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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

June 2006

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Three years before Islamist terrorists struck American embassies in Tehran and Islamabad, President Gerald Ford responded to a Senate committee's investigation of the CIA by banning "political assassination." This essay questions the wisdom of Ford's executive order, which may have hampered American efforts to counter terrorism and its sponsors. -- Contrib. Ed.

Why I Turned That Page by David Bradberry

For thirty years, a presidential directive has barred American military leaders and intelligence officials from targeting particular individuals for elimination. The executive order that banned the practice of assassination, “targeted killing,” may have tamed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), dubbed a "rouge elephant" by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), but it also impeded the agency's and the military's ability to protect the United States.

Executive Order 11905, issued in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, reads: "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination." This mandate grew out of the 1975 session of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations, tasked by the Senate to review records of CIA involvement in assassination attempts on Fidel Castro of Cuba, Salvador Allende of Chile, and others. This body, also known as the Church Committee, after its chairman, described assassination as “unacceptable in our society” and called for an end to the practice.

This essay maintains that the ban on assassination unwisely limits the options available to agents and officers in the field, forcing them to act in ways that may reduce chances of success or produce greater amounts of death and destruction. When engaged in warfare, especially with terrorists, the United States should lift that ban. Killing an enemy leader no more constitutes murder than any death in war. Revising the executive order would remove a roadblock to the effective application of targeted killing, which continues, often clumsily, despite the 1976 moratorium. Properly used, assassination can save lives on both sides of a conflict, and it often serves as the only means of retribution against non-government criminal organizations that resist capture, such as Israel's assassination of the Black September terrorists or the United States' ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden and the leaders of al Qaeda.

Assassination has existed for thousands of years, and long shaped history's political landscape. "Simple assassinations," such as the criminal murder of one individual by another, differ ethically from “sanctioned assassinations,” such as the government-mandated eliminations of enemy leaders that occur today. Some supporters of the executive order see no such distinction. To them, assassination represents murder, whether committed by a government agent for our nation's security or a vengeful individual for private reasons.

The validity of the critics' claim depends, of course, on whether their logic also defines those killed in military operations as murder victims. Few do so; properly defined, murder applies only to unlawful killing. Only the 1976 ban presently makes government-sanctioned assassination illegal, and no international treaty signed by the United States prevents its use.

American popular hostility toward assassination likely reflects the public's response to the murders of Lincoln, Kennedy, and King. Such feelings facilitated turning the idea of assassination as targeted killing-a quasi-military operation-into a heinous crime. If conflict justifies death and destruction by aerial bombing, why should Americans regard the killing of a single enemy commander or leader as reprehensible? Has the definition of assassination become so emotionally entwined with that of murder that Americans cannot see the difference between the death of a politician at the hands of a self-appointed individual and the killing of an enemy leader by those who wage our wars?

With that distinction in mind, should the United States continue to regard all assassination as homicide-by-state? Should it not instead regard some assassinations as simply machinations of war: necessary actions used to protect the lives and freedom of innocent people. Writing for National Review, “A View to a Kill: Assassination in War and Peace,” Richard Lowry makes just that point: “It is the right of the U. S. to target and kill individuals in the chain of command of a country with which we are formally, or as a practical matter, at war.”

Assassination involves killing, but in wartime that does not represent murder. By its very nature, armed conflict inescapably includes killing, whether by suppression fire, aerial bombardment, or a sniper's bullet. In the same way, Americans should not regard targeted killing in warfare-a form of assassination-as murder and view it as an unacceptable act.

Realizing that the removal of certain people can assure the success of a mission, military commanders and intelligence officers have found often-clumsy ways around the ban for the past thirty years. Except as Ford's ban applies to civilian leaders not sponsoring international violence or other lawless behavior, the time has come to restore targeted assassination as a formal part of the arsenal of weapons available to military leaders and intelligence officers.

Though productive of long arguments over the precise definition of “assassinate,” the executive order has not ended all "abuses" of power by the intelligence community and instead increased the likelihood that the United States would of necessity have to consider large-scale military attacks instead. As Bruce Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution put it in “Is Assassination an Option?”: “The unintended result of banning assassinations has been to make U. S. leaders perform verbal acrobatics to explain how they have tried to kill someone in a military operation without really trying to kill him."

Doubters might peculate about the condition of the Mideast today if we had succeeded in removing Kaddafi in 1986, Khomeini in 1982, or Bin Laden in 1998. Sanctioned assassination can protect the United States from a current and direct threat from abroad, just as war secures against aggressor nations. Targeted killings provide a way to combat threats posed by individual leaders rather than entire countries. Intelligence officers know that the removal of such figures might have helped secure a lasting peace in the Mideast and across the globe. Luckily, because of the ambiguous definitions for “assassination,” U. S. forces have been able to mount operations including targeted killing for the past thirty years.

Since the 1976 executive order, the United States has, for example, made twelve major assassination attempts, describing them not as targeted killings but as attacks, for example, on “command and control” buildings. This ability to maneuver around the executive order has given U. S. armed forces the means by which to target the homes of leaders, but not the leaders themselves or to target an aircraft without naming its passengers. The U. S. government should not restrict the capabilities of its armed forces by preventing them from targeting a named individual and instead forcing them to employ means likely to cause greater collateral damage.

Removing the ban on assassination would also provide officers in the field a choice that they presently do not have: to remove an individual, which is not allowed, or to remove the entire building, which he happens to occupy. When commanders wish to incapacitate an individual, the executive order often prevents them from choosing the best means. As a result they must employ methods more dangerous for American soldiers or intelligence officers or likely to kill more than the desired number of enemy personnel or civilians. In the end, the ban forces our intelligence and military leaders to attack a mountain when seeking only to eliminate a molehill.

The 1986 attack on Moammar Kaddafi has become the best-known example of the overuse of force in targeted killing. Aiming to kill Kaddafi while he slept, the United States dispatched eighteen F-111 fighter-bombers to attack a small tent complex near Tripoli, Libya. The attack failed, infamously killing only Kaddafi's 15-month-old adopted daughter, Hana. The assassination prohibition kept America's leaders from targeting Kaddafi himself and forced adoption of an unsuccessful method that resulted in the death of an infant.

Lifting the ban on assassination and allowing senior officers on the front line to target individuals would likely save lives on both sides of the conflict. There would be less collateral damage, such as the death of civilians, along with less risk to American troops or agents, who could achieve their objectives with more focused weapons and missions.

Because of advances in military technology, continuing the ban also poses questions about the legality of U. S. operations. The targeting capability of weapons today makes it difficult to keep from targeting specific people. As Berkowitz explained: “Weapons are so accurate today that, when one programs their guidance systems, you aim not just for a neighborhood, or a building in the neighborhood, but for a particular room in a particular building.”

Lastly, lifting the U. S. moratorium on assassination would permit retributive action against individuals outside the realm of the American justice system. Just as Israel took the initiative to systematically hunt down the ultra-national terrorists who struck at the 1972 Olympic Games, the United States must have the resolve to bring justice to the terrorists who struck our shores in 2001.

After the 1998 African embassy bombings, CIA officers, along with Special Forces troops, joined Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. They sought the complete obliteration of the al Qaeda terror network and the Taliban government that supported it. Intelligence showed that al Qaeda had mounted the attacks, and Osama bin Laden later acknowledged responsibility. The ban nevertheless limited the authority of CIA agents in Afghanistan, codenamed “Jawbreaker,” to target individuals for assassination.

Following the 911 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the United States chose the military option, supporting an invasion of the Shomali Plains of Afghanistan, al Qaeda's strongpoint. Lifting the ban on killing extrajudicial criminals, those waging de facto war on the United States, whether leaders of groups or of a sovereign state, would make them justified targets.

I caution against using assassination as an all-purpose solution to every foreign policy disagreement. That policy would surely end with very few living heads of state. Assassination should be maintained as a military operation in situations where it has a high chance of successfully achieving its goal. Targeted killing also has its place in the arsenal of our nation's intelligence services as a way to remove those responsible for violent attacks, whether they head a crime family, a terror network, or a de facto warring nation. The use of assassination, though requiring careful regulation, should nevertheless remain an option.

An illustration might clarify the argument of this essay: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a powerful, popular leader who spreads anti-American sentiments across Latin America, represents no danger to Americans, whatever his long term threat to their nation's interests. In contrast, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, the late head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, directed insurgent forces attacking American troops and killing their Iraqi allies. His assassination by means of an American air strike will most likely weaken the insurgency. No one in authority has argued that his assassination, an act of war, violated a long-standing U. S. executive order.

If ever authorized for use off the battlefield, however, the decision to kill a foreign leader must rest on a conviction so strong that the government would accept war to defend the act. As a hostile act of war, the United States must continue to reject assassination as an appropriate means of dealing with leaders who simply frustrate its interests short of violent assaults on the United States, its citizens, or allies. Government authorized death should not substitute for diplomacy.

President Bush has taken a proactive stance against terror suspects, famously calling for the capture of Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” The current administration has also tolerated Israel's policy of assassination as regards Palestinian terrorist organizations. The president should now further enhance American security by lifting the ban on the assassination of terrorists wherever they may be found.

Executive Order 11905, written just as the modern terrorist threat began to emerge, restricts the operational capability of our men in the field simply because of the outdated idea that targeted assassinations of America's enemies would make it as bad as the Soviet Union. If the United States is going to counter its newest threat, that of terrorism, it will need to realize that it now fights a fluid group of individuals and the leaders of the nations that give them refuge or support. Without the ability to target these individuals, when appropriate, the United States will remain paralyzed in the face of armed extremism.


Grant Lilly is an undergraduate at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. A political science and geography major, he plans to enter one of the nation's intelligence services upon graduation.

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