This Article reflects on the codes of conduct the United States has devised, and has improvised, during the last ten years of the Twilight War. As the polemics have subsided and policies are regularized for the long haul, I focus only on two major issues—codes for interrogating enemy captives and the code for defining the enemy. As “legal realists” have observed, legal doctrines rarely emerge from classrooms and often not even from courts. This is then a personal history of how these legal policies took shape and evolved. But one of the most important insights to take away from this historical episode was that the advocates for the radically new codes of conduct framed the issue as a legal question—substantively and bureaucratically. Instead of framing the question around what “should” be done, carefully inventorying prior U.S. and foreign experience in detention practices and interrogations and analyzing all the pros and cons, the issue was debated as one of what “can” be done. If it does nothing else, this episode should reveal the dangers implicit in this habit of thought.
The Essay also underscores the policy and even management value of well-defined, politically sustainable guidelines for secret operations to kill enemies and deal with captives. Because the government must entrust intelligence operatives with exceptional power, a fundamental social contract forms. Such a social contract is an essential foundation to granting intelligence agencies and military departments, with thousands of employees conducting many operations around the world, extraordinary powers to intercept communications, break laws in other countries, and even use lethal force to defend the country—all in secret. When the contract is broken, trust breaks down and all sides will lose.