Jacob Sullum
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During the Bush administration, when the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel got into the habit of rationalizing whatever the president wanted to do, Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen dreamed of an OLC that was willing to "say no to the president." It turns out we have such an OLC now. Unfortunately, as Barack Obama's defense of his unauthorized war in Libya shows, we do not have a president who is willing to take no for an answer.

While running for president, Obama criticized George W. Bush's lawless unilateralism in areas such as torture, warrantless surveillance and detention of terrorism suspects. "The law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers," he declared in 2007, condemning "unchecked presidential power" and promising that under his administration there would be "no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient."

Obama's nomination of Johnsen to head the OLC, although ultimately blocked by Senate Republicans, was consistent with this commitment; his overreaching responses to threats ranging from terrorism to failing auto companies were not. Last week, by rejecting the OLC's advice concerning his three-month-old intervention in Libya's civil war, Obama sent the clearest signal yet that he is no more inclined than his predecessor to obey the law.

Under the War Powers Act, a president who introduces U.S. armed forces into "hostilities" without a declaration of war must begin withdrawing those forces within 60 days unless Congress authorizes their deployment. Hence the OLC, backed by Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson, told Obama he needed congressional permission to continue participating in NATO operations against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

While the president can override the OLC's advice, that rarely happens. "Under normal circumstances," The New York Times noted, "the office's interpretation of the law is legally binding on the executive branch." In this case, rather than follow the usual procedure of having the OLC solicit opinions from different departments and determine which best comported with the law, Obama considered the office's position along with others more congenial to the course of action he had already chosen.

Obama preferred the advice of White House Counsel Robert Bauer and State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, who argued that American involvement in Libya, which includes bombing air defenses and firing missiles from drone aircraft as well as providing intelligence and refueling services, does not amount to participating in "hostilities."

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Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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