Category Archives: Vol. 5 No. 2

Shadow Wars | This issue examines the law and policy regarding U.S. paramilitary operations, including use of drones, payment of contractors to spy, and training of local operatives to chase terrorists in what The New York Times has described as a “shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies.”

Conducting Shadow Wars

When al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, it also thrust the United States on a decade-long (and counting) search for the best way to combat the unconventional threat posed by terrorism. That search evolved into a competition of sorts between the military’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the paramilitary operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the prestige and resources that went with leading the fight against terrorism. Within less than a decade, however, various officials involved in counterterrorism policy were trying to combine the two groups of operators in a way that maximized the advantages and minimized the risks and constraints of each group.

Many critics of the George W. Bush administration’s wholehearted push into the realm of shadow wars – covert operations in countries with which the United States was not at war – assumed that the situation would improve when Barack Obama became President. To the surprise of many, if not most, of his campaign supporters, however, President Obama has, in some ways, become an even more ardent supporter of shadow wars than his predecessor. And, as this article will show, just about every indication points to a further expansion of this hybrid military and intelligence activity in countries beyond war zones. It is imperative, therefore, that we more clearly understand how these shadow wars are being conducted and by whom, and whether they are subject to adequate oversight and accountability.

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 . . . .

Covert War and the Constitution: A Response

Words are imperfect instruments for conveying ideas, and interpreting the intended meaning of words is often a challenge, especially when more than two centuries have passed since the words were written and their meanings have evolved over the years. For example, the terms “executive power” and “declare war” had widely understood meanings when the Constitution was written. In his classic 1922 study, The Control of American Foreign Relations, Quincy Wright explained that “when the constitutional convention gave ‘executive power’ to the President, the foreign relations power was the essential element in the grant, but they carefully protected this power from abuse by provisions for senatorial or congressional veto.” Wright referred to the writings of Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone5 as “the political Bibles of the constitutional fathers,”6 adding: “In foreign affairs . . . the controlling
force is the reverse of that in domestic legislation. The initiation and development of details is with the President, checked only by the veto of the Senate or Congress upon completed proposals.”

The Constitutionality of Covert War: Rebuttals

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.”

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.