Date Posted: August 2010
Why does the government sometimes tie its own hands in national security operations? This article identifies four instances in which officials believed that the applicable laws allowed them to conduct a particular military or intelligence operation but nevertheless declined to do so. For example, policymakers have barred counterterrorism interrogators from using any technique other than the fairly innocuous methods listed in the Army Field Manual. Before 9/11, officials rejected the CIA’s plans to use targeted killings against Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. Judge advocates sometimes use policy considerations to restrict military strikes that would be lawful. And in the 1990s, lawyers erected a “wall” that kept intelligence officers from sharing information with criminal investigators. The article then draws from rational choice theory to suggest two possible explanations for why the government imposes these restraints. First, self restraint might be the result of systematic risk aversion within military and intelligence agencies. Second, self restraint may be the result of empire building, as officials seek to magnify their clout by vetoing the plans of bureaucratic rivals.