Just suppose. The Attorney General, lanky as the President, walks into the Oval Office to join a meeting. The top law enforcement officer is slumped down with apparent bad news. He avoids eye contact with the Commander-in-Chief. “Mr. President,” he says looking down at the coffee table, “the ACLU believes our drone program is illegal.” Silence. (The President and the Attorney General both, of course, maintain links to the human rights community, an important part of their political base.) The President’s other advisers fidget and twitch. The Vice President adjusts the
coaster under his drink. Beads of perspiration form on some faces. The Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense look for the exit; the law is not their thing.
The President is cool. “Could you be more specific,” he says, tapping his finger on a black briefing book.
The Attorney General looks up from the table. “The drone strikes in Pakistan. Remember, the program Leon was not supposed to talk about with the media.”
The President smiles. “Yes, I know that. But which laws are they talking about?”
After an awkward pause, the President, himself a highly sophisticated lawyer, suggests, “Let’s talk this through some more.” The Attorney General agrees. After the lawyer-to-lawyer exchange, the other advisers relax. Maybe the CIA drone strikes are not illegal after all. Or maybe the apparent illegality does not matter that much. The Vice President takes a sip of his drink. And the President asks for tea and coffee to be served. No one wants to leave the room after all. They open their briefing books instead.
This scenario emphasizes a simple point: President Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate, a former teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago and a Nobel Peace Laureate, must believe that he has the authority to order the CIA to fire missiles from drones to kill suspected terrorists. Not everyone agrees with him, though.