The biggest problem with the recently disclosed Obama administration white paper defending the drone killing of radical clerk Anwar al-Awlaki isn’t its secrecy or its creative redefinition of the words “imminent threat.” It is the revolutionary and shocking transformation of the meaning of due process.
Due process is the oldest and most essential component of the rule of law. It goes back to the Magna Carta, when the barons insisted that King John agree not to kill anyone or take property without following legal procedures.
What they meant -- and what has been considered the essence of due process since -- is that the accused must be notified of the charges against him and have the opportunity to have his case heard by an impartial decision maker. If you get due process, you can’t complain about the punishment that follows. If you don’t get that opportunity, you’ve been the victim of arbitrary power.
Are U.S. enemies entitled to due process? Well, no -- not if they are arrayed against the country on the battlefield. In war, you don’t try the enemy. You kill him, preferably before he kills you. And if some of the Japanese troops at Guadalcanal had held U.S. citizenship, it wouldn’t have suddenly given them due process rights. If Awlaki was an enemy fighting on the battlefield, he wouldn’t have deserved due process while the fight was on. Off it, he should legally be like any other U.S. citizen, innocent until proven guilty.
Yet, despite claiming that the Awlaki killing was justified because he was an operational leader of al-Qaeda, and thus in some sense an enemy on the battlefield, the white paper still assumes that due process applies to U.S. citizens abroad who adhere to the enemy. On the surface, this sounds plausible and even generous: Why not consider the possibility that a U.S. citizen abroad has some rights against being killed out of the blue?
In fact, though, applying due process analysis to Awlaki produces a legal disaster. The problem is, once you consider due process, you have to give it some meaning -- and the meaning you choose will cast a long shadow over what the term means everywhere else.
The white paper uses two Supreme Court cases to assess what process is due to an American about to be killed by a drone. The first, Mathews v. Eldridge, is a 1976 case in which the court held that the elaborate administrative processes necessary after a person lost his Social Security disability benefits were constitutionally acceptable even though there was no evidentiary hearing before the benefits were terminated. In that case, the court said that the process due could be determined by balancing the individual’s interest against the government’s.
The other case was 2004’s Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, where the court held that a detained enemy combatant -- in custody, not on the battlefield -- must receive “notice of the factual basis for his classification, and a fair opportunity to rebut the Government’s factual assertions before a neutral decision-maker.”
Astonishingly, the white paper follows its summary of these decisions with the bald assertion that a citizen outside U.S. territory can be killed if a high-level official determines that he poses an imminent threat, it would be unfeasible to capture him and the laws of war would otherwise permit the killing.
The non sequitur is breathtaking. Awlaki wouldn’t receive notice, the opportunity to be heard or a hearing before a decision maker. In other words, he would receive none of the components of traditional due process -- not even one. How the absence of due process could be magically transformed into its satisfaction is never stated or explained. All we get is the assertion that a target’s interest in life must be “balanced against” the government’s interest in protecting other Americans. On this theory, no due process would be due to those accused of murder, because their lives would have to be balanced against the government’s interest in protecting their potential victims.
The cases cited by the white paper provide no precedent for the idea that due process could be satisfied by some secret, internal process within the executive branch -- not that any such process is even mentioned. The reason they don’t is obvious: There is no such precedent. Never, to my knowledge, in the history of due process jurisprudence, has a court said that a neutral decision maker wasn’t necessary. And as Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in language cited in the Mathews case, “the essence of due process is the requirement that a person in jeopardy of serious loss [be given] notice of the case against him and opportunity to meet it.”
Although the white paper doesn’t say so, Awlaki even tried to get a hearing before he was killed. His father asked a federal court to find that he wasn’t a terrorist. But the court never heard his claim, because the Obama administration persuaded it not to consider the case.
When Paul Clement, solicitor general under George W. Bush, told the Supreme Court in the Hamdi oral argument that Hamdi had been given the opportunity to be heard during his interrogation, a notable gasp went through the courtroom. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor later singled out this outrageous claim for special criticism.
The Obama administration’s apparent belief that due process can be satisfied in secret inside the executive branch is arguably a greater departure from precedent. It is a travesty of the very notion of due process. And to borrow a phrase from Justice Robert Jackson, it will now lie about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any administration that needs it.
The white paper should have said that due process doesn’t apply on the battlefield. By instead making due process into a rubber stamp, the administration is ignoring precedent and subverting the idea of the rule of law. When is some law worse than none? When that law is so watered down that it loses the meaning it has had for 800 years.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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