Covert War and the Constitution

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 . . . .

Author Profile

Jules Lobel
Jules Lobel is Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Through the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights, Lobel has litigated important issues regarding the application of international law in the U.S. courts. In the late 1980’s, he advised the Nicaraguan government on the development of its first democratic constitution, and has also advised the Burundi government on constitutional law issues.

Professor Lobel is editor of a text on civil rights litigation and of a collection of essays on the U.S. Constitution, A Less Than Perfect Union (Monthly Review Press, 1988). He is author of numerous articles on international law, foreign affairs, and the U.S. Constitution in publications including Yale Law Journal, Harvard International Law Journal, Cornell Law Review, and Virginia Law Review. He is a member of the American Society of International Law.
Share these ideas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *