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."
International law is also relevant to targeting decisions. Targeted killings are lawful under the international laws of war only if they comply with basic requirements like distinguishing enemy soldiers from civilians and avoiding excessive collateral damage. And they are consistent with the U.N. Charter's ban on using force "against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state" only if the targeted nation consents or the United States properly acts in self-defense. There are reports that Yemen consented to the strike on Awlaki. But even if it did not, the strike would still have been consistent with the Charter to the extent that Yemen was "unwilling or unable" to suppress the threat he posed. This standard is not settled in international law, but it is sufficiently grounded in law and practice that no American president charged with keeping the country safe could refuse to exercise international self-defense rights when presented with a concrete security threat in this situation. The "unwilling or unable" standard was almost certainly the one the United States relied on in the Osama bin Laden raid inside Pakistan.
These legal principles are backed by a system of internal and external checks and balances that, in this context, are without equal in American wartime history. Until a few decades ago, targeting decisions were not subject to meaningful legal scrutiny. Presidents or commanders typically ordered a strike based on effectiveness and, sometimes, moral or political considerations. President Harry Truman, for example, received a great deal of advice about whether and how to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it didn't come from lawyers advising him on the laws of war. Today, all major military targets are vetted by a bevy of executive branch lawyers who can and do rule out operations and targets on legal grounds, and by commanders who are more sensitive than ever to legal considerations and collateral damage. Decisions to kill high-level terrorists outside of Afghanistan (like Awlaki) are considered and approved by lawyers and policymakers at the highest levels of the government.
The lawyers and policymakers are guided in part by Supreme Court and lower court decisions that, in the context of reviewing military detentions, have interpreted the meaning, scope, and limits of the congressional authorization to use force. The executive branch also has tools at its disposal -- an elaborate intelligence bureaucracy, precision weapons, and computer targeting algorithms -- to minimize collateral damage in war like never before (indeed, these tools sometimes force an operation or target to be avoided or aborted). We do not know the full details of targeting decisions, but we do know -- from administration speeches and press coverage of internal deliberations -- that Obama administration policymakers and lawyers seriously grapple with the legal limits of their authorities, construe them narrowly to meet the case at hand, and are constrained in who they target.
Congress too is involved. The executive branch only targets enemy forces that fall within the parameters set by Congress in 2001. All major targeting operations conducted as "covert actions" must, under laws in place before 9/11, be conducted in conformity with presidential "findings" and reported to congressional intelligence committees. These committees lack a formal veto, but they have many ways to push back against covert actions they dislike. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is said to have scaled back a covert operation in 2004 to influence the outcome of elections in Iraq by complaining to the White House, while the House Intelligence Committee reportedly persuaded the Obama administration not to arm the Libyan rebels in 2011. Operations by the U.S. military are also reported to and scrutinized by congressional armed services committees through less formal means.
More broadly, Congress as a whole is well aware of the president's targeted killing program, and many congressional committees have held public hearings on targeted killing in the last few years. And yet, in contrast to its actions to tighten the president's traditional military authorities in other contexts (like interrogation, military detention, and military commissions), Congress has not tightened the president's power to target. Instead, Congress chose to reaffirm the 2001 authorization on which the president has rested his targeting practices in December 2011, and to bless the judicial construction of the statute that extended the president's authorities to co-belligerents like Awlaki, all without a word about limitations on targeted killing. Congress did this against the backdrop of many public reports that the 2001 statute was relied on to kill Awlaki.
The targeted killing of Awlaki was also subject to a limited but important form of judicial scrutiny. In 2010, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights brought a novel lawsuit that sought to enjoin the president from killing Awlaki. Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case, in part because of "the impropriety of judicial review." Bates explained that the Constitution places "responsibility for the military decisions at issue in this case 'in the hands of those who are best positioned and most politically accountable for making them'" -- Congress and the president. This ruling, based on extensive precedent, is almost certainly right. Commanders in chief have always had discretion over targeting decisions in wars authorized by Congress. No court has ever suggested that judicial approval for these decisions was appropriate or necessary. This is so even though the U.S. military killed U.S. citizens in the Civil War and most likely in World War II as well, when some fought in the Italian and German armies. The Supreme Court itself has ruled -- in the context of military commissions and military detention -- that U.S. citizenship does not by itself preclude the commander in chief from exercising traditional forms of military force.
This is the background against which to assess Attorney General Holder's claim that the Constitution "guarantees due process, not judicial process." Holder was referring to the Fifth Amendment's prohibition on taking life without due process, a further legal limitation on the targeted killing of U.S. citizens. Critics belittled Holder for distinguishing due process from judicial process, but Holder is right. The Supreme Court has ruled in many contexts that due process does not always demand judicial scrutiny. It has also ruled that the type and extent of process due depends on the nature and circumstances of the deprivation, including a balance between the interests of the individual and the government.
A U.S. citizen's interest is obviously at its height when he is targeted with lethal force. The government's interest is at its height when it seeks to incapacitate a threatening enemy in a congressionally sanctioned war. Holder only defended the wartime authority to kill a U.S. citizen who presents "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" and for whom "capture is not feasible," and only when operations are "conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles." In these circumstances, he claimed, high-level executive deliberation, guided by judicial precedent and subject to congressional oversight, is all the process that is due.