents did not understand the law of duress.

Mike Lewis Is Wrong About the Nature of Self-Defence

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mike Lewis has a guest post at Just Security today responding to Ryan Goodman’s recent post exploring what the US’s claimed “unwilling or unable” test for self-defence against non-state actors means in the context of Syria and ISIS. Ryan, careful scholar as always, rightly points out that the test “remains controversial under international law.” Mike doesn’t seem to have any such qualms, but that’s not what I want to respond to here. Instead, it’s important to note that Mike makes a basic error concerning how the “unwilling or unable” test functions — assuming for sake of argument it is a valid approach to self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter (emphasis mine):

It is important to note that this interpretation does not give the US unlimited license to act in violation of the sovereignty of other states as some opponents of the standard claim. There are limits and dangers associated with taking such a course of action. First of all, an intervening state can only take such actions after giving the host/target state a meaningful opportunity to prevent its territory from being used by the non-state actor to launch attacks. In the case of Syria, there is no question that it is unable to control the territory under ISIS control so further delays are unnecessary. Secondly, the intervening state does so at its own peril. Syria can rightfully interpret any strikes as aggression by the US and it is justified in taking steps to prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks.

Um, no. The entire point of arguing self-defence — in any form, including pursuant to the controversial “unwilling or unable” test — is that it cures any violation of state sovereignty under Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter. So if the US attacked ISIS in Syria because Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent ISIS from using its territory as a base for attacks, the US would not violate Art. 2(4) and Syria would have no right whatsoever to act in self-defence against that armed attack. Indeed, any attempt to “prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks” would represent an act of aggression by Syria against the US, thereby opening the door to legitimate acts of self-defence against Syria itself.

Again, I don’t accept that the “unwilling or unable” test reflects current customary international law. But it’s important not to let that debate obscure how self-defence functions under Art. 51 of the UN Charter.

The 9/11 AUMF does not cover ISIS

by Jens David Ohlin

Last night I blogged about Obama’s speech that outlined the administration’s plan to contain and destroy ISIS. I noted that Obama announced his intention to ask for congressional authorization for the plan while steadfastly maintaining that he did not need this authorization. He was vague about why. In my blog last night, I presumed that he was asserting that he had authority under his Article II commander-in-chief power.

Marty Lederman notes in the comments, as well as on Just Security, that this was not a reference to an Article II argument. A senior administration official released a statement last night confirming that Obama is relying on the 9/11 AUMF as an enduring authorization that covers the new military initiative against ISIS.

I find this argument implausible. Here is the relevant text of the AUMF:

IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Since, al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF covers al-Qaeda. It also covers organizations that planned, authorized, committed or aided the attacks, or organizations that harbored those organizations. Consequently, non-al-Qaeda organizations are covered by the AUMF insofar as they are connected to al-Qaeda in the right way.

This is a question of law application to fact, so it is necessarily a fact-dependent analysis. However, there appears to be little evidence that this link exists between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Of course, ISIS was once part of (or closely associated with al-Qaeda), and therefore at that time the AUMF arguably covered ISIS. Before its current manifestation, ISIS was considered an Iraq franchise of al-Qaeda, operating under the banner of Osama bin Laden and ostensibly subordinating itself under his operational control.

That relationship no longer exists. ISIS no longer operates under the banner of al-Qaeda, nor is it operationally subordinate to what is left of al-Qaeda core or any of the other al-Qaeda franchises. And famously, al-Qaeda effectively excommunicated ISIS for not following its central directives regarding target selection. Al-Qaeda officials correctly concluded that ISIS’s strategy was counter-productive because it alienated Muslims, and they promptly disassociated themselves from a group that was too radical even by al-Qaeda’s standards. So the operational link is broken, and has long-since been broken.

So what is the connection that the administration is asserting? They argue that

Based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests, the extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and ISIL’s position – supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups – that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy…

This is a weak argument. Yes, ISIS once had a relationship with al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, but that prior relationship no longer governs. What matters is the current relationship. Furthermore, the fact that ISIS is the “true inheritor” of Bin Laden’s legacy is neither here nor there. In what sense is ISIS the “inheritor” of Bin Laden’s legacy? The only one I can think of is that ISIS represents the gravest Jihadist threat to the peaceful world — a position once held by Osama Bin Laden. Also, the fact that they threaten U.S. personnel and interests is an argument that proves way too much — plenty of other groups do that as well, which isn’t terribly relevant. None of this makes ISIS fit into one of the AUMF categories (planning, aiding, haboring, etc). Simply put, ISIS is not al-Qaeda.

Don’t get me wrong. I think ISIS represents the biggest threat to regional and national security since 9/11, and military force is warranted for that reason. Congress should immediately pass a new AUMF authorizing force against ISIS. I just don’t think that the original AUMF can be stretched to cover ISIS today. It’s a weak argument that sounds like a pretext to avoid making an Article II constitutional argument (which Obama presumably disfavors).

Is the AUMF Limited to the United States Armed Forces?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Bobby Chesney has responded at Lawfare to my most recent post on the CIA and the public-authority justification. It’s an excellent response from an exceedingly smart scholar. I still disagree, but Bobby’s post really hones in on the differences between us. I’ll leave it to readers to decide who has the better of the argument.

I do, however, want to discuss Bobby’s reading of the AUMF. In his view — echoing John Dehn’s comments — it is possible to read the AUMF to authorise the use of force by both the military and the CIA:

I’m not actually agreeing with [Kevin's] AUMF reading. Yes, Section 2′s title refers to the armed forces, but the actual text of section 2 is not so limited (in contrast to the similar section of the 2002 Iraq AUMF, for example, which did refer explicitly and only to armed forces). 

I confess that I find this argument baffling. It’s true that Section 2(a) of the AUMF does not mention the Armed Forces, providing only that “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those  nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11,  2001.” Read in context, however, I don’t see how it is possible to plausibly maintain that the word “force” in Section 2(a) does not specifically refer to force by the United States Armed Forces.

First, the AUMF is a Joint Resolution whose purpose, according to its very first line, is “[t]o authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”

Second, Section 1 of the AUMF (“Short Title”) says the joint resolution “may be cited as the “Authorization for Use of  Military Force.” We do not traditionally associate with the CIA, even if the CIA occasionally engages in paramilitary activity. (And the “para” in paramilitary is important in this context.)

Third, Section 2 of the AUMF, which contains the “force” language upon which Bobby (and John) rely, is entitled “Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces.” I know no theory of statutory interpretation nor any canon of statutory construction that would suggest “force” in the first paragraph of a section entitled “Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces” should be read in context to refer to something other than the use of force by the Armed Forces.

Fourth, Section 2(b)(1) provides that “[c]onsistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.” Section 8(a)(1) of the WPR provides as follows (emphasis mine)…

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Russian Edition

by Jens David Ohlin

Russia has skillfully managed to devote military support to the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Just how much support — and what kind of support — is unclear, since Russia formally denies that they are directly involved in the ongoing hostilities there. Ukrainian officials have insisted that they have specific proof that Russian troops and their equipment have not only crossed the border into Ukraine but have also engaged Ukrainian government troops. It is not unreasonable to speculate that, but-for the Russian assistance, the conflict would have concluded long ago with a Ukrainian government victory over the rebels.

In the face of mounting evidence of Russian involvement, the rebels have claimed that Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine are there voluntarily while on vacation. This is an obvious attempt to deny Russian liability, under basic rules of state responsibility, for the actions of the troops. The question is whether this argument holds any water.

First, it is unclear whether the statement is accurate. The world community does not have access to the W2s, or the Russian equivalent, for the soldiers — so if the rebel leaders are lying, the world would have no idea. I also find it hard to believe that Russian troops, or any government troops for that matter, would voluntarily place themselves in harms way for no compensation whatsoever.  More likely they are receiving cash payments covertly.

Second, even if the claim is true, and the Russian commanders have officially placed the soldiers on vacation (or furlough), there is the additional issue that they are no doubt using Russian government equipment, as opposed to their private “home” materials. While individual soldiers might own personaI firearms, I find it hard to believe that Russian troops own their own armored personnel carriers that they keep in their backyards for “vacation” purposes.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it is unclear what the legal consequences of these “vacation deployments” are even if they are true. The standard is whether the troops are under the control (either effective control or overall control depending on which standard applies) of the Russian government. Employment and monetary payments are just one way of exercising control, as is operational control. However, suppose Russia provides the rebels with 50,000 troops who are “volunteering” to fight with the rebels? Would this automatically entail that Russia has no control over the troops? It seems to me that control requires a richer formulation, one that is sensitive to the varying ways that states can engage in covert assistance across borders. Although states may attempt to deny responsibility for this assistance, this does not mean that international law should let them without suffering the consequences.

In Nicaragua, the ICJ concluded that the mere provision of financial or military assistance, standing on its own, is insufficient to generate state responsibility for the actions of the assisted troops (via direct imputation). This was (and is) a sensible precedent, because the basic contours of complicity requires that international law recognize the various ways that assistance can trigger responsibility. Even if Russia only organized and armed the troops, but did not directly pay them a salary, it would seem to me that this constitutes an illegal interference in Ukrainian domestic sovereignty (with regard to both political independence and territorial integrity), in violation of the UN Charter and customary international law (in much the same way as the ICJ concluded in Nicaragua).

Of course, all of this might be moot. It is possible that Russia is engaged in direct operational control over the rebels, with logistical coordination, air support, and satellite imagery, that unquestionably demonstrates their responsibility even under the effective control test. But at this point the facts are very much unknown.

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.

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.