Tag: jack goldsmith

White House: ‘We Have Never Been at War in Northafrica!’

Pardon the somewhat trite Orwell reference in the title to this post. But sometimes this administration’s wordgames make it hard to resist invoking our keenest analyst of politics and the English language.

Some months ago, the Obama team began telling us that the Libyan War wasn’t a war—it was a “kinetic military action.” (Go here to watch Defense Secretary Robert Gates try—and fail—to maintain a straight face selling that line to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes).

In April, the president’s Office of Legal Counsel made the (bogus) argument that the president hadn’t violated the War Powers Resolution because the WPR recognized his authority to engage in hostilities for at least 60 days without congressional approval.  We’re now coming up on 90.

Yesterday, in response to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) request, the president issued a new explanation for why he isn’t in violation of the WPR, which requires the president to terminate US engagement in “hostilities” after 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. And it turns out that, per Obama, not only is the Libyan War not a “war,” what we’re doing in Libya—supporting, coordinating, and carrying out attacks—doesn’t even rise to the level of “hostilities.”

The president’s report states that he hasn’t violated the WPR, because “U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision”:  they don’t “involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.”

As Jack Goldsmith explains, “The Administration argues that once it starts firing missiles from drones it is no longer in ‘hostilities’ because U.S. troops suffer no danger of return fire.”  ”The implications here,” Goldsmith notes, “in a world of increasingly remote weapons, are large.”

I’ll say: this is an extraordinary argument: The president can rain down destruction via cruise missiles and robot death kites anywhere in the world. But unless an American airman might get hurt, we’re not engaged in “hostilities.”

Put aside the strange argument that acts of war don’t rise to the level of “hostilities.” Given that outrage over the illegal bombing of Cambodia was part of the backdrop to the WPR’s passage, it would have been pretty strange if the Resolution’s drafters thought presidential warmaking was A-OK, so long as you did it from a great height.

As legal arguments go, this is the national security law equivalent of the Clinton perjury defense. It’s the type of thing that gives lawyers an even worse name. Or maybe law professors, because, speaking of Bill Clinton, Obama’s the second former constitutional law professor in a row to violate the War Powers Resolution.

And yet, Obama continues to insist he’s in full compliance with the WPR, and he has no objection to the resolution on constitutional grounds.

God help me, I think I just felt a twinge of nostalgia for John Yoo.  Say what you will about the legal architect of Bush’s “Terror Presidency,” at least he had the courage of his bizarre convictions. When the statutes couldn’t be tortured into complete submission, Yoo would make the case that—whatever the law said—the president had the constitutional power to do as he pleased.  That’s clearly what Obama believes as well, but you’re not going to catch him admitting it.

First, They Came for the Sex Offenders

First, they came for the sex offenders. I am not a sex offender, but I opposed the civil commitment of sex offenders by the federal government because it is not an activity within the enumerated powers of Congress. The Supreme Court decided otherwise in Comstock, with the exception of Justices Thomas and Scalia.

Next, they will come for suspected terrorists. As Dahlia Lithwick (who I rarely agree with – here is her commentary on the Heller case) points out, the Supreme Court’s decision in Comstock may have some frightening implications for domestic preventive detention of terrorism suspects in lieu of criminal prosecution.

I saw this firsthand last summer when I attended a scholars meeting with the Obama administration’s Detention Policy Task Force (the same one that Andy McCarthy publicly refused to attend). I gave my views on where detention policy should go, as did a conference room full of experts on the laws of armed conflict and criminal justice (who shall remain anonymous, as this meeting was off the record). I was dismayed to hear a law professor from a prestigious university propose a system of preventive detention as the logical solution to countering terrorism. Worse yet, to make this law less provocative, the professor further proposed that preventive detention should be applied in other criminal contexts, so that the department of pre-crime would not be seen as unfairly targeting only enemy combatants overseas. This professor had taught many of the Department of Justice staffers in the room, and I looked around to see heads nodding at the suggestion.

I responded forcefully that such a system is antithetical to American traditions of due process. Battlefield detention is necessary to incapacitate insurgents and terrorists overseas, and is often employed in lieu of killing them. Broad powers of detention without trial in the criminal context do not make Guantanamo less controversial; they bring it on to our shores and in to our courtrooms. If we have enough information to show that someone is a threat by a preponderance of the evidence in order to detain them, we probably have enough to indict them for conspiracy. One of the reasons that few people turn to political violence in the United States is that the Bill of Rights bars the government from telling the citizenry how to worship, what to think, and what they can say. Generally speaking, you have to actually be a criminal to get charged as one.

Would the votes in Comstock translate into a Supreme Court ratification of such a system? Probably not, since Kennedy and Alito stressed in their concurrences that the circumstances in Comstock are unique. And Hamdi showed us that Scalia takes habeas corpus rights seriously when it comes to citizens. Unfortunately, only Stevens shared this view and he looks to be replaced by Elena Kagan, who argued that civil commitment in Comstock was an extension of Congress’ power to create and run a prison system (not an enumerated power). But this isn’t about counting the noses currently on the Court; it’s about creating a new normal where the people in prison are detainees, not defendants.

Unfortunately, there are more than a few people in favor of such a system. Jack Goldsmith and Neal Katyal (now the acting Solicitor General) propose a terrorism court. Sens.  McCain and Lieberman want to treat all terrorism suspects as enemy combatants. Sens.  Lieberman and Brown want to strip the citizenship of terrorism suspects and try them by military commission. Sens. Graham and McCain plan to close Guantanamo by creating a preventive detention court. Take a conservative plan to deal with enemy combatants captured on the other side of the world, strap on some liberal angst over tea parties and militia groups, and you’ve got a bipartisan plan for wholesale degradation of everyone’s liberties.

And when the proposal comes, the first thing they’ll say is that this is how we already deal with sex offenders.

Fixing Detention

The Obama administration performed another Friday afternoon Guantanamo news dump last week, indicating that it will probably maintain administrative military detention of combatants under a forthcoming executive order.

This is unnecessary executive unilateralism. As Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith point out in today’s Washington Post, this is a debate that ought to be held in Congress.

This would not be a tough push for Obama. The Obama administration already amended its claim of authority in a filing with the District Court for the District of Columbia, the judicial body sorting through the detainees remaining at Gitmo. Convincing Congress to ratify this decision should not be hard; the differences between the Bush administration’s “enemy combatant” criteria and what the Obama administration defines as “substantially supporting” Al Qaeda and the Taliban are minute. As I wrote in a previous post on detention definitions and decisions, the actions proscribed under these two standards and the activities constituting the “direct participation in hostilities” standard used in the case of Salim Hamdan are nearly identical.

The only positive news about the pending announcement is that the creation of a national security court specializing in detention decisions is probably not in the cards. As I have said before, national security court proposals play the propaganda game the way terrorists want to and often revive the prospect of domestic preventive detention of terror suspects, to include American citizens who would otherwise be charged with a substantive crime for domestic acts. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief opposing this practice in the Padilla case.