Charlie Savage has the amazing story that President Obama “rejected the views of top lawyers at the Pentagon and the Justice Department when he decided that he had the legal authority to continue American military participation in the air war in Libya without Congressional authorization.” The Acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Caroline Krass, and the General Counsel of the Department of Defense, Jeh Johnson, advised the President that military activities in Libya constituted “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution and thus Section 5(b) of the WPR required him to terminate or scale back the mission after May 20. The President – himself a lawyer – rejected this advice and instead sided with the White House Counsel, Robert Bauer, and the State Department Legal Advisor, Harold Koh, who argued that the actions in Libya fell short of “hostilities” and thus did not implicate Section 5(b)’s termination provisions.
There are many things to say about this but here are a few quick reactions.
As Savage notes, the President has the authority under Article II to make legal determinations for the Executive branch. The process by which he reached this decision, however, was very unusual. The typical (and in my view best) process is for OLC to solicit the views of interested agencies and then offer its interpretation in a written opinion; then the President can, if he wishes, reject that considered OLC interpretation based on his independent judgment. This process has the virtue of placing the presumptive legal decision in the office – OLC – that is institutionally best suited to provide relatively detached legal advice to the President as well as the advice most consonant with Executive branch precedents and traditions. (I am not naïve about how detached OLC is, nor do I think it should be entirely detached; my complex views on this issue are laid out in The Terror Presidency and are summarized on pp. 195-97 of this essay.) OLC is also the government’s institutional expert on interpretations of the WPR. And it has not, traditionally, taken a narrow view of the WPR.
(photo credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza)