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Justice Goes to Not-War

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In 2004, a group of prominent alumni of the Justice Department’s once-prestigious Office of Legal Counsel, shaken by disclosure of the torture memoranda and other evidence of unethical conduct within the office, signed a statement of principles to guide the Justice Department’s opinion writers. “When providing legal advice to guide contemplated executive branch action, OLC should provide an accurate and honest appraisal of applicable law, even if that advice will constrain the administration’s pursuit of desired policies,” they wrote. “The advocacy model of lawyering, in which lawyers craft merely plausible legal arguments to support their clients’ desired actions, inadequately promotes the President’ s constitutional obligation to ensure the legality of executive action.” Have the new tenants at Justice lived up to these principles? Not so much. Thursday night the Justice Department released the first really important national security opinion of the Obama presidency. Did Barack Obama have constitutional authority to commit military forces to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1973 without congressional approval? Back in 2007, Barack Obama said unequivocally that the answer to that question was “no” unless there was an imminent threat to the country. But in April 2011, the Obama Justice Department answers the question in the affirmative. I take a deeper look at Justice’s dodgy Libya opinion in this feature for Foreign Policy.

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