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FP: Fire When Ready

Author: Jack Goldsmith
March 19, 2012


Obama's targeted drone strikes--even on Americans--aren't illegal, writes Jack Goldsmith for Foreign Policy. In fact, he writes, there's a solid legal foundation and a number of checks and balances upholding his right to take out terrorists.

Instead of convincing critics, Attorney General Holder's defense of the Obama administration's targeted killing policy earlier this month seems to have emboldened them. "The idea that the executive branch can be judge, jury, and executioner … totally undoes the system of checks and balances," charged American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Executive Director Anthony Romero after Holder's talk at Northwestern University's law school. Romero and others have been especially scathing about the lawlessness of last fall's drone killing in Yemen of U.S. citizen and al Qaeda affiliate leader Anwar al-Awlaki.

In this new age of drone warfare, probing the constitutional legitimacy of targeted killings has never been more vital. The Obama administration has carried out well over 200 drone strikes in its first three years, and the practice promises to ramp up even more in the next few years as the United States decreases its footprint in Afghanistan and relies even more heavily on special operations and covert actions centered around the use of drones. There are contested legal issues surrounding drone strikes, and -- in contrast to issues like military detention and military commissions -- courts have not pushed back against the presidency on this issue. But judicial review is not the only constitutional check on the presidency, especially during war. Awlaki's killing and others like it have solid legal support and are embedded in an unprecedentedly robust system of legal and political accountability that includes courts but also includes other institutions and actors as well.

When the Obama administration made the decision to kill Awlaki, it did not rely on the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief. Rather, it relied on authority that Congress gave it, and on guidance from the courts. In September 2001, Congress authorized the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines" were responsible for 9/11. Whatever else the term "force" may mean, it clearly includes authorization from Congress to kill enemy soldiers who fall within the statute. Unlike some prior authorizations of force in American history, the 2001 authorization contains no geographical limitation. Moreover, the Supreme Court, in the detention context, has ruled that the "force" authorized by Congress in the 2001 law could be applied against a U.S. citizen. Lower courts have interpreted the same law to include within its scope co-belligerent enemy forces "associated" with al Qaeda who are "engaged in hostilities against the United States."

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