In March 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder made quite a remarkable statement about the al-Awlaki killing. He claimed "that a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to 'due process' and that the Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection against depriving a citizen of his or her life without due process of law does not mandate a 'judicial process.'" In other words, according to the top legal authority in the nation, a White House review was due process enough when it came to an American citizen with al-Qaeda sympathies. In this, though it was unknown at the time, Holder was essentially quoting a secret white paper on that killing produced by the Office of Legal Counsel, located in the department he headed.
In June 2014, after a long court battle to shield the underlying legal basis for the killing, the Obama administration finally released a redacted version of that classified 2010 white paper. In the end, it did so only because without its release key senators were reluctant to confirm the memo's author, David Barron, who had been nominated by President Obama to serve on the First Circuit Court of Appeals. (Once it was made public, Barron was indeed confirmed.)
The importance of the white paper to understanding Post-Constitutional America cannot be understated. Despite all the unconstitutional actions taken by the government since 9/11 -- including striking violations of the Fourth Amendment -- this paper is to date the only glimpse we have of the kind of thinking that has gone into Washington's violations of the Bill of Rights.
Here's the terrifying part: ostensibly the result of some of the best legal thinking available to the White House on a issue that couldn't be more basic to the American system, it wouldn't get a first-year law student a C-. The arguments are almost bizarrely puerile in a document that is a visibly shaky attempt to provide cover for a pre-determined premise. No wonder the administration fought its release for so long. Its officials were, undoubtedly, ashamed of it. Let's drill down.
Death by Pen
For the killing of an American citizen to be legal, the document claims, you need one essential thing: "an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government [who] has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States." In addition, capture must be found to be unfeasible and the act of killing must follow the existing laws of war, which means drones are okay but poison gas is a no-no.
The rest of the justification in the white paper flows from that premise in a perverse chain of ankle-bone-connected-to-the-leg-bone logic: the president has the obligation to protect America; al-Qaeda is a threat; Congress authorized war against it; and being in al-Qaeda is more relevant than citizenship (or as the document crudely puts it, "citizenship does not immunize the target"). International borders and the sovereignty of other nations are not issues if the U.S. determines the host nation is "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual targeted." Basically, it's all an extension of the idea of self-defense, with more than a dash of convenience shaken in.
When the white paper addresses the Fifth Amendment's right to due process, and to a lesser extent, the Fourth Amendment's right against unwarranted seizure (that is, the taking of a life), it dismisses them via the "balancing test." Not exactly bedrock constitutional material, it works this way: in situations where the government's interest overshadows an individual's interest, and the individual's interest isn't that big a deal to begin with, and a mistake by the government can later be undone, the full due process clause of the Fifth Amendment need not come into play.
The three-point balancing test cited by the white paper as conclusive enough to justify the extrajudicial killing of an American comes from a 1976 Supreme Court case, Mathews v. Eldridge. There, the court held that an individual denied Social Security benefits had a right to some form of due process, but not necessarily full-blown hearings. In Anwar al-Awlaki's case, this translates into some truly dubious logic: the government's interest in protecting Americans overshadows one citizen's interest in staying alive. Somehow, the desire to stay alive doesn't count for much because al-Awlaki belonged to al-Qaeda and was in the backlands of Yemen, which meant that he was not conveniently available by capture for a trial date. Admittedly, there's no undoing death in a drone killing, but so what.
The white paper also draws heavily on the use of the balancing test in the case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in which the U.S. rendered from Afghanistan Yaser Hamdi, a Saudi-American citizen, and sought to detain him indefinitely without trial. After a long legal battle that went to the Supreme Court, the balance test was applied to limit -- but not fully do away with -- due process. Despite limiting Hamdi's rights in service to the war on terror, the court was clear: Yaser Hamdi should have a meaningful opportunity to challenge his status. Fearing that giving him his moment in court would expose the brutal reality of his capture, interrogation, and detention, the U.S. government instead released him to Saudi Arabia.
Hamdi's case dealt with procedural questions, such as whether he should be allowed a trial and if so, under what conditions. As with Mathews v. Eldridge, Hamdi never focused on issues of life and death. Cases can be (re)tried, prisoners released, property returned. Dead is dead -- in the case of al-Awlaki that applies to the drone's target, the balance test, and the Fifth Amendment itself.
What Do Words Mean in Post-Constitutional America?
Having dispensed with significant constitutional issues thanks to some exceedingly dubious logic, the white paper returns to its basic premise: that a kill is legal when that "informed, high-level official" determines that an "imminent threat" to the country is involved. In other words, if the president is convinced, based on whatever proof is provided, he can order an American citizen killed. The white paper doesn't commit itself on how far down the chain of "high-level officials" kill authority can be delegated. Could the Secretary of the Interior, for instance, issue such an order? He or she is, after all, eighth in the line of succession should the president die in office.
The white paper does, however, spend a fair amount of time explaining how the dictionary definitions of "imminent" and "immediate" do not apply. For kill purposes, it says, the U.S. must have "clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future." However, the paper goes on to explain that "immediate" can include a situation like al-Awlaki's in which a person may or may not have been engaged in planning actual attacks that might not be launched for years, or perhaps ever. The paper claims that, since al-Qaeda would prefer to attack the U.S. on a continual basis, any planning or forethought today, however fantastical or future-oriented, constitutes an "imminent" attack that requires sending in the drones.
And if, as perhaps the author of the paper suspected, that isn't really enough when faced with the bluntness of the Constitution on the issue, the white paper haphazardly draws on the public authority justification. According to this legal concept, public authorities can, in rare circumstances, violate the law -- a cop can justifiably kill a bad guy under certain conditions. By extension, the white paper argues, the government of the United States can drone-kill a citizen who is allegedly a member of al-Qaeda. The white paper conveniently doesn't mention that police shootings are subject to judicial review, and those who commit such unlawful acts can face punishment. The laws behind such a review are unclassified and public, not the rationed fodder of a redacted white paper.
For the final nail in the coffin of some American citizen, the white paper concludes that, Fifth Amendment violation or not, its arguments cannot be challenged in court. In cases of "foreign policy," courts have traditionally almost always refused to intervene, holding that they are in the realm of the executive branch in consultation, as required, with Congress. Killing an American abroad, the white paper insists, is a foreign policy act and so none of any courts' business.