Tag Archives: International Law

The Evolution of Law and Policy for CIA Targeted Killing

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.

White House Decisionmaking Involving Paramilitary Forces

The standard framework for understanding presidential decision making in projecting American power and influence into other countries is to assume that the Administration develops diplomatic, military or covert options which the President then assigns to State, Defense or the CIA (sometimes in combination). This framework is incomplete, because diplomacy is carried on not only by officers of the United States but also by an “invisible presidency” of informal emissaries. Military operations are conducted not only by members of the U.S. Armed Forces – whether conventional or special operations forces – but also by others with arms (paramilitaries) with whom American armed forces or intelligence agents propose to have (or already have) a formal or informal working arrangement. Covert operations are supplied, financed and conducted not only by the CIA (and recently the Pentagon), but also by private organizations with ties to the government, such as in the Iran-Contra Affair, when arms dealers were granted extraordinary access to intelligence resources and stocks of military weapons.

Military-Intelligence Convergence and the Law of the Title 10/Title 50 Debate

Leon Panetta appeared on PBS Newshour not long after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency at that time, and during the course of the interview he took up the question of the CIA’s role in the attack. It had been “a ‘title 50’ operation,” he explained, invoking the section of the U.S. Code that  authorizes the activities of the CIA. As a result, Panetta added, he had exercised overall “command.”

This surely confused at least some observers. The mission had been executed by U.S. Navy SEALs from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) after all, and both operational and tactical command seemed to have resided at all times with JSOC personnel. But for those who had been following the evolution of the CIA and JSOC during the post-9/11 period, Panetta’s account would not have been surprising. The bin Laden raid was, from this perspective, merely the latest example of an ongoing process of convergence among military and intelligence activities, institutions, and
authorities.