The 2nd Circuit’s Disclosure Order: A Fresh Opportunity to Revive the Imminence Debate?

On 21 April 2014, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision and ordered the US Department of Justice to disclose portions of a classified memorandum written by the Office of Legal Counsel around June 2010, providing legal justification for the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen.

The court decided that the government waived its right to secrecy by publishing a Justice Department White Paper in 2011 and by making repeated public statements on the legality of targeted killings.

At the time of writing, it is unclear when the memorandum might be made public, or whether the government will seek review of the decision.

Although the plaintiffs had not challenged the legality of targeted killings, and the operational details in the memorandum were not affected by the disclosure order, the decision is a clear rejection of the policy of secrecy surrounding the US government’s targeted killings program.

Allegedly, the classified memorandum concluded that al-Awlaki could be lawfully killed, if he could not be captured, because there were reports that he was involved in the war between the US and al-Qaida and posed a significant threat to US citizens, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him. The sparse details left many wondering about the particular mechanism followed and the laws applied to reach the decision to kill him. Subsequent public statements, the White Paper (WP) and a Fact Sheet released by the White House in May 2013 tried to fill the gap and provide a domestic and international legal framework for the targeted killings of US citizens (and others) abroad. As regards domestic law, while President Obama acknowledged the paramount importance of due process, the WP trivialized (on pp. 5-6) the Mathews v. Eldridge (1976) test through a cursory weighing of private and public interests against each other. As regards international law, while official references to the law of self-defense and the law of armed conflict have been manifold, their applicability and inter-relationship has not been clarified.

It remains to be seen whether the partial disclosure of the memorandum, if effected, will revive the debate and bolster the scrutiny on the US government’s targeted killings program.

Among many concerns of the program, the concept of imminence in itself, and its schizophrenic association with both due process and the law of self-defense merit thorough review and discussion. Continue reading