District Court for the District of Columbia rules on claims brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act against the United States by the estates of two alleged victims of a drone strike in Yemen (Ali Jaber v. United States)

The Policy

What it does

Holds that the political question doctrine bars judicial review of this drone strike.


Plaintiffs alleged that the drone strike violated the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and customary international law. The court ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to review the legality of the drone strike, which, by its nature, is “committed to the political branches to the exclusion of the judiciary.” Plaintiff has appealed, making this the first appeal involving a civilian victim of a covert drone strike to be heard in federal court.


The Science

Science Synopsis

Plaintiffs allege that the incident was a “signature” strike, in that the drone operators did not know who they were targeting, but instead fired based on other indications that they were al Qaeda operatives. Plaintiff’s complaint describes targets of signature strikes as “selected based on a cocktail of data – largely signals intelligence – such as an unidentified person's cell phone usage, travel patterns and believed associates.”

Relevant Experts

Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., US Air Force (Ret.), is a professor of the practice of law at Duke University and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. His teaching and scholarly writing focus on national security, international law, civil-military relations, cyberwar, airpower, counter-insurgency, military justice, and ethical issues related to the practice of national security law.

Relevant publications:

  • Dunlap, Charles J. Forthcoming. "Accountability and Autonomous Weapons: Much Ado About Nothing." Temple International & Comparative Law Journal.
  • Dunlap, Charles J. 2014. “Clever or Clueless? Observations About Bombing Norm Debates.” In The American Way of Bombing: Changing Ethical and Legal Norms, from Flying Fortresses to Drones, edited by Matthew A. Evangelista and Henry Shue. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Mary (Missy) Cummings, PhD, is Professor in Duke’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, an Associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and the director of Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Lab (HAL). Her research interests include human-unmanned vehicle interaction, human-autonomous system collaboration, human-systems engineering, public policy implications of unmanned vehicles, and the ethical and social impact of technology.

Relevant publication:

  • Cummings, Mary L. 2017. “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Warfare.” London: International Security Department and US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House.

The Debate