The question of whether the President has the constitutional power to authorize covert paramilitary actions or shadow wars against other nations or entities first surfaced at the beginnings of the American republic and continues to vex policymakers today. As early as 1806, in the case of United States v. Smith, two civilians being tried for attempting to launch a paramilitary expedition from the United States against Spanish America claimed that their covert activities had been secretly approved by President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison. Supreme Court Justice William Paterson, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, who presided over the trial, held that the defense’s proffered testimony was immaterial, because the Constitution,
[W]hich measures out the powers and defines the duties of the
president, does not vest in him any authority to set on foot a
military expedition against a nation with which the United States
are at peace. . . . If then, the president knew and approved of the
military expedition . . . it would not justify the defendant . . .
because the president does not possess a dispensing power. Does
he possess the power of making war? That power is exclusively
vested in congress; for by the eighth section of the 1st article of the
constitution, it is ordained, that congress shall have power to
declare war, [and] grant letters of marque and reprisal . . . .
Professor Turner argues that Congress’s power to “declare war” and issue letters of marque and reprisal is an irrelevant “anachronism” in today’s world, and was virtually irrelevant even in 1787. According to Turner, the Declare War Clause only prevents the President from launching “a major aggressive war.” In his view, the President has the power to launch “minor” aggressive wars and even initiate “major” warfare (“major” is not defined) when such warfare can broadly be termed “defensive,” a vague term also not defined by Turner. Of course, no sane President would openly claim to launch an “aggressive” (or in eighteenth century parlance, an unjust war).
For example, President George W. Bush asserted that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was “defensive” although Iraq had neither attacked us nor was imminently threatening to do so, and the invasion was widely viewed by the world community as violative of the U.N. Charter. Turner’s interpretation of the Declare War Clause, of which James Madison wrote, “in no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found,” reduces this important provision to a virtual nullity, easily evaded by the executive’s claim that a war is either “defensive,” or not “major.”
At the January 2009 Association of American Law Schools’ Section on National Security Law panel discussion, I and others urged the incoming Obama administration to make a clear and decisive break with the Bush administration’s national security policies. Six months later, the new Administration has not done so. Rather, it has acted in a contradictory manner: boldly asserting in its first days that it would ban torture and close Guantánamo, but in practice continuing many of the Bush antiterrorism policies. President Obama’s major speech on Guantánamo and other national security issues reiterated his desire to close Guantánamo, but also argued that the United States could hold detainees in custody indefinitely without trial or try them by military commissions. The Administration has adopted the Bush administration position that detainees held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan indefinitely have no right to seek habeas corpus in U.S. courts. It has also continued to assert the state secrets privilege to attempt to block lawsuits seeking accountability for extraordinary rendition and torture.