The ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit against various agencies of the Obama administration -- the Justice and Defense Departments and the CIA -- over their refusal to disclose any information about the assassination of American citizens. In October, the ACLU filed a FOIA request demanding disclosure of the most basic information about the CIA's killing of 3 American citizens in Yemen: Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan, killed by missiles fired by a U.S. drone in September, and Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, killed by another drone attack two weeks later.
The ACLU's FOIA request sought merely to learn the legal and factual basis for these killings -- meaning: tell us what legal theories you've adopted to secretly target U.S. citizens for execution, and what factual basis did you have to launch these specific strikes? The DOJ and CIA responded not only by refusing to provide any of this information, but refused even to confirm if any of the requested documents exist; in other words, as the ACLU put it yesterday, "these agencies are saying the targeted killing program is so secret that they can’t even acknowledge that it exists." That refusal is what prompted yesterday's lawsuit (in December, the New York Times also sued the Obama administration after it failed to produce DOJ legal memoranda "justifying" the assassination program in response to a FOIA request from reporters Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, but the ACLU's lawsuit seeks disclosure of both the legal and factual bases for these executions).
From a certain perspective, there's really only one point worth making about all of this: if you think about it, it is warped beyond belief that the ACLU has to sue the U.S. Government in order to force it to disclose its claimed legal and factual bases for assassinating U.S. citizens without charges, trial or due process of any kind. It's extraordinary enough that the Obama administration is secretly targeting citizens for execution-by-CIA; that they refuse even to account for what they are doing -- even to the point of refusing to disclose their legal reasoning as to why they think the President possesses this power -- is just mind-boggling. Truly: what more tyrannical power is there than for a government to target its own citizens for death -- in total secrecy and with no checks -- and then insist on the right to do so without even having to explain its legal and factual rationale for what it is doing? Could you even imagine what the U.S. Government and its media supporters would be saying about any other non-client-state country that asserted and exercised this power?
But there's one abuse that deserves special attention here: namely, the way in which the Obama administration manipulates and exploits its secrecy powers. Here is what the DOJ said to the ACLU about why it will not merely withhold all records, but will refuse even to confirm or deny whether any such records exist:
So the Most Transparent Administration Ever™ refuses even to confirm or deny if there is an assassination program, or if it played any role in the execution of these three Americans, because even that most elementary information is classified.
What makes this assertion so inexcusable -- beyond its inherently and self-evidently anti-democratic nature -- is that the Obama administration constantly boasts in public about this very same program when doing so is politically beneficial for the President. The day Awlaki was killed, the President himself began a White House ceremony by announcing Awlaki's death, trumpeting it as "a major blow to al Qaeda's most active operational affiliate," boasting that "the death of al-Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliate," and then patting himself on the back one last time: "this success is a tribute to our intelligence community." Here's how Obama hailed himself for the Awlaki killing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno:
THE PRESIDENT: But al Qaeda is weaker than anytime in recent memory. We have taken out their top leadership position. That’s been a big accomplishment.
JAY LENO: Can I ask you about taking out their top leadership, al-Awlaki, this guy, American-born terrorist? How important was he to al Qaeda?
THE PRESIDENT: Do you -- what happened was we put so much pressure on al Qaeda in the Afghan/Pakistan region --
JAY LENO: Right.
THE PRESIDENT: -- that their affiliates were actually becoming more of a threat to the United States. So Awlaki was their head of external operations. This is the guy that inspired and helped to facilitate the Christmas Day bomber. This is a guy who was actively planning a whole range of operations here in the homeland and was focused on the homeland. And so this was probably the most important al Qaeda threat that was out there after Bin Laden was taken out, and it was important that working with the enemies, we were able to remove him from the field.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went on 60 Minutes and described the process by which U.S. citizens are targeted for assassination: "the President of the United States has to sign off and he should." Obama officials have repeatedly gone to the media anonymously to make claims about Awlaki's guilt and to justify their assassination program. Here is one "senior administration lawyer" -- cowardly hiding behind anonymity -- responding to my criticisms and justifying the assassination program to Benjamin Wittes (who naturally protected him from being identified). When I spoke at an NYU Law School event in 2010 and criticized what was then the Awlaki assassination attempt while sitting next to FBI Counter-Terrorism official Niall Brennan, NPR's national security reporter, Dina Temple-Raston, stood up and revealed that Obama officials had secretly shown her snippets of evidence to demonstrate that Awlaki was involved in actual Terrorist plots.
So Obama can go on TV shows and trigger applause for himself by boasting of the Awlaki killing. He can publicly accuse Awlaki of all sorts of crimes for which there has been no evidence presented. He can dispatch his aides to anonymously brag in newspapers about all the secret evidence showing Awlaki's guilt and showing how resolute and tough the President is for ordering him executed. Justice Department and Pentagon officials scamper around in the dark flashing snippets of evidence about Awlaki to reporters like Temple-Raston so that they dutifully march forward to defend the government's assassination program. Obama officials will anonymous insist in public that they have legal authority to target citizens for killing without trial.
But when it comes time to account in a court or under the law for the legal authority and factual basis for what they have done -- in other words, when it comes time to demonstrate that they are actually acting legally when doing it -- then, suddenly, everything changes. When they face the rule of law, then the program is so profoundly classified that it cannot be spoken of at all -- indeed, the administration cannot even confirm or deny that it exists -- and it therefore cannot be scrutinized by courts at all.
Worse, they not only invoke these secrecy claims to avoid the ACLU and NYT's FOIA requests, but they also invoked it when Awlaki's father sued them and asked a court to prevent President Obama from executing his son without a trial. When forced to justify their assassination program in court, the Obama DOJ insisted that the program was so secretive that it could not even safely confirm that it existed -- it's a state secret -- and thus no court could or should review its legality (see p.43 of the DOJ's brief and Panetta's Affidavit in the Awlaki lawsuit). As the ACLU said yesterday:
The government’s self-serving attitude toward transparency and disclosure is unacceptable. Officials cannot be allowed to release bits of information about the targeted killing program when they think it will bolster their position, but refuse even to confirm the existence of a targeted killing program when organizations like the ACLU or journalists file FOIA requests in the service of real transparency and accountability.
This selective, manipulative abuse of secrecy reveals its true purpose. It has nothing to do with protecting national security; that's proven by the Obama administration's eagerness to boast about the program publicly and to glorify it when it helps the President politically. The secrecy instead has everything to do with (1) preventing facts that would be politically harmful from being revealed to the American public, and (2) shielding the President's conduct from judicial review. And this cynical abuse of secrecy powers extends far beyond the Awlaki case; as the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer wrote in an excellent LA Times Op-Ed last year: "where the state's ostensible secrets are concerned, it has become common for government officials to tell courts one thing — nothing — and reporters another."
This is the wretched game that both the Bush and Obama administrations have long been playing: boasting in public about their conduct but then invoking secrecy claims to shield it from true accountability or legal adjudication. Jaffer described the template this way:
After the New York Times disclosed the existence of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, the Bush administration officially acknowledged the program, described and defended it publicly, and made available to the press a 40-page report detailing the program's supposed legal basis. Five months later, the administration sought to quash a constitutional challenge by arguing that the government couldn't defend the program in court without disclosing information that was simply too sensitive to disclose.
This is exactly the same model used by both the Bush and Obama DOJs to shield warrantless eavesdropping, rendition, torture, drones, civilian killings and a whole host of other crimes from judicial review, i.e., from the rule of law. Everyone knows that the U.S. Government is doing these things. They are discussed openly all over the world. The damage they do and the victims they leave behind make it impossible to conceal them. Often, they are the subject of judicial proceedings in other countries. Typically, U.S. officials will speak about them and justify and even glorify them to American media outlets anonymously.
There's only one place in the world where these programs cannot be discussed: in American courts. That's because, when it comes time to have real disclosure and adversarial checks -- rather than one-sided, selective, unverifiable disclosure -- and when it comes time to determine if government officials are breaking the law, the administration ludicrously claims that it is too dangerous even to confirm if such a program exists (and disgracefully deferential federal courts in the post-9/11 era typically acquiesce to those claims). So here we have the nauseating spectacle of the Obama administration secretly targeting its own citizens for assassination, boasting in public about it in order to show how Tough and Strong the President is, but then hiding behind broad secrecy claims to shield their conduct from meaningful transparency, public debate, and legal review, all while pretending that they are motivated by lofty National Security Concerns when wielding these secrecy weapons. The only thing worse than the U.S. Government's conduct of most affairs behind a wall of secrecy is how cynical, manipulative and self-protective is its invocation of these secrecy powers.
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Next week, from February 6-11, I'll be speaking at numerous events around the country regarding the state of civil liberties. I'll be in New York, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio and -- to deliver the keynote address to the ACLU in Idaho's annual dinner -- in Boise, Idaho. All events are open to the public. Event information is here.
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Whenever these issues are discussed, people often ask what can be done about them. There are no easy answers to that question, but supporting the ACLU is definitely one important act (as I noted many times, I previously consulted with the ACLU but have not done so for a couple of years). There are several excellent civil liberties groups in the U.S. worthy of support (CCR is one example), but the ACLU is constantly at the forefront in imposing at least some substantial barriers to the government's always-escalating abuse of its powers, and, unlike most advocacy groups in the U.S., it defends its values and imposes checks without the slightest regard for which party controls the government (recall the 2010 statement of its Executive Director, Anthony Romero, about President Obama's civil liberties record). One can become a member of the ACLU or otherwise support its genuinely vital work here.
UPDATE: A very similar game is being played with regard to the U.S.'s use of drones generally. For years, Obama officials have refused even to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a CIA drone program even though everyone knows there is. But this week, the President was asked during an Internet forum about his drone attacks and he made very specific claims about it in order to glorify and justify it. Nonetheless, as this Washington Post article notes, the administration still refuses to answer any questions about the drone program -- or even acknowledge its existence -- based on the claim that its very existence (which the President just discussed in public) is classified.
Illustrating the absurdity of the administration's exploitation of secrecy powers, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked yesterday whether President Obama broke the law by disclosing information about the classified drone program, and this is what Carney said:
White House spokesman Jay Carney rebuffed questions Tuesday about whether President Obama had violated intelligence restrictions on the secret U.S. drone program in Pakistan when he openly discussed the subject the day before. . . . Asked if the president had made a mistake, Carney said he was “not going to discuss . . . supposedly covert programs.”
He suggested that nothing Obama had said could be a security violation: “He’s the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. He’s the president of the United States.”
In other words, if the President discloses classified information, then it's inherently legal, even if he does not declassify the information (a slight variation on President Nixon's infamous if-the-President-does-it-then-it's-legal decree). But this is exactly the opposite of what President Obama said when he publicly decreed Bradley Manning guilty: "If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law." Clearly, that's exactly what President Obama did when he discussed drones this week -- and what he did before that by boasting of the classified Awlaki killing on The Tonight Show -- but that's the point: secrecy powers (like the law generally) is merely a weapon to protect and advance the interests of government officials. That's why President Obama feels free to make whatever claims he wants about these programs to justify himself, but then turn around and tell courts that he cannot even acknowledge if they exist: that way, courts cannot examine their legality, and the public cannot learn anything about the programs that would enable them to verify the President's assertions about them.