International Law: LOAC

Jeff Powell on Targeted Killing and Due Process

By Wells Bennett
Friday, June 21, 2013, 6:00 AM

The following is a guest post from Jeff Powell, a Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law.  He twice served in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in both the Clinton and Obama Administrations.  While at OLC, Jeff was not involved in providing any advice on targeted killing; his views are entirely his own, and do not reflect those of the government.

There is much to admire in the speech President Barack Obama gave on May 23rd in which he gave us his views on “lethal, targeted action” against high ranking members of al-Qaeda and its allies, above all his acknowledgment that the “laws constrain the power of the President, even during wartime.” For all his speech’s virtues, however, Mr. Obama’s comments about one legal issue, due process, should disturb us deeply. In discussing his insistence “on strong oversight of all lethal action,” the President stated, “for the record,” that he “do[es] not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process.” Mr. Obama had just referred to the killing of Anwar Awlaki, whose death was “the one instance when we targeted an American citizen,” and he plainly was not confessing constitutional error. There is no serious doubt, then, that the President thinks that the US government deprived Mr. Awlaki of his life with due process. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama’s discussion of that issue is fundamentally flawed in two ways: first, in his assumption that due process applies at all, and second, in his belief that the administration’s procedures satisfy due process.

The President’s blanket assertion that our government must always provide due process before killing a citizen may seem self-evident – after all, the Fifth Amendment demands that no person (not citizen!) shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law -- but Mr. Obama was wrong nonetheless. Due process requires fairness in government’s dealings with those it governs; it simply does not apply to military decisions, in hostilities that Congress has authorized, about attacking members of enemy forces who are not under American control. Mr. Obama was not justifying the killing of Mr. Awlaki as an extrajudicial execution but as the elimination of a particular enemy officer in the field as an act of war. The Constitution imposes other constraints on presidential action in a time of war, but due process has no role in what the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld termed “the Executive in its exchanges …with enemy organizations in times of conflict.”

If there is no constitutional due process requirement at all, why does it matter that Mr. Obama assumes that there is? Is there any real harm in putting forth a standard for meeting a burden that doesn’t exist? There is, because the President’s reasoning may undercut the meaning of due process in other circumstances where the constitutional requirement does apply.

From comments he and other officials have made, and from the Justice Department “White Paper” that was leaked earlier this year, what he had in mind seems clear: it is the “strong oversight” over targeting decisions that the President himself has mandated that he and his advisors believe satisfies the Constitution. The White Paper lays out the argument: the executive branch itself has provided a targeted US citizen due process because only high-level members of al-Qaeda and its allies are targeted, the decision to use lethal force is made by an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government,” that official must determine that the potential target poses an “imminent threat of violent attack,” and it must not be feasible to capture the individual without excessive risk to the lives of American personnel or vital American interests. As the President put it, Mr. Awlaki “was continuously trying to kill people” as part of his role in al-Qaeda, and although Mr. Obama “would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot ... we couldn’t.”

I have no objection to the procedures that the White Paper outlines: indeed they are roughly the sort of careful decisionmaking that I would hope my government would employ in such a grave matter. (Whether our current practices of targeted killing are a wise or even moral policy overall is another question.) Nor am I criticizing the determination that Mr. Awlaki met the White Paper’s targeting criteria: I have no reason or inclination to doubt the President’s view of the facts. But the White Paper’s claim that these laudable procedures amount to due process is quite indefensible.

The White Paper (correctly) invoked the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision for the due process analysis that applies in the war against al-Qaeda, but its understanding of the Constitution’s requirements could hardly be more at odds with the discussion of “the central meaning of procedural due process” in Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s lead opinion: “Parties whose rights are to be affected are entitled to be heard; and in order that they may enjoy that right they must first be notified. It is equally fundamental that the right to notice and an opportunity to be heard must be granted at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner,” and they must be heard by a “neutral and detached judge.” “These essential constitutional promises may not be eroded,” Justice O’Connor concluded, but the White Paper – and I think we can assume the President as well – apparently find these promises inapplicable in the context of targeted killings.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the President’s laudable procedures for imposing “strong oversight” over targeting decisions are worlds apart from Hamdi’s “essential constitutional promises” – indeed, it is hard to imagine how a military decision about attacking an enemy combatant could be otherwise. Of course the White Paper does not propose that potential targets be given notice of the government’s possible interest in killing them. Of course it does not contemplate, much less require, that a targeted individual be heard at any time or in any manner as to why the government is mistaken about his identity or activities. Of course it does not provide for a neutral and detached decisionmaker to resolve any factual uncertainty: the ultimate decisionmaker here is the President in his capacity as commander in chief, who (we should hope) is not in the least neutral or detached in carrying out his responsibility for national security. Calling the executive’s own procedures the due process that is meant to check arbitrary executive decisions isn’t merely an erosion of the “essential constitutional promises” but their wholesale repudiation. If Mr. Awlaki was entitled to due process, then his killing violated the Constitution.

Since due process doesn’t apply to a US military decision, in a situation of actual and authorized hostilities, to attack a member of the enemy’s forces who is a legitimate target under the law of war, the Constitution was not in fact violated. But my concern here is to identify the patent error in the White Paper’s and the President’s thinking about due process, because that error is likely to confuse our thinking about the wisdom and morality of targeted killing. The decision to kill a known, identified human being is a brutal one, the action of doing so is ugly to think about, even apart from the fact that sometimes other people die (as Mr. Obama acknowledged with sorrow). This brutality and ugliness are part of the grim reality of war. When we pretend to ourselves that our procedures for making such decisions satisfies the constitutional requirements of due process, we cast a veil of civility and even humanity over something that is inherently violent and dehumanizing.

I am not a pacifist, and I accept that the brutality of war is sometimes unavoidable. But the law’s antiseptic language about the weighing and balancing of interests according to “the traditional due process analysis” that supplies the legal “framework for assessing the process due a U.S. citizen” (I quote from the White Paper) masks, in a deeply misleading fashion, the brutality, the terror and the violence of war – even if we are right to conclude that we should take lethal action against our enemies. It serves no good purpose for the President and his advisors, or for any of us as citizens, to pretend that targeted killing is or can be anything other than the brutality it is.

The problem with the President’s constitutional error is not limited to its power to confuse our thinking about the reality of targeted killing. Once a legal argument gains legitimacy in the courts, or among executive officials, or in public discussion, it tends to expand beyond its original boundaries – the intellectual habits of lawyers and the traditional legalism of American public debate make this almost inevitable. By dint of repetition if nothing else, the claim that the executive’s own internal cogitations can amount to constitutional due process threatens to acquire the sort of legitimacy that will tempt future lawyers, and future Presidents, to apply it in other contexts. During World War Two, Justice Robert Jackson rejected the government’s argument that it was constitutional to intern US citizens purely on the basis of their Japanese ancestry because the decision rested on the executive’s claim of military necessity. Jackson didn’t propose that the courts interfere with the military’s actions, but he vigorously objected to anyone rationalizing the decision as constitutional. Accept that conclusion, Jackson wrote, and “[t]he principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.” The same worry applies to the President’s rewriting of what due process requires. Neither Mr. Obama nor anyone else can foresee or prevent future claims that we must turn the idea of due process on its head because of some perceived need to do so. The President and his advisors should rethink the White Paper’s faulty reasoning, and we should all keep in view the difference between “the essential constitutional promises” due process embodies, and the modes of military decision that our government employs in waging war.


A couple of additional observations may help the reader evaluate my argument. My fundamental disagreement with those who defend the President’s conclusion that targeted killings are subject to and satisfy due process is over the meaning of due process. Justice O’Connor’s discussion of due process in Hamdi states the essential, core principles of due process based on a long line of cases. The targeted killing procedures on which the President is relying are novel and satisfy none of those principles. The DOJ White Paper discussing those procedures “accepts” the authority of Hamdi but can do so and then defend the lawfulness of targeted killing only by emptying Justice O’Connor’s reasoning about due process of its substantive content. That isn’t an appropriate application of Hamdi as precedent, and we should not warp what she wrote about the essential promises of due process on an implicit plea of necessity. As I wrote in my post, there are constitutional constraints on the President in time of war, but what the White Paper describes is not one of them, based on Hamdi or anything else. We do not respect due process by allowing allegedly pragmatic arguments to persuade us to erode its meaning.

I might also stress that my argument is limited, as I wrote, to the targeted killing of enemy personnel who are not under US control. As Hamdi itself demonstrates, the due process clause applies to individuals in the custody of the US government.

UPDATE [1:08 p.m.]: the guest post was updated, so as to supply the "additional observations" described above.