Volume 86, Number 5

November 2011

The “Surveil or Kill” Dilemma: Separation of Powers and the FISA Amendments Act’s Warrant Requirement for Surveillance of U.S. Citizens Abroad

Anthony M. Shults

In July 2010, Nasser Al-Aulaqi, the father of suspected terrorist leader and U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi, filed a lawsuit alleging that his son had been placed on a targeted killing “hit list” by the U.S. government. In dismissing the suit, Judge John D. Bates pointed out an extraordinary aspect of the current law of counterterrorism: Prior judicial consideration is required under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to target suspected terrorists like Anwar Al-Aulaqi abroad for surveillance, but it is unnecessary under U.S. law to seek judicial authorization to target such individuals for assassination. This apparent antilogy in the law creates a “surveil or kill” dilemma for the government. On the one hand, current law burdens the President’s ability to engage in foreign intelligence surveillance of suspected threats; on the other, it incentivizes aggressive counterterrorism interventions like the CIA’s drone strike program. Indeed, the U.S. government ultimately killed Al-Aulaqi, along with another U.S. citizen suspected of aiding al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, without ever receiving judicial approval or making public any formal charges against them.

In this Note, I explore the constitutionality of the current legal regime established by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Specifically, I argue that the statute’s protections for U.S. citizens abroad, while a laudable extension of civil liberties, constitute an unconstitutional infringement of the President’s inherent authority to engage in warrantless foreign intelligence surveillance overseas. By imposing statutory limitations on the President’s power in this context that go beyond the baseline requirements of the Constitution, Congress has encroached upon inherent executive authority and therefore has violated a formal understanding of separation of powers.