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Five Takeaways from the Newly Released Drone Memo

Brett Max Kaufman,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Center for Democracy
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June 23, 2014

Monday morning, a federal appeals court released a government memorandum, dated July 16, 2010, authorizing both the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen, in Yemen.

The publication of the Office of Legal Counsel memo comes, as the court noted, after a lengthy delay. The ACLU (along with the New York Times) has been fighting for this memo since we first asked for it in a Freedom of Information Act request submitted in October 2011.

Monday’s release by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is an important victory for transparency. But while the memo advances the public record in significant ways, it still does not answer many key questions about the government’s claimed authority to kill U.S. citizens outside of active battlefields. Here are several important takeaways from Monday’s release.

  1. Rather than more fully explain the government’s theory of “imminence,” the newly released memo fails to address it at all.

1.	High-level government officials have concluded, on the basis of al-Aulaqi's activities in Yemen, that al-Aulaqi is a leader of AQAP whose activities in Yemen pose a 'continued and imminent threat' of violence to United States persons and interests.

The previously disclosed “White Paper” on the targeted killing of U.S. citizens explained the government’s view that “the condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States 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.” But rather than give further explanation and clarity to that extraordinary and novel reading of “imminence,” the newly released memo — at least as presently redacted — fails to address that requirement in any detail whatsoever.

The memo, signed by David Barron, then–acting chief of the OLC (and now a newly confirmed First Circuit judge), tells us that “[h]igh-level government officials” determined that al-Aulaqi constituted an “imminent” threat to the United States. But the memo does not explain how the government interprets that requirement, nor does the memo explain the evidentiary standard the officials must meet in order to satisfy it.

  1. Likewise, the memo does not address the circumstances that would make “capture infeasible,” and killing therefore permissible:

2.	In addition to the nature of the threat posed by ai-Aulaqi's activities, both agencies here have represented that they intend to capture rather than target al-Aulaqi if feasible; yet we also understand that an operation by either agency to capture al-Aulaqi in Yemen would be infeasible at this time.

Again, the White Paper summarized the government’s theory about the infeasibility of capture, but the newly released memo adds nothing of substance to that analysis. Importantly, though, the new memo does seem to indicate that its authorization for the targeted killing of al-Aulaqi was intended to be indefinite in duration, requiring only that the CIA and DOD continue to evaluate (without returning to the OLC) “whether changed circumstances” would make capture more feasible.

  1. “Under the facts represented to us . . .” & why judicial review matters

3.	As we explained in our earlier memorandum, Barron Memorandum at 5-7, we do not believe al-Aulaqi' s U.S. citizenship imposes constitutional limitations that would preclude the contemplated lethal action under the facts represented to us by DoD, the CIA and the Intelligence Community.

Throughout the memo, Barron conditions important legal conclusions on “the facts represented to” the OLC by other departments of the executive branch. The memo’s discussion of these facts is redacted, making it impossible for the public to evaluate whether the killing of al-Aulaqi meets even the government’s professed legal standard. Beyond that absence, however, the memo’s repeated conditioning of its conclusions on the version of facts presented by the executive branch makes clear why the government’s rejection of any judicial review in this context — either before or after the fact — is so fundamentally dangerous.

  1. The CIA — officially — has an operational role in the targeted killing program. From the court opinion released with the memo:

4.	The other fact within the legal reasoning portion of the OLC-DOD Memorandum that the Government contends merits secrecy is the identity of the agency, in addition to DOD, that had an operational role in the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki. Both facts were deleted from the April 21 public opinion, but have been restored in this opinion. Apparently not disputing that this fact has been common knowledge for some time, the Government asserts the importance of concealing any official recognition of the agency’s identity. The argument comes too late.

(See the opinion in full, with previously redacted passages highlighted, here.)

Until Monday, the government had argued that the CIA’s operational involvement in the targeted killing program was an official secret. In this case and in another ACLU FOIA case seeking documents about the program, the official unveiling of this fact should open the door to further disclosures about the CIA’s role in the program and about factual information, like numbers of civilian casualties caused by the program, that the government continues to maintain cannot be disclosed to the public.

  1. There are additional OLC memos addressing the lawfulness and constitutionality of the targeted killing of U.S. citizens — and the government will likely have to release portions of those as well.

5.	The other OLC legal memoranda have not been submitted to this Court for in camera inspection, and we are therefore unable to adjudicate the waiver issue as to these memoranda, nor determine, if waiver has occurred, what portions of these documents must be redacted. It is possible that waiver of any claimed privileges applies to the legal reasoning in these documents for the same reasons applicable to the OLC-DOD Memorandum. On remand, these memoranda must be produced to the District Court for in camera examination and determination of waiver and appropriate redaction, in light of our rulings with respect to disclosure and redaction of the legal reasoning in the OLC-DOD Memorandum.

Together, Monday’s release and the Second Circuit’s opinion make clear that the public is only just starting to understand the legal and factual basis for the government’s targeted killing program, as a great deal of information crucial to the public debate remains secret. While we will continue to press for additional disclosures in court, the government need not and should not wait for yet another court order before it discloses additional information to which the public is entitled. In the meantime, stay tuned for further analysis from the ACLU about the meaning of this release as well as what comes next.

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