e-mail us

September 11
A Year Later

Assassination as a weapon


Osama bin Laden Dead or Alive. Those were the words President Bush used to describe U.S. policy toward the man believed to have masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. So far Osama bin Laden appears to have eluded U.S. forces and their allies, but the war on terror that the United States unleashed after Sept. 11 has triggered far-reaching changes in the United States, ushering in an era of growing police powers at home and greater bellicosity abroad.

Increasingly, that bellicosity is triggering alarm, as the United States comes to be perceived as fighting fire with fire. A recent front-page story in USA Today, headlined “Global warmth for U.S. after 9/11 turns to frost,” describes how the United States is coming to be seen by its allies as a rogue state. Internally, too, the United States faces criticism that it is becoming what it deplores: a society of men, not laws, operating without either internal or external brakes.

“Bush and his administration are pushing the edge on all moral fronts right now. We are dangerously treading on civil liberties in this country today,” said Robert Ashmore, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Marquette University.

Civil rights advocates have numerous concerns, not least of which are the approximately 1,000 people picked up after Sept. 11 and held for months without charges being filed against them. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the detainees, says it doesn’t know how many people are still being held. Plans for an unprovoked attack on Iraq, the refusal of the United States to join the International Criminal Court after earlier recognizing its establishment, the embrace of pre-emptive strikes as new U.S. military doctrine, and great-er discussion of assassination as a legitimate tactic in the war against terrorism indicate that the moral boundaries of U.S. policy are far different from what they were a year ago.

For Robert Johansen, a professor of government and international studies at the University of Notre Dame, many of the tactics the United States has adopted in its war against terrorism are counterproductive.

“When we talk about terrorism, the single most important thing the United States can do in combating terrorism is to clarify the difference between the United States and terrorism,” Johansen said. “Those engaging in terrorism want to deny that there is any difference. We do not intend to kill innocent people, and the moment we begin to move closer to killing innocent people the differentiation between us and terrorists begins to diminish.”

For Johansen, therefore, assassination is unacceptable policy. “To kill people without some assessment of guilt is morally inappropriate, and that would mean some kind of trial,” he said.

Fundamentally different

Johansen said assassination is fundamentally different from the conduct of war. Murder is not legitimate killing; killing in war is considered legitimate. One problem with declaring a war on terrorism and treating the terrorists as if they were conducting a war is that it gives the other side some legitimacy, Johansen said. In his view, the attacks of Sept. 11 would be better considered a crime, not an act of war.

Johansen said the most fundamental principle in international relations is reciprocity. “We will not do anything ourselves that we’re unwilling to have done against us. If we don’t want U.S. leaders to be targets of assassins, I don’t think the U.S. can legitimately use a policy of assassination against others. Inevitably this will come back to haunt us,” he said.

Is the United States trying to assassinate Osama bin Laden? Some would say undoubtedly; others argue that attempts on the life of Osama bin Laden can be viewed as part of an effort to disable the enemy’s command and control center and are covered by the rules of wartime engagement.

“It is not against the laws of war in attacking an enemy force to look especially for a particular individual or individuals, who if they resist at all you’re entitled to kill them,” said Col. Dan Smith, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information. What you can’t do, said Smith, is capture an enemy and then tie him up and execute him.

The confines of warfare

“The pursuit of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are supposedly undertaken within the confines of warfare, within the definition of warfare, so the fact that we are after them in the same way we were after the high command of the Nazis or Japanese imperial forces … keeps this from becoming a legal problem,” said Smith.

If this strikes some as a legalistic and linguistic nicety, it also underscores the fact that to decision-makers the word “assassination” can be as flexible and open to interpretation as the word “is” famously was to President Clinton. Officially, Washington is still bound by President Gerald Ford’s 1976 executive order prohibiting U.S. government employees from engaging in political assassination, but some analysts believe that the United States is moving closer to adopting policies that it previously condemned. In October, The Washington Post reported that President Bush had signed an intelligence finding authorizing preemptive covert lethal action against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

“Washington’s previous position was that assassinations were basically wrong morally, and politically counterproductive,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast scholar at Sarah Lawrence College. According to Gerges, Sept. 11 represented a watershed in Washington’s thinking, not just toward the Mideast but toward other conflicts as well.

“Now the new thinking in Washington is that the United States under certain conditions and in certain situations should be able to empower the CIA to assassinate terrorists or certain people who represent a threat to the United States.

“We are slowly and steadily injecting life into the policy of targeted or limited assassination of certain individuals,” Gerges said.

The wisdom of such a policy can and is being debated. Israel, for instance, the only country that openly uses assassination, is the model and sometimes the inspiration for this debate. As such, Israel’s strategy of what it calls “active defense” against suspected terrorists is a test case of the pros and, many would say, the cons of such a policy.

Since the start of the second intifada in the occupied territories in the fall of 2000, Israel has slain close to 100 Palestinians it alleges were involved in terrorism. Gerges said there are two narratives about Israel’s targeting of Palestinian activists. According to the Israeli narrative, Israel does not target Palestinian leaders or leaders who do not use violence as part of struggle. According to the Palestinian narrative, the policy of assassination has no limits and no checks and balances. Scores of innocent people have been killed as collateral damage, and Palestinians assert that Israel’s policy of preemptive strikes is intended to keep the two sides from ever sitting down at the negotiating table.

Counterproductive at best

Gerges’ own take on these different narratives is that Israel’s assassination policy has been counterproductive at best. “Violence has not only not resolved the conflict, it has produced opposite results. It has led to more bloodshed and destruction on both sides.”

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said Israel conducts surgical targeted strikes against a known terrorist operative. “We use the latest military technologies specifically to hit only the person we want to hit and to avoid any collateral damage,” said Regev, who rejected the word “assassinate” to describe Israel’s policy of targeting suspected terrorists.

But Israel’s execution in Gaza of Hamas leader Saleh Shehada in a July missile strike that also killed 14 civilians shows that Israel’s targeted killings are not always so tidy.

Richard Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton University who was one of three people on a United Nations commission appointed by U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to investigate human rights in Israel, said the commission concluded that Israel’s execution policy was as much about terrorizing the Palestinian population as defending Israel against terrorism.

“Some of the individuals targeted were very inappropriate from a security perspective. They were people active in the peace movement, people with strong contacts with Israeli peace activists. Israel produced no evidence that validated their selection as dangerous terrorists,” Falk said.

Proponents of adding assassination to the U.S. national security arsenal say assassination can be a kinder, gentler way of achieving certain objectives than, say, war. Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, and the author of The U.S. Intelligence Community and A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century, said it’s absurd to argue that assassination is immoral in all circumstances. “It may be a solution to a particular problem and in some circumstances it may be morally justified,” he said.

‘Profound failure’

Writing in a recent issue of The Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Richelson examines the case for assassination in an essay titled “When Kindness Fails: Assassination as a National Security Option.” While noting that the United States’ experience in efforts at assassinating foreign leaders is one of “profound failure,” Richelson said the United States should not preclude using assassination in certain circumstances. Assassination should be employed only, but not always, to deal with terrorists or with heads of rogue states who are developing weapons of mass destruction, he said.

“Assassination should not be used as attempted in the past -- as a foreign policy tool to eliminate troublesome foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro or Rafael Trujillo,” he wrote. Richelson argued that if the United States assassinates foreign leaders and terrorists, it should acknowledge it as the Israeli government does now both as a deterrent to similar individuals and as a way of making clear under what circumstances the United States will resort to lethal means. “If the president can order such an operation, he should be able to defend it publicly,” Richelson concluded.

Others question just how efficacious assassination would be as a policy. “Even as a strategic tool, assassination isn’t useful,” said Ashmore, who said that there is no evidence that Israel’s resort to extrajudicial executions has made life any more secure for Israelis. He pointed out that Israel has the ability to go into Palestinian villages and put Palestinian suspects on trial but refuses to do this. “It prefers to act in the manner of a terrorist,” Ashmore said.

Ashmore said that too much attention is focused on the terrorism of insurgents, those who are opposing government for one reason or other, and not enough on the terrorist practices of states. “Throughout history the vast majority of the victims of terrorism are the victims of state terrorism. Our own American history, unfortunately, provides many examples of state terrorism on the part of the United States,” Ashmore said.

“What’s tragic about so much of our support for terrorism is that it’s blown up in our face,” Ashmore said. “We make enemies among the people when we support despotic powers. It’s very short-range strategic thinking to support someone like Pinochet or Mobotu or the Shah. I think the same thing is going to happen to us in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We are supporting repressive regimes.”

According to one former CIA analyst who prefers not to be identified, not only terrorism but also technology is driving some of the new debate about assassination.

“The weapons are so accurate today that it’s hard to often avoid putting a weapon in a very precise place,” he said. “My problem with assassination is that usually it comes up in the context of covert action. People are unwilling to accept the risk of war and diplomacy doesn’t seem to be working, so they kid themselves that they have this bad magic. They also fool themselves that they aren’t committing an act of war. If you decide you need to take military action, you shouldn’t fool yourself that you’re not taking military action.”

Not easy to accomplish

Greg Treverton, a staffer on the Church Committee, the Senate committee headed by Sen. Frank Church that investigated CIA assassination plots prior to 1970, is the author of Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information.

Like many others, Treverton said he sees signs that the United States is now moving toward easing the ban on political assassination, which resulted in large part from the discoveries made by the Church Committee. The ban applies to assassination efforts by U.S. government employees, but not the military.

“The idea at the time was that a willful targeting of a foreign leader was not a very good idea -- beneath us morally, and not always easy to accomplish. I think we are reconsidering whether the lesser of evils might not be targeting leaders, “ Treverton said. “If the alternative to killing Saddam Hussein is fighting a major war in which Iraqis die like flies but Hussein stays in power, wouldn’t it be morally superior to kill him directly if we could? If our goal is regime change, then there must be better way than fighting a major war in which some Americans die and an awful lot of Iraqis die.”

But Treverton said as with any assassination effort, it’s unclear whether Saddam Hussein’s successor would be better or worse. “It still strikes me how good these people are at protecting themselves. They move all the time. They work hard at personal security.”

Indeed, many suspect that if the United States could have assassinated Saddam Hussein, it would have by now, executive ban or not, which is one reason why some call post-Sept. 11 talk of revising policies that will take the gloves off the CIA misleading. According to William Blum, the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, since 1976 when Ford signed the executive order, the United States has plotted on more than a dozen occasions to assassinate leaders. This would include firing missiles at the home of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 and the CIA’s 1985 attempt to kill Hezbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah in Beirut with a car bomb. Eighty-three people were killed in the explosion, but the sheikh was not among them.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer.

At a glance

In the war on terror sparked by Sept. 11, the United States has adopted tactics that many criticize as treading on civil rights and pushing moral boundaries -- including the consideration of assassination as a legitimate weapon against terrorism.

Some would say that attempts on the life of Osama bin Laden can be seen as part of the effort to disable the enemy’s command center, and therefore permissible under wartime conduct; others say it trespasses on the 1976 executive order prohibiting U.S. government employees from engaging in political assassination.

The model of a policy of assassination is Israel, a country that openly uses the tactic. But observers say that the Israeli policy has been counterproductive, killing civilians and triggering more violence.

Still, some argue, if the U.S. objective is a regime change, killing a leader such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is the lesser of evils when the alternative is a war that kills both Americans and Iraqis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002