Why a Secret Court Won't Solve the Drone-Strike Problem

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In our system, courts don't grant indulgences or offer absolution; they decide cases, and they don't advise the president.

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Reuters/U.S. Navy

Look up: that buzz you hear overhead is the "drone court."

Washington's idea of the week is a secret court, based on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which issues secret wiretap warrants in certain espionage cases. Executive officials would go before the drone court and present their evidence that an individual abroad, perhaps a U.S. citizen, is an Al Qaeda affiliate and an imminent danger. Judges on the panel would issue, in effect, a secret death warrant--a certification that lethal force can be used against the "enemy combatant."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein spoke favorably about the idea at confirmation hearings for C.I.A. Director-designate John Brennan. So did former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Thursday, the New York Times joined in the chorus

Americans love courts and judges. But they trust them because, in our system, they are independent of elected officials--not part of the political machine. They are also what lawyers call "courts of limited jurisdiction." In carefully chosen language, Article III of the Constitution extends "the judicial power" of the United States to a specific and limited set of "cases and controversies." Federal courts decide cases; they do not fight wars, collect the garbage, or set health-care policy. And most particularly, they may not become an advisory agency of the executive branch.

The idea of a "drone court" would send federal courts into areas they have never gone before, and indeed from which, I think, the text of the Constitution bars them. It could also put the integrity of our court system at risk.

Let's frame the issue properly. The present administration does not claim that the president has "inherent authority" to attack anyone anywhere. Instead, from the documents and speeches we've seen, the administration says it can order drone attacks only as provided by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks--that is, against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." 

Unlike the fictional President Bennett in Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, then, President Obama can't suddenly send the drone fleet down to take out, say, Colombian drug lords or the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. That's a marked change from the overall position of the last administration, and it's an important limitation on the president's claimed authority.

But because of that limitation, a court would be supervising the president's command decisions in a time of authorized military action--after, that is, the legal equivalent of a "declaration of war." As commander in chief, the president has been given a mission by Congress. By passing the AUMF, Congress has delegated to him its full war power to use in that mission. Nothing in the AUMF is directed to the courts; in fact, I have trouble finding authority for target selection anywhere in Article III. And whatever the technological changes, constitutionally I see no difference between targeting an enemy with a drone and doing the same thing with a Cruise missile or a SEAL Team. Courts simply aren't equipped to decide military tactics.

The FISA Court, on the other hand, doesn't really reach beyond Article III--judges since ancient times have issued warrants for searches and arrests, and the individuals being spied on are suspected of crimes against the United States. But I don't know of a deep-rooted tradition of common-law courts telling the shire reeve he can hunt someone down and kill him without trial.

A court that meets in secret, hears only one side of a dispute, and issues a final judgment without notifying other parties is not deciding cases; it is granting absolution.

There's yet another problem: what criteria would a "drone court" apply? In the "white paper" obtained by NBC News earlier this month, the Department of Justice says that a decision to order a strike involves three requirements: (1) the target represents "an imminent threat of violent attack"; (2) capturing the target would be "infeasible"; and (3) a lethal attack can be carried out "in a manner consistent with law of war principles." A court might be able to apply the first criterion, though just barely; but there is simply no precedent for an Article III judge balancing the prospective risks of a capture operation vs. that of a missile, or assessing the probability of "collateral damage" if the strike goes forward. We have left "the judicial power" behind altogether, and created a panel of poorly trained generals in sloppy black uniforms.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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