Ab(ju)dication: how procedure defeats civil liberties in the "War on Terror".

AuthorHerman, Susan N.

Terrorism poses many kinds of challenges. One of the most wrenching is the question of how far we are willing to go in our quest for security. Will we sacrifice our ideals? What should we accept as the moral, constitutional, and international limitations on practices like detention, interrogation, and mass surveillance?

An equally compelling question under our constitutional structure is who will make these society-defining decisions. What should be the relative involvement of Congress, the President, and the courts?

In a series of historic cases, the Supreme Court undertook providing a check against antiterrorism detention policies designed by the executive branch to avoid judicial oversight. Many of these cases involved non-U.S. citizens held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. (1) The petitioner in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2) was a U.S. citizen detained within the United States. (3) In the course of the decision, finding that Yaser Hamdi had a right to due process in connection with his detention, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor observed:

In so holding, we necessarily reject the Governments assertion that separation of powers principles mandate a heavily circumscribed role for the courts in such circumstances.... Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with other nations or with enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake. (4) Even a state of war, O'Connor said, would not be a "blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens." (5)

While the cases involving Guantanamo detainees did not declare that those detainees enjoyed all the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, the Court did allow the detainees to bring habeas corpus claims in federal court to address issues about their detention. (6)

By way of contrast, in the many other areas where the "war on terror" has generated deprivations of life, liberty, and privacy, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have utterly failed to provide a much needed check on governmental excesses, including practices like extraordinary rendition, (7) the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," (8) targeted killings, (9) and dragnet surveillance policies. (10) This stonewalling has prevailed even when U.S. citizens have been involved. The courts have hidden behind procedure on a number of grounds, including standing, (11) technical pleading rules, (12) the state secrets privilege, (13) and limitations on the Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (14) cause of action, (15) in refusing to hear the merits of challenges based on the Constitution, federal statutes, and international law.

These opinions are an embarrassment to the legal profession. Incalculable judicial resources are invested in providing elaborate, often arcane, explanations for why the court in question should not consider the merits of each case. Some courts offer multiple procedural defenses in multi-section opinions; others dispose of a case on one procedural ground while noting that other possible excuses remain in reserve. These excruciating exercises in procedure follow excruciating recitations of the plaintiff's allegations: terrible accounts of the U.S. government's involvement in kidnapping, torture, unconstitutional surveillance, targeted killings beyond any battlefield, and other secret operations.

The bottom line in case after case is that the courts have managed to absent themselves from even considering whether many highly questionable governmental policies and practices are illegal or unconstitutional. It is remarkable, for example, that although quite a few men have gone to U.S. courts with substantiated claims that they were subjected to extraordinary rendition and torture involving American officials, not a single one of these plaintiffs has received a hearing on the merits of his claim. The courts assume the truth of allegations of barbaric treatment for purposes of the opinion, and then close the procedural closet door on those allegations. Courts of appeals have been consistent in adopting this deflective posture even when American citizens have been involved. (16)

Taken individually, discussion of each of the doctrines in question may look like legal business as usual: causes of action are limited, officials may be immune from lawsuits, and pleading must be done according to rules. But when these doctrines are placed side by side, they form a virtually impenetrable barrier before the courthouse door. In some cases, the majority opinion authors have to work hard to stretch a preclusive doctrine to fit. These procrustean opinions are often vulnerable to criticism for interpreting a procedural doctrine too expansively in the particular case, in a category of cases, or in general. (17) Not infrequently, dissenting judges, looking at the same precedents and arguments, are able to point to available paths around and through the procedural thicket. Choosing a broader interpretation of the state secrets privilege or the standing doctrine when a narrower view is available is a choice to circumscribe the role of the courts.

The combined effect of these procedural obstacles is to undermine our constitutional system of checks and balances. It is not just one plaintiff who is barred from litigating due to a declared lack of standing or an award of qualified immunity to a particular defendant. No one else can get past the procedural Maginot Line either, as the judges often recognize. The majority opinions in the cases discussed in this Article address each preclusive doctrine in turn and sometimes, at the end of the opinion, express regret that the combined effect of all of their doctrinal interpretation is to let injustice stand. And then these judges will rationalize their conclusions by announcing that the role of the courts in these areas should be limited. Tell the elected branches, they say, rather than the courts. Our hands are tied.

Congress and two post-9/11 Presidents, however, have shown little interest in providing any form of accountability or redress for victims of torture or targeted drones. Justice O'Connor was right in concluding that the politically insulated courts are indispensable in these important national debates. No judicial review in this area generally means no meaningful review at all.


    1. Extraordinary Rendition and Torture

      The term "extraordinary rendition" refers to clandestine abduction and detention outside the United States of people suspected of involvement in terrorism, who are then interrogated using methods impermissible under U.S. and international laws. Since the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2014 report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detention and interrogation program, it is implausible to contend that American officials were not connected with torture. (18) The report found 119 instances of American involvement in extraordinary rendition and torture. (19) Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein's report reached four major conclusions:

      (1) The CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" were not effective. (2) The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public. (3) The CIA's management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed. (4) The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public. (20) But even after the release of this report, none of the 119 victims of these practices, to my knowledge, has received any form of redress or apology. President Obama, who, at the very beginning of his first term, issued an Executive Order renouncing torture prospectively, also announced that he was turning the page and not looking back at what had happened before he took office. (21) There were no investigations, no independent counsel appointments, no congressional hearings, and no apologies. (22)

      The victims who tried seeking redress in the courts all alleged that American agents--either with the CIA, FBI, or the military--improperly solicited, condoned, or participated in detention and interrogation methods they would have been legally prohibited from using themselves. They argued that, at the least, the agents in these cases had substantial reasons for believing that a person being rendered to or questioned in another country was in danger of being subjected to torture. As in the Guantanamo cases, conduct outside the United States--and here involving foreign interrogators--provided an end run around accountability or liability under American law. Although the procedural excuses vary, the results in all of these attempts at litigation have been the same: case dismissed.

      1. The Fourth Circuit--El-Masri and the State Secrets Privilege

        On December 31, 2003, Macedonian authorities removed Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, from a bus in Macedonia where he was on vacation, and detained him for twenty-three days. (23) From there, El-Masri alleges that CIA operatives flew him to a squalid CIA-run detention facility near Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was incarcerated incommunicado, bound, beaten, and harshly interrogated. (24) After four months, he was flown to a remote area of Albania and released. (25)

        There was enough evidence substantiating El-Masri's description of his nightmarish ordeal, including CIA involvement, that a draft report issued by the Council of Europe in June 2006 concluded that his account was substantially accurate. (26) There is also evidence that CIA officials knew at least as early as April that the detention of El-Masri was a mistake. The actual suspect wanted for questioning was another man with a similar name. (27)

        Although El-Masri's lawsuit named CIA Director George Tenet as the defendant, the United States...

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