David Cole


David Cole is the Honorable George J. Mitchell Professor in Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of several books, including The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable (2009), Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror (with Jules Lobel, 2007) and Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism (2003).

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  • Obama's Unauthorized War

    September 11, 2014

    In his speech, President Obama avoided the word “war,” but that is the common word for the kind of military campaign he described. And under our Constitution, the president cannot go to war without congressional approval.

  • Can Congress Rein In the Spies?

    July 30, 2014

    If Congress enacts Senator Leahy’s bill to rein in the NSA, it will mark the most significant reform of US intelligence gathering since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was enacted in the 1970s.

  • Supreme Court: It Could Have Been Worse

    June 30, 2014

    The Roberts Court is conservative, to be sure—but its recent opinions are modestly conservative, less radical than some may have feared.

  • The Drone Memo: Secrecy Made It Worse

    June 24, 2014

    Now that we can finally see the Justice Department memo authorizing the killing of a US citizen in Yemen, the biggest question is why the Obama administration fought to keep it secret. The memo does more to help than to harm the administration.

  • 'We Kill People Based on Metadata'

    May 10, 2014

    A bill to rein in NSA spying on Americans’ metadata is an important first step, but it addresses only one part of the NSA’s surveillance activities.

  • How Many Have We Killed?

    April 29, 2014

    If the US government’s targeted killings are lawful, we should have no hesitation in making them public. Surely the least we can do is to literally count and report the lives we’ve taken.

  • One Dollar, One Vote

    April 4, 2014

    The Supreme Court's faulty reasoning in its McCutcheon decision this week could well invalidate a host of other campaign finance limits--on soft money contributions, on corporate contributions, and even limits on individual contributions to particular candidates.

  • The CIA's Poisonous Tree

    March 15, 2014

    The revelations that the CIA interfered with a Senate investigation of CIA abuses shows that torture does far more than merely “taint” evidence. It corrupts all who touch it.

  • The NSA on Trial

    December 18, 2013

    Ever since the Snowden revelations, the Obama administration has maintained that the NSA's domestic spying program has been approved by all three branches of government. But as of this week, all three branches have called for substantial reforms, and a federal judge has seriously questioned the program's constitutionality.

  • How to Uphold Racial Injustice

    November 1, 2013

    A decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a case involving the New York City Police Department suggests that there is no limit to the obstacles courts can raise to claims of race discrimination.

  • The Roberts Court: What Kind of Conservatives?

    October 7, 2013

    The cases the Supreme Court will review in the 2013–2014 term, which begins this week, are likely to go some way toward clarifying just what kind of conservatives the court's majority justices are.

  • Clogging the War Machine

    September 19, 2013

    By adhering to the Constitution about military strikes, Obama is pursuing a path on Syria that accords with the rule of law, and may in fact be more effective at deterring further use of chemical weapons.

  • Obama, Syria & the Constitution

    August 29, 2013

    Obama has not sought the approval of the one body whose authority is clearly required for an attack on Syria: the United States Congress.

  • Getting Past 'Tough on Crime'

    August 14, 2013

    Both Attorney General Eric Holder’s brave speech against racial injustice and Judge Shira Scheindlin’s powerful decision against “stop-and-frisk” by the NYPD reflect a growing recognition over the past decade—in law and in politics—that something is fundamentally wrong with the enforcement of criminal law in America.

  • Gay Marriage: A Careful Step Forward

    June 27, 2013

    Together, the Supreme Court's decisions in the two gay marriage cases are a consummate act of statesmanship. By allowing the transition to full recognition of same-sex marriage to take place gradually, they avoided the backlash that a federal mandate in every state might have triggered.

  • Obama's Long Road to Peace

    May 24, 2013

    President Barack Obama’s speech Thursday at the National Defense University may turn out to be the most significant of his tenure. He outlined a way out of this “perpetual war,” saying that “our democracy demands it.” Whether he can make good on this promise will very likely define his legacy.

  • Guantánamo and Torture: It's Up to Obama

    May 2, 2013

    After four years of near silence on the post-9/11 legacies of torture and indefinite detention, President Obama responded to a question about Guantánamo this week by calling it “not sustainable” and “contrary to who we are.” Will the administration now follow its rhetoric with concrete action?

  • Marriage Equality: Not Now, But Soon?

    March 30, 2013

    At some point, the Supreme Court will recognize, squarely and clearly, that it is unconstitutional to exclude gays and lesbians from the benefits (and burdens) of marriage. Anti-gay-marriage laws will be viewed with the same condemnation as anti-miscegenation laws.

  • The Roberts Court vs. Voting Rights

    February 26, 2013

    What happens when a Supreme Court ostensibly committed to judicial restraint confronts a long-standing civil rights statute that offends its conservative majority’s sense that law should be colorblind? That question will be front and center when the Court hears arguments this week in a case challenging a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

  • How We Made Killing Easy

    February 6, 2013

    Drones radically reduce the disincentives to killing. And that may well make a nation prone to use military force before it is truly a last resort.

  • Twelve Questions for John Brennan

    January 14, 2013

    Here are twelve questions John O. Brennan, the president's nominee to head the CIA should be asked to answer—on the public record—before he is confirmed.

  • Laws Not Fit to be Defended

    December 8, 2012

    The Supreme Court's decision on Friday to take on two challenges to anti-gay marriage laws has attracted widespread attention. But equally remarkable is the fact that neither the federal government nor the state of California are even willing to stand behind those laws.

  • It's Time to Stop Killing in Secret

    November 28, 2012

    What would President Romney do with a drone? This question apparently haunted the White House so much that in the weeks before the election it raced to establish “explicit rules” and “clear standards and procedures” for the use of unmanned drones for targeted killings. But the real problem is not that there are no guidelines written down but that we the people don’t know what they are.

  • More Speech is Better

    October 16, 2012

    “Free speech” is not free. It can have serious, even deadly consequences. When a Californian recently uploaded a primitive YouTube video depicting Mohammed engaging in oral sex, it sparked violence and riots throughout the Muslim world. And according to Malise Ruthven in his recent NYRblog post, at least sixty people are believed to have been killed in the 1988-1989 riots in Pakistan and India prompted by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which satirized Mohammed and depicted his wives as prostitutes. But if we were to start prohibiting speech on the ground that some listeners, somewhere in the world, might be offended and react violently to it, we would be enforcing the worst kind of international “heckler’s veto,” and sanctioning the violence, which is surely more reprehensible than the speech itself.

  • The Roberts Court Takes on Racial Justice

    September 27, 2012

    What will they do for an encore? The often staid Supreme Court closed its 2011-2012 term in late June with a nail-biting final day decision on the Affordable Care Act. The opinion surprised almost everyone, including four of the Court’s five conservative justices, as Chief Justice John Roberts, for the first time ever in a 5-4 decision, joined the liberal wing of the Court to uphold the bulk of the Affordable Care Act. Three days earlier, the Court struck down most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, again surprising many observers and disappointing many conservatives.

  • Why Can't We Celebrate When the Court Gets It Right?

    July 10, 2012

    Why can’t we recognize a win when it is handed to us on a silver platter? In both the health care and immigration law cases, the overall outcomes were broad victories for liberals.

  • No Accountability for Torture

    May 7, 2012

    Sometimes I think being American means never having to say you’re sorry. On Wednesday, May 2, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a federal appeals court in San Francisco, unanimously dismissed a lawsuit against former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo by Jose Padilla, the US citizen picked up at O’Hare Airport and held in military custody as an “enemy combatant” for three and a half years, during which he says he was subject to physical and psychological abuse.

  • 39 Ways to Limit Free Speech

    April 19, 2012

    Google “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and you’ll get over 590,000 hits. You’ll find full-text English language translations of this Arabic document on the Internet Archive, an Internet library; on 4Shared Desktop, a file-sharing site; and on numerous Islamic sites. You will find it cited and discussed in a US Senate Committee staff report and Congressional testimony. Feel free to read it. Just don’t try to make your own translation from the original, which was written in Arabic in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Because if you look a little further on Google you will find multiple news accounts reporting that on April 12, a 29-year old citizen from Sudbury, Massachusetts named Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen and a half years in prison for translating “39 Ways” and helping to distribute it online.

  • An Executive Power to Kill?

    March 6, 2012

    The President of the United States can order the killing of US citizens, far from any battlefield, without charges, a trial, or any form of advance judicial approval. That’s what Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of students at Northwestern Law School yesterday, in a much anticipated speech. The Constitution requires the government to obtain a judicial warrant based on probable cause before it can search your backpack or attach a GPS tracking device to your car, but not, according to Holder, before it kills you. If you are inclined to trust Obama with such power, what about the next administration? Or the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Russia, or China? In international law, what the United States does is often a precedent (or pretext) for others, and we will not have a monopoly on drone killing for long.

  • Gambling With Gay Marriage

    February 9, 2012

    On February 7, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage, unconstitutional. For many gay rights activists, however, the sounds of celebration have been decidedly muted. While time and momentum are undoubtedly on the side of recognizing gay marriage, there is still widespread hostility, with a majority of state constitutions now explicitly rejecting recognition of gay marriage. The next stop in the Proposition 8 case could well be the US Supreme Court, and there is no guarantee that the decision will be upheld there. A loss in the Supreme Court could set the gay rights movement back for decades.

  • A Bill of Rights for Some

    December 16, 2011

    For a moment, it seemed that President Obama would actually stand up to Congress on Guantanamo and military detention. But on Wednesday, the White House announced that the president will not veto the National Defense Authorization Act, despite the extraordinarily dangerous principles the legislation endorses. It creates a presumption in favor of indefinite military detention for foreign terrorism suspects, and it provides that indefinite detention without charge may be imposed on anyone who has provided “substantial support” to groups that are “associated forces” of al-Qaeda, though it leaves undefined what constitutes “substantial support” and which groups might qualify as “associated forces.” Most disturbingly, the law still effectively prevents President Obama from closing Guantanamo.

  • Gitmo Forever? Congress's Dangerous New Bill

    December 8, 2011

    For nearly ten years now, Guantanamo Bay’s military prison has been an international symbol of United States lawlessness and a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda. If Congress gets its way the facility will stay that way for the indefinite future. Both houses of Congress have now approved versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that would require the use of military detention and military courts for suspected terrorists and make it virtually impossible to close Guantanamo.

  • Killing Citizens in Secret

    October 9, 2011

    Sunday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has produced a fifty-page legal memo that purportedly authorized President Obama to order the killing of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, without a trial. Last month, the US carried out that order with a drone strike in Yemen that killed al-Awlaki and another US citizen traveling with him. The strike was front-page news, and apparently was undertaken with the approval of Yemen authorities, yet as it was a “covert operation,” the Obama administration has declined even to acknowledge that it ordered the killing.

  • A Secret License to Kill

    September 19, 2011

    Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law?

  • A States' Rights Advocate Upholds Obamacare

    July 5, 2011

    On June 29, 2011, the first federal court of appeals to rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” upheld the law by a vote of 2-1. Two more appellate court decisions are expected soon, and ultimately the Supreme Court will have the final say. But more significant than the judges’ reasoning is the judge who cast the deciding vote – Judge Jeffrey Sutton. Had those challenging the law been asked to name their “dream judge” for this appeal, they would almost certainly have named Sutton. It’s not only that he is a Republican, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, an appointee of President George W. Bush, and an active member of the Federalist Society. Sutton made his name litigating for states’ rights.

  • Guantánamo After Bin Laden

    May 12, 2011

    Some commentators have optimistically pronounced the killing of Osama bin Laden the beginning of the end of our conflict with al-Qaeda. But having eliminated al-Qaeda’s most inspiring symbol, we persist in offering the group an alternative source of inspiration: the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

  • Can Congress Force Us to Buy Broccoli?

    February 4, 2011

    The January 31 ruling by US District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida that the new health reform law is unconstitutional in its entirety was immediately hailed by Republicans and Tea Party activists, who have made overturning the law their chief goal. The second federal district court judge to invalidate President Obama’s health care law, Judge Vinson reasoned that if the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to require citizens to buy health care insurance as a means of regulating “interstate commerce,” there would be no limit to Congressional power. It could require us to buy cars, bread, or even broccoli, as all could equally be said to be economic actions that would promote commerce.

  • The Smithsonian's New Culture War

    December 16, 2010

    About twenty years ago, a gaunt, respectful, but angry David Wojnarowicz walked into my office at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York to ask what could be done about a flier that Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association had just sent out to every member of Congress, all major newspapers and TV networks, and thousands of religious ministers throughout the country.

  • Obama's Torture Problem

    November 18, 2010

    In the face of overwhelming evidence that numerous US detainees were tortured during the Bush years, President Barack Obama has famously said he wants to "look forward, not back." He prohibited the use of torture and cruelty in one of his first executive acts, but since then he has consistently resisted all efforts to hold accountable those who, under the prior administration, authorized such mistreatment.

  • How Will Gay Marriage Fare in the Supreme Court?

    August 11, 2010

    There are probably four votes to strike down Proposition 8--Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan--but there are also almost certainly four votes to uphold it--Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. As is so often the case on controversial matters before the Supreme Court these days, everything turns on Justice Kennedy. Which way will he rule?

  • The Roberts Court's Free Speech Problem

    June 28, 2010

    In the Roberts Court's world, corporations' freedom to spend unlimited sums of money apparently deserves substantially greater protection than human rights advocates' freedom to speak.

  • He Was Tortured, But He Can't Sue

    June 15, 2010

    On Monday, June 14, the Supreme Court declined to hear Maher Arar's case, conclusively shutting the door on the Canadian citizen's effort to obtain redress from US officials who stopped him in September 2002 while he was changing planes on his way home to Canada and shipped him instead to Syria, where he was tortured and imprisoned without charges for nearly a year.

  • They Did Authorize Torture, But …

    March 10, 2010

    Whatever else you might say about John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who drafted several memos in 2002 authorizing the CIA to commit torture, you have to admit that he’s not in the least embarrassed by the condemnation of his peers. On February 19, the Justice Department released a set of previously confidential reports by its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) excoriating Yoo’s legal work—but stopped short of referring him for professional discipline by his state bar association. Since then Yoo has written Op-Eds for The Wall Street Journal and The Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeting his “victory.” In the Wall Street Journal piece, entitled “My Gift to the Obama Presidency,” Yoo argued that President Obama owes him a debt of gratitude for “winning a drawn-out fight to protect his powers as commander in chief to wage war and keep Americans safe.” Four days later, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Yoo called the decision not to refer him for bar discipline “a victory for the people fighting the war on terror.”

  • Obama & the Guantanamo Mess: A Way Out?

    December 23, 2009

    President Obama’s announcement that the United States intends to purchase a maximum security prison in Thomson, Illinois, and plans to move as many as 100 remaining Guantanamo detainees there has prompted a variety of criticisms from right and left. Not-in-my-backyard populists oppose holding these prisoners anywhere in the United States (though in a classic prison-industrial complex move, the Obama administration realized that those concerns can be bought off with a promise of bringing 3,000 jobs to a depressed, rural Illinois region).

  • Reading American Torture

    October 15, 2009

    On October 13, a sold-out crowd at New York’s Cooper Union listened for an hour and a half to readings by such prominent writers as Art Spiegelman, Don DeLillo, Susanna Moore, Eve Ensler, A.M. Holmes, George Saunders, and Paul Auster. Convened by PEN American Center and the ACLU, these writers came together to read not their own work, but the words of CIA bureaucrats, FBI agents, torture victims, former President George W. Bush, Army interrogators, Guantanamo detainees, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and coroners’ reports on the homicides of suspects killed in US military and CIA interrogations.