Tag: charlie savage

Harold Koh and the Temptations of Power

So for three months now, we’ve been at war in a country that the president’s own secretary of defense admits is “not a vital interest for the United States.” Turns out, it’s also a war that the president’s own attorney general believes to be illegal.

That’s what I get from Charlie Savage’s recent reporting on how the White House “forum-shopped” its way to its current position on the War Powers Resolution, to wit, you’re not engaged in “hostilities” if you’re hitting someone but they can’t hit you back.

As the WPR’s 60-day deadline approached, the Pentagon’s general counsel and, more importantly, the head of the president’s Office of Legal Counsel, Caroline D. Krass, advised Obama that bombing Tripoli—even if done remotely, with little risk of immediate retaliation—counted as engaging in “hostilities” under the WPR, which meant that the president would have to terminate U.S. involvement or radically scale it back after the 60-day limit. As Savage reports, “Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. supported Ms. Krass’s view, officials said”—in other words, that if the president continued bombing Libya, he’d be violating the WPR.

Ordinarily OLC’s opinion would have the greatest weight here, but President Obama went with the advice given by White House Counsel Robert Bauer and State Department Legal adviser Harold Koh—who told him what he wanted to hear.

My Washington Examiner column today focuses on Harold Koh as an object lesson in the corrupting potential of power:

Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith notes that “for a quarter century before heading up State-Legal, Koh was the leading and most vocal academic critic of presidential unilateralism in war.” On the strength of that reputation, Koh rose to the deanship of Yale Law School in 2004.

And Koh seemed to take the War Powers Resolution pretty seriously. In 1994, for example, he wrote to the Clinton Justice Department to protest the planned deployment to Haiti, which was carried out without a single shot being fired:

“Nothing in the War Powers Resolution authorizes the President to commit armed forces overseas into actual or imminent hostilities in a situation where he could have gotten advance authorization.”

Who could have predicted that his legacy at State would be reading the WPR practically out of existence?

On Thursday, Koh took point at a press conference selling the administration line. The next day, he went before the American Constitution Society, the progressive alternative to the Federalist Society, to give a strikingly self-congratulatory speech about maintaining one’s integrity in “public service.” The relevant part starts at around 33:00 in. Highlights: “I’ve lived the life I wanted to live; I’ve said the things I wanted to say”…”I still believe in my principles”…”I never say anything I don’t believe”…”if you hear me say something, you can be absolutely sure that I believe it [including “the administration’s position on war powers in Libya”]”…”if I say it, I believe it, and I intend to stand by it”…”For what is a man?/what has he got? If not himself/then he has not…” (OK, not the last bit).

As I note in the column:

John Dean, who served prison time for his role in the Watergate cover-up as a young White House counsel to Richard Nixon, once said that young people should be kept away from top executive posts.

They lacked the life experience and independence needed to resist falling under the spell of presidents who want them to bend or break the law.

Koh was in his mid-50s when he joined the administration, coming off a distinguished career built on opposition to the Imperial Presidency. Yet the lure of being “in the room” when the big decisions are made seems to have turned him into the Gollum of Foggy Bottom.

Oh, and by the way, Charlie Savage reports today that piloted strikes continued past the 60-day time limit, so even if Koh’s legal rationalization could pass the laugh test, it wouldn’t fit the facts we have.

The Ghailani Verdict

You’ve probably heard that a jury found Al Qaeda bomber Ahmed Ghailani guilty on only one out of 286 charges associated with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

A predictable debate followed. Glenn Greenwald cited the outcome as proof that the system works, while Liz Cheney, Debra Burlingame and Bill Kristol described the trial as a reckless experiment. Thomas Joscelyn called the trial a miscarriage of justice.

The most insightful commentary I’ve seen is over at Lawfare. Benjamin Wittes and Robert Chesney summed things up pretty well: “Trial in federal court didn’t work out the way the Obama administration wanted, but it wasn’t a disaster–and we can’t honestly say it worked out worse than the military commission alternative would likely have done.”

I’ve disagreed with Wittes on lawfare issues before, but he and Chesney are right on this case: (1) the defendant will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail, possibly life; (2) it’s not certain that the military commissions would have allowed evidence obtained by coercion (Charlie Savage also made this point in his article for the New York Times), (3) the conspiracy conviction in civilian court is solid on appeal, but not necessarily so in a military commission (conspiracy is not a traditional law of war violation, and three sitting Supreme Court justices have questioned its application in that forum); (4) the forum of conviction is less ripe for attack in courts of law and public opinion.

That’s a good outcome.

Targeted Killing of U.S. Citizen a State Secret?

That’s the claim the Obama administration made in court. As Glenn Greenwald puts it:

[W]hat’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

Italics in the original. My colleagues Gene Healy and Nat Hentoff have expressed concerns about targeted killings. Charlie Savage wrote a good piece on this that highlights how even the most ardent defenders of executive power may blush at this broad claim of power.

The government’s increasing use of the state secrets doctrine to shield its actions from judicial review has been contentious. Some officials have argued that invoking it in the Awlaki matter, about which so much is already public, would risk a backlash. David Rivkin, a lawyer in the White House of President George H. W. Bush, echoed that concern.

“I’m a huge fan of executive power, but if someone came up to you and said the government wants to target you and you can’t even talk about it in court to try to stop it, that’s too harsh even for me,” he said.

In fairness, Rivkin would defend the administration’s claim of power on other grounds – that targeting is a “political question” for the elected branches of government – but this approach seems to have lost out because it invites the judiciary to determine whether the U.S. is at war in Yemen.

Amending the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after 9/11 is long overdue. What groups are we truly at war with, where does the line between war and peace sit, who can we detain and kill, and what process is owed before a citizen may be targeted with lethal force? Questions of war are political in nature, and if we don’t know the answers, it is Congress’ role to step in and provide them.