Public Legitimacy for Targeted Killing Using Drones

Jack Goldsmith, writing at Lawfare, urges the Obama administration to release a redacted version of the Justice Department’s memo concluding that the targeting of Al-Awlaki was lawful – if not a redacted version, then some reasonably complete and authoritative statement of its legal reasoning.  I agree.  The nature of these operations abroad is that they will almost certainly remain beyond judicial review and, as a consequence, OLC opinions will serve as the practical mechanism of the rule of law.

The best argument against disclosure is that it would reveal classified information or, relatedly, acknowledge a covert action.  This concern is often a legitimate bar to publishing secret executive branch legal opinions.  But the administration has (in unattributed statements) acknowledged and touted the U.S. role in the al-Aulaqi killing, and even President Obama said that the killing was in part “a tribute to our intelligence community.”  I understand the reasons the government needs to preserve official deniability for a covert action, but I think that a legal analysis of the U.S. ability to target and kill enemy combatants (including U.S. citizens) outside Afghanistan can be disclosed without revealing means or methods of intelligence-gathering or jeopardizing technical covertness.  The public legal explanation need not say anything about the means of fire (e.g. drones or something else), or particular countries, or which agencies of the U.S. government are involved, or the intelligence basis for the attacks.  (Whether the administration should release more information about the intelligence supporting al-Aulaqi’s operational role is a separate issue that raises separate classified information concerns.)   We know the government can provide a public legal analysis of this sort because presidential counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh have given such legal explanations in speeches, albeit in limited and conclusory terms.  These speeches show that there is no bar in principle to a public disclosure of a more robust legal analysis of targeted killings like al-Aulaqi’s.  So too do the administration’s many leaks of legal conclusions (and operational details) about the al-Aulaqi killing.

The public accountability and legitimacy of these vital national security operations is strengthened to the extent that the public is informed and, through the political branches, part of the debate on the law of targeted killing.  That cannot be operational discussion, for obvious reasons.  But there is still a good deal that could be said about the underlying legal rationales, without compromising security.   I myself favor revisions, either as internal executive branch policy or, in a better world, as formal legal revisions to Title 50 (CIA, covert action, etc.) and the oversight and reporting processes.  One of those revisions would be to get beyond the not just silly, but in some deeper way, de-legitimizing insistence that these operations cannot be acknowledged even as a program; I would establish a distinct category of “deniable” rather than “covert,” and a category of programs that can be acknowledged as existing even without comment on particular operations.

John Bellinger, the former State Department Legal Adviser in the last years of the Bush administration, raises concerns in the Washington Post today about the best way to defend the international legitimacy of these operations.  He notes the deep hostility of the international advocacy groups, UN special raporteurs, numbers of foreign governments, and the studied silence of US allies (even as NATO, I’d add, has relied upon drones as an essential element of its Libyan air war).

[T]he U.S. legal position may not satisfy the rest of the world. No other government has said publicly that it agrees with the U.S. policy or legal rationale for drones. European allies, who vigorously criticized the Bush administration for asserting the unilateral right to use force against terrorists in countries outside Afghanistan, have neither supported nor criticized reported U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Instead, they have largely looked the other way, as they did with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Human rights advocates, on the other hand, while quiet for several years (perhaps to avoid criticizing the new administration), have grown increasingly uncomfortable with drone attacks. Last year, the U.N. rapporteur for summary executions and extrajudicial killings said that drone strikes may violate international humanitarian and human rights law and could constitute war crimes. U.S. human rights groups, which stirred up international opposition to Bush administration counterterrorism policies, have been quick to condemn the Awlaki killing.

Even if Obama administration officials are satisfied that drone strikes comply with domestic and international law, they would still be wise to try to build a broader international consensus. The administration should provide more information about the strict limits it applies to targeting and about who has been targeted. One of the mistakes the Bush administration made in its first term was adopting novel counterterrorism policies without attempting to explain and secure international support for them.

The problem of international legitimacy is always tricky, as Bellinger knows better than anyone.  I look at it this way.  Tell the international community that we care about legitimacy – which is to say, that we care about their opinion in relation to our practices – and all of sudden we have handed other folks a rhetorical hold-up, to a greater or lesser degree.  Unsurprisingly, the price of their good opinion and their desire to exercise control over our actions goes up.  This is nothing special to this; it’s just standard bargaining theory.

On the other hand, ignore them altogether, and they – particularly, note, our allies, those who say that they are acting roughly within our shared sphere of values discourse, not the Chinese or the Russians – develop a set of norms that they then apply in such a way as to mark us as the outlier and the deviant.  Again, this is just drawn from any standard account of norm-negotiation; it’s not a statement of nefarious intent; it’s an acknowledgment that both we and our allies are invested in norms, and that we are not merely societies of narrow interests.  At its worst, developing a quite separate norm regime and then characterizing us as genuinely deviant from it might lead to arrest warrants issued for current or former US officials, and much distrust between sides.  It might also lead to places where even our allies might not want to go – putting themselves outside of the US security umbrella in particular matters that turn out to concern them a lot, such has having access to drones in Libya.

If the norm envelope is pushed hard enough, however, then our allies wind up depriving themselves of access to the weapon, which clearly they don’t want to do.  So they have reasons not to push too hard – both for fear of us simply ignoring them altogether (in effect withdrawing the acceptance that their opinion matters to the legitimacy of the activity) and because they want at least “parts” of it.

The best place to be, then, for both sides, is roughly in the middle that Bellinger stakes out.  (Note that nothing I’ve said here should be attributed to him; these are my views on the negotiation stakes.)  Meaning that we have reasons to talk with our allies at length and in detail, in private and public, to try and persuade them to our views, and to persuade them that genuflecting to their advocacy and NGO groups will be worse for them than accepting our space to act, insofar as we can give a plausible interpretation of law.  Plausibility is the central touchstone for international law in relations among states, finally; we and they don’t have to agree, only to agree that our several interpretations are within the ballpark of acceptability.  It might involve alterations of our practice; it might not.

This will never satisfy the non-governmental advocates or the academics, of course. They have no skin in the game and hence can always hold out for the most extreme position with only an indirect cost in credibility.  In the case of drones, in which even some of the advocates are belatedly realizing that the weapon is indeed more precise and sparing of civilians, ignoring the NGO advocates as profoundly mistaken has spared a human tragedy in collateral damage over the long run.  But the striking thing about the interstate negotiations among allies is that they don’t have to reach a conclusion – an agreement – and probably won’t.  An acceptance of the plausibility of each side’s position and an agreement to continue discussion around alternatives that are considered plausible is sufficient.

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