Ali Jaber v. United States (861 F.3d 241 (D.C. 2017))

The Policy

What it does

Upholds lower court ruling that the political question doctrine bars judicial review of a drone strike.


The DC Circuit of Appeals upheld the D.C. District Court’s ruling (SciPol brief available) that it does not have jurisdiction to review the legality of a drone strike, which by its nature, is “committed to the political branches to the exclusion of the judiciary.” The DC Circuit explained further, stating, “Under the political question doctrine, the foreign target of a military strike cannot challenge in court the wisdom of [that] military action taken by the United States.”


<p>The <a href="">political question doctrine</a> allows federal courts to excuse themselves from deciding certain issues based on a lack of jurisdiction. This lack of jurisdiction arises because the Executive is viewed as being fully responsible for questions of foreign relations and the decisions made about military action.</p>

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

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