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

Finally, in time of war, there will be occasions when a target emerges and decisions must be made too quickly for even a secret court proceeding. And thus the "drone court" would not be able to rule on some cases; an ambitious president could find many exceptions.

In addition, an ambitious executive might also use the secret court as a means to extend the drone-strike authority beyond actions in time of authorized military action. With such a review mechanism in place, the argument might go, there's no danger in ceding the president's authority to use drones against enemies not so designated by Congress.

What about after the fact, then? Could there be a secret court that would hear the administration's case for a drone strike and then decide whether that strike had been justified?

Not hardly, I think.

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

Finally, some scholars have suggested that the Congress create a new "cause of action"--a right to sue in an ordinary federal court on a claim that the government improperly unleashed drones on a deceased relative. The survivors of the late Anwar al-Awlaki tried such a suit, and the Obama administration has so far insisted that it concerns "political questions," not fitted for judicial proceedings. Congress could pass a statute specifically granting a right to sue in a federal district court.

Without careful design, that would actually not make things any better. The survivors will file their complaint; the administration will claim state secrets and refuse to provide information. A court might reject the secrets claim and order the government to produce discovery. The administration would probably refuse to comply. The court's recourse would be to order judgment for the plaintiffs. The dead person's family would get some money, but we'd be no closer to accountability for the drone-strike decision.

Professor Stephen I. Vladeck of American University has offered a remedy to this problem. He proposes a statute in which Congress assigns jurisdiction to a specific judicial district, probably the District Court for the District of Columbia. Congress in the statute would strip the executive of such defenses as "state secrets" and "political question." Survivors of someone killed in a drone attack could bring a wrongful-death suit. The secret evidence would be reviewed by the judge, government lawyers, and the lawyers for the plaintiff. Those lawyers would have to have security clearance; the evidence would not be shown to the plaintiffs themselves, or to the public. After review of the evidence, the court would rule. If the plaintiffs won, they would receive only symbolic damages--but they'd also get a judgment that the dead person had been killed illegally.

It's an elegant plan, and the only one I've seen that would permit us to involve the Article III courts in adjudicating drone attacks. Executive-power hawks would object that courts have no business looking into the president's use of the war power. But Vladeck points out that such after-the-fact review has taken place since at least the Adams administration. "I don't think there's any case that says that how the president uses military force--especially against a U.S. citizen--is not subject to judicial review," he said in an interview. "He may be entitled to some deference and discretion, but not complete immunity."

The real problem with Vladeck's court might be political. I expect that any president would resist such a statute as a dilution of his commander in chief power, and enactment seems unlikely. Without such a statute, then, systematic review of secret drone killings must come inside the executive branch. 

That doesn't mean it will be a lawless whitewash. Congress can prescribe rules for these reviews, decide who will carry them out, and require periodic reports to its committees and to the public. In a recent conversation, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, an old friend and my go-to guy for national-security thinking, suggested the role be assigned to the president's Intelligence Advisory Board, a non-partisan panel of independent experts from outside the executive branch, who serve independently for fixed terms.

That is the kind of body we need. Bringing in the courts themselves would be at best tricky, and at worst as dangerous, in its way, as allowing the drone war to continue without supervision. 

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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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