September 28, 2010 2:22PM

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.

July 23, 2010 2:24PM

Liberty Requires Risk

That’s the message of my recent op‐​ed in the Daily Caller. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial reaction to the McDonald v. City of Chicago decision was to say that McDonald would have no impact on government’s ability to keep guns “out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.” This was a reference to legislation that Bloomberg supports that would allow the federal government to bar anyone the Attorney General thinks is a terrorist from purchasing a firearm. Not convicted of a crime in support of terrorism — that would make them a felon and already unable to purchase or own a firearm. No, being suspected of activity in support of or preparation for terrorism means you get the same treatment as if you were a convicted felon or had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. So much for due process.


While D.C. v. Heller is the relevant decision (the AG’s double secret probation list is a federal, not state action), the premise of this legislation needs to be refuted. The proposition that guns and gun ownership are uniquely dangerous such that the right to keep and bear arms must be treated as a second‐​class provision of the Bill of Rights is willfully blind of the other instances where society accepts risk by safeguarding liberty in the face of foreseeable hazards. Justice Stephen Breyer embraced this misguided concept –– that the right to keep and bear arms is an enumerated, but non‐​fundamental, right that deserves a lesser degree of protection than the rest of the provisions of the Bill of Rights — in his McDonald dissent.


I counter that notion in this podcast:

Related thoughts from Ilya Somin here.

May 7, 2010 1:31PM

The Lieberman‐​Brown Bill Merely Updates Expatriation Law for the 21st Century

Stripping the citizenship of those who take up arms against the United States is not a controversial proposition. Indeed, under existing law, American citizenship can be taken away from any adult who, among other actions, makes a formal declaration of allegiance to a foreign state, serves in the armed forces of a foreign state if such armed forces are engaged in hostilities against the United States, or commits any act of treason against the United States. The Lieberman‐​Brown bill, which adds to that list the provision of material support to State Department‐​recognized terrorist organizations (most notably Al Qaeda) or actively engaging in hostilities against the United States, is thus not problematic on its face. It merely clarifies, in an age where America’s enemies aren’t necessarily other countries, that a person need not ally himself with a hostile “foreign state” to risk expatriation.


Still, the Terrorist Expatriation Act does raise concerns about how the new citizenship‐​stripping provisions would be applied. Expatriation is a serious remedy that is warranted only in the most serious cases — such as, indeed, treason or taking up arms against your own country. If and when the act becomes law, courts will maintain a high bar for what constitutes “material support” of terrorist organizations (such that it constitutes relinquishing U.S. nationality), and the subject of the expatriation action will — under existing law that will remain unchanged — have notice and opportunity to challenge the decision.


In short, this is neither a radical threat to civil liberties nor an ineffectual political stunt. Assuming the above constitutional protections remain in place, the expansion of federal expatriation law should be seen as a prudent, necessary, and uncontroversial measure that deals with the realities of the modern world.

April 14, 2010 4:38PM

Accountability for ‘Exigent Letter’ Abuse At Last?

It is more than three years since the Office of the Inspector General first brought public attention to the FBI's systematic misuse of the National Security Letter statutes to issue fictitious "exigent letters" and obtain telecommunications records without due process. Nobody at the Bureau has been fined, or even disciplined, for  this systematic lawbreaking and the efforts to conceal it. But the bipartisan outrage expressed at a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this morning hints that Congress may be running out of patience—and looking for some highly-placed heads to roll. Just to refresh, Committee Chairman John Conyers summarized the main abuses in an opening statement:

The IG found that more than 700 times, such information was obtained about more than 2,000 phone numbers by so-called“exigent letters” from FBI personnel. In some cases, the IG concluded, FBI agents sent the letters even though they believed that factual information in the letters was false. For more than 3,500 phone numbers, the call information was extracted without even a letter, but instead by e‐mail, requests on a post‐it note, or “sneak peaks” of telephone company computer screens or other records.... In one case, the FBI actually obtained phone records of Washington Post and New York Times reporters and kept them in a database, leading to an IG conclusion of “serious abuse” of FBI authority and an FBI public apology.

It's probably actually worse than that: Since these letters often requested a "community of interest" analysis for targeted numbers, the privacy of many people beyond the nominal targets may have been implicated—though it's hard to be sure, since the IG report redacts almost all details about this CoI mapping.

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March 9, 2010 1:31PM

Scalia Can No Longer Call Himself an Originalist

As I blogged last week, the Supreme Court didn’t seem amenable to Privileges or Immunities Clause arguments in last week’s gun rights case, McDonald v. Chicago. This is unfortunate because the alternative, extending the right to keep and bear arms via the Due Process Clause, continues a long‐​time deviation from constitutional text, history, and structure, and reinforces the idea that judges enforce only those rights they deem “fundamental” (whatever that means).


It was especially disconcerting to see Justice Antonin Scalia, the standard‐​bearer for originalism, give up on his own preferred method of interpretation — and for the sole reason that it was intellectually “easier” to use the “substantive due process” doctrine.


Josh Blackman and I have an op‐​ed in the Washington Examiner pointing out Scalia’s hypocrisy. Here’s a choice excerpt:

Without the Privileges or Immunities Clause … the Court must continue extending the un‐​originalist version of substantive due process to protect the right to keep and bear arms. To give original meaning to the Second Amendment, it must ignore the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment!


Yet this is the line Scalia took last week: Instead of accepting the plain meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause—which uncontrovertibly protects the right to keep and bear arms—the justice chose a route that avoids disturbing a 140‐​year‐​old precedent rejected by legal scholars of all ideological stripes.


In 2008, Scalia wrote, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge‐​empowering philosophy.” But at the arguments in McDonald, he argued that while the Privileges or Immunities Clause “is the darling of the professoriate,” he would prefer to follow substantive due process, in which he has now “acquiesced,” “as much as [he] think[s it is] wrong.”

Put simply, if the opinion Scalia writes or joins matches his performance last week, he can no longer be described as an originalist (faint‐​hearted or otherwise). A liberty‐​seeking world turns its weary eyes to Justice Clarence Thomas — who has expressed an openness to reviving the constitutional order the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to create — to convince his wayward colleague that the way to interpret legal text is to look to its original public meaning.


Read the whole thing.

March 1, 2010 1:45PM

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I've been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy's post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene's bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush's longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it's worth stressing that the arguments being offered -- both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally -- aren't very persuasive even if we suppose that they're not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won't always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we'll need to use Abdulmutallab's statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don't seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don't seem to share this concern that they won't be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it's consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don't want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to "lawyer up" -- as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it -- explicitly concluding that "the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent."

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March 1, 2010 7:46AM

Using Guns to Protect Liberty

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in McDonald v. Chicago — the Second Amendment case with implications far beyond gun rights. The Court is quite likely to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states and thereby invalidate the Chicago handgun ban at issue, but the way in which it does so could revolutionize constitutional law.


In response to the oppression of freed slaves and abolitionists in southern and border states after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters sought to protect individual rights from infringement by state and local governments. The amendment’s Due Process Clause and Privileges or Immunities Clause provided overlapping but distinct protections for these rights. The Court decided in the 1873 Slaughter‐​House Cases, however, that the Privileges or Immunities Clause only protected Americans’ rights as national, not state, citizens. This reactionary holding eviscerated the clause, rendering it powerless to protect individual rights from state interference.


McDonald provides the Court an opportunity to overturn the Slaughter‐​House Cases and finally restore the Privileges or Immunities Clause to its proper role as a check against government intrusion on individual rights. Doing so would secure Americans’ natural rights, such as the freedom of contract and the right to earn an honest living, without enabling judges to invent constitutional rights to health care or welfare payments. For a more detailed discussion of McDonald’s potential implications, and how the Court should rule, see my recent op‐​ed here.


I will also be participating in several public events this week on McDonald, the Fourteenth Amendment, and firearm regulation. Today at 4:00 p.m., I will be speaking at a Cato policy forum, which will be broadcast live on C‑SPAN and which you may watch online here. Tomorrow at 3:30 p.m., I will participate in a post‐​argument discussion of McDonald at the Georgetown University Law Center, which event is cosponsored by the Federalist Society and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy (where Josh Blackman and I recently published a lengthy article on the subject). And on Wednesday at noon, I will be participating in a Cato Capitol Hill briefing on McDonald and the future of gun rights at the Rayburn House Office Building, room B‑340 (more information here).