Tag: anwar al awlaki

Wittgenstein, Private Language, and Secret Law

One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right.’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §258

Among the arguments for which the great 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous, perhaps the best known—and most controversial—is his argument for the impossibility of a truly “private language.” Since Wittgenstein’s own language was, if not quite “private,” notoriously opaque, it’s a matter of some controversy exactly what the argument is, but here’s a very crude summary of one common interpretation:

Language is, by it’s nature, a rule-governed enterprise. Under normal circumstances, for instance, I use words correctly when I say “there’s a yellow school bus outside,” just in case there is a yellow school bus outside. If, instead, there’s a blue Prius, then I may be lying, or trying to make some sort of signally unfunny joke, or confused about either the facts or about what words mean—but I am, one way or another, using the words “incorrectly.” And indeed, the only way words like “yellow” and “school bus” can have any specific meaning is if they’re correctly applied to some things, but not to others.

Now suppose I decide to invent my own private language, meant to describe my own internal sensations and mental states, maybe for the purpose of recording them in a personal diary. On the first day, I experience a particular sensation I decide to call “S,” and record in my diary: “Today I felt S.” As time passes, on some days I write S to describe my private sensations, and on other days maybe I come up with different labels—maybe T, U, and V. This certainly looks like a private language, but there’s a problem: each time I write down “S,” the idea is suppose to be that I’m recording that I had the same sensation I had the first day—S—and not T, U, or V. But what’s the criteria for “the same”? What makes it true that my sensation on day 27 really is “more like” the sensation S that I had on day 1, and not V, which I first had on day 16? How do I know that this new sensation is really an S and not a V? (Say S was an itch in my hand; will I be correct to use S to refer to an itch in my shoulder? Or a pain in my hand? Or for that matter a pain in my shoulder?) The only criterion is that it seems or feels that way to me. But in that case, I’m not really engaged in a rule-governed language system at all, because in effect S applies to whatever I decide it does. Since I can never really be wrong, it doesn’t really make sense to say I’m ever right in my use either. Since the terms are truly private, there’s no difference between “correctly applying S” and “specifying in greater detail what S means.” What looked like a “private language” was actually just a kind of pantomime of a true, rule-governed language.

I found myself thinking of Wittgenstein and his private language argument, oddly enough, when thinking about the various forms of “secret law” and “secret legal interpretations” that increasingly govern our endless War on Terror. Consider, for instance, the secret legal memorandum justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, discussed in an October 8 New York Times piece:

The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.

Whether or not one agrees with the substantive principle articulated here, this at least sounds like a real rule limiting the discretion of the executive. Except…who decides when a capture is “not feasible” (as opposed to merely risky, costly, or inconvenient)? The same executive who is meant to apply and be bound by the rule. Who determines when the threat posed by a citizen is “significant” enough to permit targeting? Again, the executive.

This is not, one might object, a wholly “private” interpretive problem, because the Office of Legal Counsel provides some kind of quasi-independent check: it will occasionally tell even a president that what he wants to do isn’t legal. But in that case, the president can simply do what Barack Obama did in the case of his intervention in Libya: keep asking different legal advisers until one of them gives you the answer you want, then decide that the more favorable opinion overrides whatever OLC had concluded.

Similar considerations apply to the “secret law” of surveillance. The FBI may issue National Security Letters for certain specific types of records—including “toll billing records”—without judicial approval, but these secret demands must at least be “relevant to an authorized investigation.” A weak limit, we might think, but at least a limit. Yet, again, the apparent limitation is illusory: it is the Justice Department itself that determines what may count as an “authorized investigation.” When Congress initially passed the Patriot Act a decade ago, an “authorized investigation” meant a “full investigation” predicated on some kind of real evidence of wrongdoing. Just a few years later, though, the attorney general’s guidelines were changed to permit their use in much more speculative “preliminary investigations,” and soon enough, the majority of NSLs were being used in such preliminary investigations. Needless to say, “relevance” too is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In most of these cases, the prospects for external limitation are slim. First, of course, anyone who disagreed with the executive’s secret interpretation would have to find out about it—which may happen only years after the fact in whatever unknowable percentage of cases it ever happens at all. Then they’d have to overcome the extraordinary deference of our court system to assertions of the State Secrets Privilege just to be able to have a court consider whether the government had acted illegally. In practice, then, the executive is defining the terms of, and interpreting, the same rules that supposedly bind it.

The usual thing to say about this scenario is that it shows the importance of checks and balances in preventing the law from being perverted or abused. If we think there is at least a rough analogy between these cases and Wittgenstein’s diarist writing in a “private language,” though, we’ll see that this doesn’t go quite far enough. What we should say, rather, is that these are cases where “secret law,” like “private language” is not merely practically dangerous but conceptually incoherent. They are not genuine cases of “legal interpretation” at all, but only a kind of pantomime. Perhaps what we should say in these cases is not that the president or the executive branch may have violated the law—as though there were still, in general, some background binding principles—but that in these institutional contexts one simply cannot speak of actions as “in accordance with” or “contrary to” the law at all.  Where the possibility of external correction is foreclosed, the objectionable and unobjectionable decisions alike are, inherently, lawless.

Four Thoughts on the Anwar Al-Awlaki Assassination

As Bob Levy has already ably probed the legal issues surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, I’ll just append a few miscellaneous thoughts.

First, over the last decade we have been repeatedly told by foreign policy hawks that it is foolish, and even borderline offensive, to suggest that aggressive U.S. action abroad may have the counterproductive and unintended consequence of swelling the ranks of terror groups. When evaluating the wisdom of drone strikes or invasions of other countries, we need not even factor in the downside risk of “blowback” stemming from such actions, because “they hate us for our freedoms.” In other words, radical Islamist terrorists are fundamentally motivated by a vision of a global caliphate, not by any grievances stemming from real or perceived injuries inflicted by U.S. policy. I think of this as the “No Marginal Terrorist” Theory, because it posits that people are motivated to join terror groups strictly for reasons connected with either personal psychology or theology, such that reactions to specific U.S. actions never make the difference at the margin.

At the same time—and often by the same people—we are told that Anwar al-Awlaki posed a grave threat to the United States, not so much because of any particular logistical genius he possessed, but because he was so dangerously effective as a recruiter and propagandist who could inspire people already living in the West to jihad. Surely, then, it’s relevant to inquire into the nature of this lethally effective propaganda. Here is an excerpt from what The Guardian calls one of ”his most direct, English-language statements endorsing terror attacks on Americans”:

With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim….

To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?

Possibly al-Awlaki is just a sort of Salafist James Earl Jones, and the sheer hypnotic beauty of his voice is what compels people to sacrifice their lives for him, without regard to the specific contents of his sermons. Still, it seems to be a problem for the No Marginal Terrorist Theory if a propagandist who was believed to be uniquely effective at motivating people to become terrorists used rhetoric like this to do it.

Second, a good deal of the coverage I’ve been seeing has treated the conclusions of U.S. intelligence analysts about al-Awlaki’s role and status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as ironclad facts rather than contestable inferences from necessarily patchy data—even though the past decade should have made it abundantly clear that analysts sometimes get it wrong. Certainly al-Awlaki is no “innocent” in any sense of the word, but on the crucial claim that he’d progressed from terrorist mascot to mastermind, it’s worth noticing how much of the case depends on plots that the cleric was “linked to” or “believed to have had a hand in planning.” At least one Yemen expert has argued that al-Awlaki’s status within AQAP has been wildly inflated, describing him as a “midlevel religious functionary.”

While there is some public evidence that certainly seems to support the conclusion that al-Awlaki had gone “operational”—that he did not merely advocate jihad in principle, but played a key role in planning and directing terrorist acts—the bulk of it remains classified. As we learned to our great cost after the invasion of Iraq, a top secret clearance does not actually grant omniscience, and sometimes a case that seems like a slam-dunk on the surface falls apart under impartial scrutiny. Paradoxically, the administration’s refusal to submit to that scrutiny seems to have given its determinations an aura of oracular certainty.

Third, the case for targeted killing here relies very heavily on the fact that al-Awlaki had put himself beyond the reach of feasible arrest. The most ardent hawk would recoil at the prospect of simply dropping a bomb on a citizen suspected of al Qaeda ties in New Jersey, or London. But as Robert Farley notes, what is “feasible” is at least in part a matter of judgments about the risks and benefits of attempting a capture. So we’re required to entrust to the executive branch to determine not just when a particular citizen has joined the enemy, but under what conditions it’s worth the risk of attempting to take them alive.

In al-Awlaki’s case, one can at least say—as the judge who rejected a lawsuit brought by his father did—that the target was plainly aware the government was after him, and in theory could have offered to surrender himself if he’d been interested in seeking his day in court. (I stress “in theory” because it’s hard to imagine AQAP looking favorably on such a decision in the wildly improbable event al-Awlaki had been inclined to make it.)

But remember that this was supposed to be a wholly covert operation, and would (according to the administration) imperil national security if discussed in any way—even though the national security risk appears to have diminished a great deal now that it’s a matter of taking credit rather than blocking litigation. There was an advance leak in this instance, but the next citizen on the list may have no idea there’s a Hellfire missile with his name on it. What we think about the specific instance of al-Awlaki, then, seems less important than how we feel about a case in which everything goes according to plan. That is, an American citizen is simply killed abroad with no advance warning, on the basis of an executive determination that he has joined an enemy power and poses an imminent threat, and no guarantee that the United States will acknowledge (let alone justify) the operation even after the fact.

Fourth and finally, the debate after the fact has been a reminder of how utterly useless conventional war metaphors are for grappling with the unique problems presented by the present conflict. Anyone who imagines the very thorny issues presented in the current case are somehow illuminated by analogies from World War II is just kidding themselves: if this conflict were not so plainly unlike World War II and other conventional conflicts between nation states, on so many salient dimensions—if we could straightforwardly treat an ever-shifting array of emerging terror groups as equivalent to a sovereign country’s uniformed military—everything would be a good deal simpler.

‘Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.’

Earlier this year, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed that the Obama administration authorized the CIA to kill American-born, Yemeni-based Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Several people I admire and respect—and who are far more versed in the legal aspects of the “war on terror”—have already weighed in on whether the U.S. Government is authorized to kill U.S. terror suspects abroad, so I defer to those experts.

But what’s interesting is that the U.S. Government has killed “many Westerners, including some U.S. passport holders” in Pakistan’s tribal areas dating all the way back to the Bush administration, according to Bob Woodward’s new book.

Jeff Stein over at WaPo’s SpyTalk writes that according to Woodward, on November 12, 2008, then-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden disclosed the killings to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New York. At the meeting, Zardari allegedly said, “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

It now appears that two human rights groups are challenging the legality of the Obama Justice Department’s right to kill U.S. citizens abroad. Will these groups now do the same with former Bush officials, too?

Fort Hood and Political Correctness

This morning, Politico Arena asks:

The Fort Hood tragedy: Why does it matter, or not, what we call it? Is it being politicized?

My response:

If we want to be technical, what we call the Fort Hood massacre matters, and James Taranto got it right in Monday’s Wall Street Journal:  It was not a terrorist attack, targeting noncombatants, but an act of guerrilla warfare, carried out by one of our own in apparent contact with the enemy, and hence an act of treason.

But the deeper and far larger problem is why the Army didn’t act sooner against this man and, even more, why it is, as Dorothy Rabinowitz put it in yesterday’s Journal, that “the tide of pronouncements and ruminations pointing to every cause for this event other than the one obvious to everyone in the rational world continues apace.”  After all, it is not as if “the Hasan problem,” richly detailed elsewhere, were unknown to the Army.  So why was nothing done?  We all know why.  It was stated simply in an NPR report yesterday:  “A key official on a [Walter Reed] review committee reportedly asked how it might look to terminate a key resident who happened to be a Muslim.”  If this isn’t ”political correctness,” nothing is.

And it goes beyond the naive analyses that say we can do nothing about these kinds of problems.  It infects our very culture, from the newsroom to the college campus and far beyond, crippling sound analysis and judgment.  We learn just this morning, for example, again in the Journal, that the FBI may not have briefed the Army, or done so sufficiently (it’s unclear), about Hasan’s intercepted emails with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni imam.  There may have been intelligence reasons for compartmenting that information.  But in other cases it is an obsession with privacy that cripples investigation, itself a species of political correctness.  Yet the conflicting “rights” at issue in risk contexts are never more than right claims until they’re delineated by statute or adjudication.  Too often, however, that obsession blinds us, including in our legislation and adjudication, to the rights on the other side.  After all, the 3,000 who died on 9/11 and the soldiers who died at Fort Hood had rights too.

The Fort Hood massacre cries out for further investigation.  But it must be clear-eyed and free from the prejudice that today is rightly called “political correctness.”