Tag: executive power

Obama Allows Congress to Participate in Lawmaking

This headline appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post:

Obama allows Congress a voice in NSA

The story reports that President Obama “will call on Congress to help determine the [NSA surveillance] program’s future. Which is good because Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States provides that:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.

Deciding the scope and extent of any federal surveillance powers is clearly a legislative matter. Subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution’s limits on federal powers, legislative powers are vested in Congress, not the president. How can reporters (and headline writers) write so cavalierly about the president “giving” Congress a chance to “weigh in” on matters of fundamental law? This headline should be as jarring as one reading, “Obama plans to give Supreme Court a say in fate of NSA program.” It isn’t up to the president. The legislative branch is empowered by the Constitution to make law, and the judicial branch is empowered to strike down legislative and executive actions not authorized by the Constitution. The president’s job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the rise of presidential power ‘‘was as much a matter of congressional acquiescence as of presidential usurpation.’’ It’s time for Congress to stop acquiescing. And for journalists to remind readers of the powers granted to presidents in the Constitution.

Rand Paul’s “Teachable Moment”

On the U.S. government’s targeted killing and drone-bombing program, in the past I have harped on the fact that despite the discrete and immediate effects of disrupting terrorist activity, no expert can conclusively answer whether such tactics materially reduce the threat of terrorism. But don’t just take my word for it:

  • General James E. Cartwright, the retired, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said about drones undermining America’s long-term battle against extremism, “We’re seeing that blowback…If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
  • General Stanley McChrystal, the retired, former commander in Afghanistan, has said about drones and anti-American sentiment, “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level…”
  • And John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, has said that one day, drone strikes might “become as internationally maligned as Guantanamo.” 

Today, in a piece for U.S. News and World Report, I write about yet another relevant factor in the drone debate beyond the scope of the aforementioned issues: the Congressional prerogative to limit executive war powers. It explains why Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) should keep fighting the good fight for more transparency over the program:

Today, our commander in chief, through a secretive decision-making process based on classified evidence, has declared the right to use lethal force against anybody, anytime, anywhere on earth. Although Paul’s effort to shine a harsh light on targeted killings has thus far been commendable, he has squandered many opportunities to explain how we get back to the constitution-based system he champions. In this respect, the liberty movement has been right to hold his feet to the fire. Thus, here comes the “teachable moment.”

Check it out

Book Forum Thursday: Debating American Exceptionalisms with Richard Gamble

Thursday at 10 AM Cato hosts Richard Gamble to discuss his book: In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. Historians Walter McDougall and Derek Leebaert will provide commentary. 

Gamble’s book traces the “city on a hill” metaphor as American self-description. We follow it from John Winthrop, who may have used the term, following the gospels, to remind the other Puritans onboard the Mayflower of their faith’s requirements, to modern conservatives like Sarah Palin, who use it in a story about the inherent virtue of the United States—the version of American exceptionalism that sees U.S. foreign policy as the engine of liberalism’s global progress. 

The forum should help us make sense of recent debates—or rhetorical posturing—about American exceptionalism. Its loudest advocates today claim that their opponents, starting with President Obama, deny that the country is exceptional. What they ignore, as Gamble shows, is that their exceptionalism reverses the old kind. What made the United States exceptional upon independence was its liberal government. Most early American leaders thought that form of government would suffer from participation in European power politics. They worried that entanglement in foreign troubles would produce domestic conditions corrosive to liberty— a large military establishment and consolidated executive power. So the liberalism that made the nation exceptional meant avoiding the crusading foreign policies that modern proponents of American exceptionalism say it requires. 

Here’s how Gamble put it in the American Conservative last September: 

The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world. 

McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 concerned this revolution of exceptionalism’s meaning, so his comments should be telling. Leebaert’s recent book, Magic and Mayhem: the Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, is also quite relevant. As moderator, I will push the speakers to answer two questions. First, aren’t we discussing competing ideas of American nationalism? Second, are the ideas we generally see as drivers of foreign policies really just their PR and power the cause of both? 

Register here or watch live online.

FDR and Executive Order 9066

Gordon Hirabayashi died on January 2, at age 93.

The Washington Post obituary notes that the  federal government put him in a prison during the 1940s. President Franklin Roosevelt issued many decrees, but the one that would lead to Hirabayashi’s imprisonment, Executive Order 9066, said that thousands of Americans residing on the West Coast had to leave their jobs and homes and promptly report to certain prison camps (“relocation centers”).  The feds said actual proof of wrongdoing was unnecessary.

Hirabayashi refused to go along with the program, so he was prosecuted for disobeying the president and jailed. The courts rejected his argument that FDR had exceeded the powers of his office.  In an interview in 1985, Hirabayashi looked back on his ordeal and said, “My citizenship didn’t protect me one bit.  Our Constitution was reduced to a scrap of paper.”

Even though there are written safeguards concerning due process, habeas corpus, and jury trial, presidents will sometimes assert the power to override all that. FDR did it. George W. Bush did it. And Barack Obama wants to reserve the option to do it.

On January 17, Cato will be hosting a book forum about FDR’s war policies and civil liberties.

For related Cato scholarship, go here and here.

One Executive Order That Could Stop ObamaCare

A new memo from the Congressional Research Service explains that the next president cannot simply stop ObamaCare (“PPACA”) by executive order:

[A] president would not appear to be able to issue an executive order halting statutorily required programs or mandatory appropriations for a new grant or other program in PPACA, and there are a variety of different types of these programs. Such an executive order would likely conflict with an explicit congressional mandate and be viewed “incompatible with the express…will of Congress”…However, there may be instances where PPACA leaves discretion to the Secretary to take actions to implement a mandatory program, and…an executive order directing the Secretary to take particular actions may be analyzed as within or beyond the President’s powers to provide for the direction of the executive branch.

In other words, the worst elements of ObamaCare – the government price controls it imposes on health insurance, the individual mandate, and the new spending on health-insurance entitlements –  are “statutorily required programs” that, say, President Romney cannot repeal or even halt by executive order.

However, there is one executive order that could effectively block ObamaCare, and that lies well within the president’s powers.

The Obama administration has issued a proposed IRS rule that would offer “premium assistance” (a hybrid of tax credits and outlays) in health insurance “exchanges” created by the federal government. The only problem is, ObamaCare only authorizes these tax credits and outlays in “an Exchange established by the State.” The administration did so because without premium assistance, ObamaCare will collapse, at least in states that do not create their own Exchanges.  Yet the executive branch does not have the power to create new tax credits and outlays.  Only Congress does.  So if the final version of this IRS rule offers premium assistance in federal Exchanges, it will clearly exceed the authority that Congress and the Constitution have delegated to the executive branch.

In that case, the next president could issue an executive order directing the IRS either not to offer premium assistance in federal Exchanges or to rescind this rule and draft a new one that does not. The U.S. Constitution demands that the president “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Such an executive order therefore lies clearly within the president’s constitutional powers: it would ensure the faithful execution of the laws by preventing the executive from usurping Congress’ legislative powers.

While such an executive order would not repeal ObamaCare, as Jonathan Adler and I explain in this Wall Street Journal oped, it would “block much of ObamaCare’s spending and practically force Congress to reopen the law.”

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.

Awlaki and Due Process

The administration argues that suspected al Qaida terrorists – even U.S. citizens – can be targeted for assassination because they either (a) pose an imminent threat or (b) are part of an enemy army; and (c) other governments are unwilling or unable to act. Although the Fifth Amendment ensures that persons not be denied due process, it’s unclear what process is “due” – especially when the person is a citizen. For example, a U.S. citizen who threatens hostages with imminent loss of life can be killed by law enforcement authorities. Similarly, an American who serves in a foreign army against which the United States is at war is plainly a legitimate target.

Moreover, under the Nationality Act, a citizen can lose his citizenship if he intends to do so (although intent can be inferred by actions) and he either (a) declares allegiance to a foreign state, (b) serves in a post requiring such a declaration, (c) serves in armed forces in combat with the United States, or (d) serves as an officer or NCO in the armed forces of a foreign state.

Still, the killing of Awlaki is a close legal call. On balance, it’s probably unlawful. The imminent-threat contention isn’t credible. To my knowledge, no one has identified a threat that is imminent (meaning: about to happen). The part-of-an-enemy-army claim and the loss-of-citizenship argument raise several questions: First, is the Nationality Act itself constitutional? The Constitution establishes criteria for citizenship. Stripping someone of citizenship effectively changes those criteria, and Congress may not have that power. Second, even if the Nationality Act is constitutional, does al Qaida qualify as a foreign state for purposes of the Act? Are al Qaida agents equivalent to soldiers engaged in combat with the United States? Third, even if the Nationality Act might apply in Awlaki’s case, how do we know that he triggered the provisions of the Act? Can the administration simply assert that he met one of the tests for loss of citizenship, or must there be some threshold process to make that determination?

Finally, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force sanctioned force against those involved in the 9/11 tragedy. Awlaki, although not directly involved, probably qualified as part of an “associated force”; but actions that might self-evidently be lawful if Awlaki were actively fighting on a battlefield are less so when he’s allegedly plotting attacks from Yemen.

All told, when U.S. citizens are targeted, I’d be more comfortable with somewhat more process – not a trial before an Article III court, of course, but perhaps the equivalent of an assassination warrant that required a non-executive-branch body with relevant expertise to certify sufficient cause. Anything less risks disrespect for the Constitution, which could have regrettable implications in other areas. The separation of powers doctrine, if it means anything, stands for the proposition that citizens cannot be killed on command of the executive branch alone, without regard to the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Naturally, exceptions are justified for truly imminent threats. If I were convinced that involvement of another branch might result in Awlaki-types escaping punishment, I’d be more willing to invoke “emergency” powers – similar to hot pursuit – but not in this case.

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