The debate over regime change in Iraq has fueled speculation that the Bush administration is considering repealing the 26-year-old ban on state-sponsored assassinations. Though assassination is a tool that rightly gives many Americans cause for concern, President George W. Bush should strongly consider the targeting of individual despots and terrorists as a legitimate response to the attacks of Sept. 11, and to prevent another disaster from ever occurring.
The ban on assassinations is not a federal law, but rather a 1976 executive order by President Gerald Ford. Thus, Bush can revoke it without congressional approval. The order was promulgated in a moment of national sanctimony by Ford under pressure from a Democratic Congress railing against reported CIA anti-Communist assassination plots. Former Assistant Secretary of State Ashton Carter has said, “Under construction of the executive order, assassinations or operations with a high probability leading to the assassination of foreign leaders or nationals — including Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden — are outlawed.”
For years, our government has attempted to circumvent the ban by mounting large-scale military attacks and hoping to kill targeted individuals. During the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush maintained that while Saddam Hussein was not being personally targeted, “No one will weep for him when he is gone.”
Yet this approach can leave disastrous consequences in its wake. The 1986 bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s camps and home,in retaliation for a terrorist attack on American soldiers, failed to kill the Libyan dictator. Instead, it left his 3-year-old daughter dead. Condoning bombings in cities or civilian centers while opposing the surgical targeting of an individual –a practice that limits collateral damage — is not a clearly superior moral alternative.
In the new kind of war we are now engaged in, the use of heavy machinery and artillery is no longer relevant. When dealing with an enemy so intent on never revealing itself, the military must pursue a more careful, methodological strategy that enables our armed forces to destroy terrorist networks and groups that support them. By targeting individual leaders, we can destroy chains of command, rendering many terror organizations defunct.
Perhaps the assassination of foreign heads of state would lead us down a road we do not want to explore, since it might lead to reprisals against our own leaders. But as Bush articulated in his address to the United Nations on Sept. 12: “In 1993, Iraq attempted to assassinate the emir of Kuwait and a former American president.” Repealing the ban will have a negligible effect on reducing assassination attempts on Americans.
Supporters of the ban also argue that assassinations, unlike military campaigns, undermine democratic oversight over the use of force. After all, assassinations are by nature covert. Yet the Constitution grants the president broad latitude in the realms of foreign policy and national security, and countless intelligence and national security operations remain withheld from public view. And under the Supreme Court’s historical interpretation of executive powers, foreign nationals are not entitled to our constitutional protections.
Ideally, the United States would peaceably seize Osama bin Laden and members of his terrorist organization alive for trial and judgment, and peaceably remove Saddam Hussein from power. Yet the possibility of capturing bin Laden by force, or deposing Saddam peacefully seems remote at best. There are legitimate concerns about state-sponsored assassinations, especially of foreign heads of state, and perhaps Bush and Congress could draft a new federal statute, rather than a new executive order, to address those concerns. This would appease legislators in Congress who may feel slighted by the legislative process being circumvented. But in fighting a new type of war, a dirty war, the United States should not sanctimoniously renounce a weapon that could help win it.
Philip Shaw is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.