May 18, 2013
Drone Strikes Test Legal Grounds for War on Terror
Posted on Feb 6, 2013
By Cora Currier, ProPublica
Militant groups have emerged as a threat in North Africa – some claiming an affiliation with al-Qaida. The degree to which those groups are plotting against the U.S. or interested in regional control is still being debated. The U.S. is expanding its presence in the region, butat least initially, the government says it is bolstering surveillance and training and assistance for local governments, not taking military action.
A Pentagon spokesman said last week he was “unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb] threat against the homeland, but, again, I’m not ruling it out.”
The U.S. has provided refueling and cargo planes to assist the French intervention in Mali. That is lawful because France is acting “in response to a request for assistance from the Malian government,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told ProPublica.
Administration officials say strikes against al-Qaida and associated forces are permitted under international law on the basis of self-defense, in addition to the authority the AUMF provides under domestic law. The U.N. has been investigating targeted killings and civilian casualties from drone strikes.
Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in December that an authorization to address new threats in North Africa was a “worthy discussion.” But what form that would take is unclear. The Pentagon and White House did not comment to ProPublica on the possibility of a new AUMF.
Presidents have used force without Congressional authorization by invoking presidential powers under Article II of the Constitution.
Obama ordered airstrikes over Libya in the spring of 2011 citing international cooperation and “national interest” as justification. (Several lawmakers subsequently sued the administration for bypassing them, but the case was dismissed.) He has also claimed authority to launch pre-emptive cyberattacks, the New York Times reported this weekend. President Bill Clinton cited the nation’s right to self-defense when he bombed Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 in retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Obama officials regularly cite self-defense alongside the AUMF in justifying targeted killing. White House counterterror adviser John Brennan has said that the U.S. uses “a flexible understanding of ‘imminence’ ” in determining what constitutes a threat. The Justice Department memo on targeting U.S. citizens also references a “broader concept of imminence,” which it holds “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
Shamsi and other critics of the drone war have noted that some strikes in Yemen in particular appear to target insurgents acting against local government. The U.S. almost never acknowledges particular strikes or details the specific threat posed by an individual.
Johnson, the former Pentagon counsel, told The Wall Street Journal that “the president always has the constitutional authority to protect the nation and important national interests by responding to individual terrorist threats, militarily or otherwise.”
Johnson noted that, for a “sustained armed conflict, the preference should be Congressional authorization.”
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