Assassination: Should We Stay the Good Guys?

Brian Jenkins is an expert on terrorism for the Rand Corp.

The word slithered out on the mahogany table like a poisonous snake: "Assassination!" I was irritated at the person who brought it up--fortunately he was not one of the high-ranking government officials present at the meeting a few years ago, in the wake of yet another terrorist outrage. Americans had been killed. We were supposed to be having a cool discussion of policy, yet there was anger in the room when we spoke about the terrorists. And we were frustrated at the paucity of options to combat them.

But assassination in my view is a dumb idea. And it was dumber still to bring it up in that meeting. For government officials even to discuss assassination risks impropriety. Several in the room looked pained. Throats cleared; chairs scraped the floor; 200 years of American history stared down at us from portraits on the walls. After an awkward silence, one of the officials spoke. Assassination was wrong, he said. Whatever we do to combat terrorism, American values must be preserved.

Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. Walter Cronkite and Jimmy Stewart would have been proud. I was proud. There is right and wrong, and there is good and evil, this man reminded us, and we were the good guys. In the darkest moment of despair, I never feared that terrorists would triumph. In the long run, they fail. But should we always remain the good guys?

Since that meeting, terrorists have inflicted more outrages. Indiscriminate attacks have grown more common. As terrorism has become bloodier, assassination is back on the table. The United States must reconsider its prohibition against assassination, asserted one terrorist expert in a TV interview. "We should have killed the ayatollah," said another, adding that Libya's Moammar Kadafi should have been killed long ago.

These exhortations strike a resonant chord with the American public. In a public-opinion poll conducted just before the U.S. raid on Libya, 61% agreed the United States should "covertly assassinate known terrorist leaders."

Assassination has an emotional appeal when people are frightened, frustrated, angry. Terrorist attacks have worn down our patience with so-called experts who constantly remind us that combatting terrorism is a difficult and enduring task, that we may have to live with it a while longer. How much more satisfying it is to hear that we have only to take off the gloves and get down to bare knuckles.

Here are arguments in favor of assassination as a means of combatting terrorism, followed by arguments against it:

1) Assassination may preclude greater evil. "Wouldn't you have assassinated Adolf Hitler?" proponents often ask. With hindsight, it's easy to say, "Yes, of course." More difficult is, when? After 1941, when Germany declared war on the United States? After 1939, when World War II began? If before, based on what criteria? Because he was a fascist, a ruthless megalomaniac, a rabid racist who persecuted Jews, annexed Austria, invaded Czechoslovakia? All true. But how do we identify future Hitlers? Regrettably, his attributes are not so unusual among world leaders.

2) Assassination produces fewer casualties than retaliation with conventional weapons. Thousands have died as a result of conventional military operations. If blood is the measure, assassination is surely the cleanest form of warfare.

3) Assassination of terrorist leaders would disrupt terrorist groups more than any other form of attack. This is probably the best argument. The death of Wadi Haddad from natural causes resulted in a suspension of his group's operations. The elimination of Abu Nidal would no doubt impair that group's ability to operate. In short, the elimination of a group's leader causes confusion and disarray.

4) Assassination leaves no prisoners to become causes for further terrorist attacks. After publicity, release of imprisoned terrorists is the terrorists' most important objective. In Paris this year, terrorist bombs have killed 10 and injured scores of persons, all because the French government refuses to release Georges Ibraham Abdallah, a terrorist leader charged with complicity in the assassination of an American and an Israeli diplomat. Perhaps many lives would have been spared if Abdallah and others had been killed.

Against assassination are moral and legal constraints, operational difficulties and practical considerations:

1) Assassination is morally wrong. Not since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the hostage crisis in Iran--perhaps not since Hitler--has any single leader aroused more personal animosity than has Kadafi. But can you imagine the President of the United States appearing on television to announce, "Some time ago I authorized the assassination of Moammar Kadafi. I am pleased to report that American agents have successfully carried out this mission."

2) Assassination is illegal. In the mid-1970s, President Gerald R. Ford issued an Executive Order: "No person employed or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." Reasons of state would be no defense against a murder charge. Proponents argue that the President could lift the ban, legally protecting an assassin within the United States. But assassinating terrorist leaders means going into another sovereign country and killing someone. If British agents began gunning down IRA fund-raisers on the streets of Boston, if Nicaraguan agents assassinated contra leaders in Washington, we'd charge them with murder.

3) In combatting terrorism, we ought not to employ actions indistinguishable from those of the terrorists themselves. Our goal is not just to outgun the terrorists but to defeat, or at least limit, terrorism. That goal is not advanced by resorting to terrorist tactics ourselves--bomb for bomb, bullet for bullet.

4) Assassination of terrorists could justify further actions against us. Suppose we did kill off terrorist leaders and their sponsors. Suppose then, in response, terrorists launched a campaign to assassinate American diplomats and leaders. Could we cry foul? Or would the world simply see it as another phase of a dirty war?

5) Our opponents would have the advantage. Terrorist leaders are elusive. Our intelligence about terrorist groups is admittedly inadequate. How are we going to get their leaders into the right place at the right time to kill them? In contrast, our leaders are particularly vulnerable. They are open, exposed, public--their schedules known and published.

6) The replacement for the person we kill may be even worse. We cannot assume that new leaders will act differently. In 1973, Israeli agents killed Mohamed Boudia, the Algerian who orchestrated Palestinian terrorist operations in Western Europe. Boudia was replaced by Carlos, an even more notorious terrorist.

7) In the long run, it doesn't work. Following the bloody attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Israel embarked upon a campaign of assassination, killing 11 known or suspected leaders of Palestinian terrorist organizations over two years. The campaign ended after an innocent waiter in Norway was killed, mistakenly identified as a terrorist on the list. It was difficult to discern any decline in Palestinian terrorist attacks at the time, and Israelis and Jews worldwide are still targets.

Sometimes blood must be spilled for one's country. Military force may be a necessary response to terrorism, at times requiring aggressive covert operations and possible casualties--commando assaults on terrorist training camps, for example. The death of a terrorist leader during an attack causes no qualms. There is still a crucial difference between a covert military operation and assassination--the cold-blooded selection and murder of a specific individual.

Being at war, openly engaged in military hostilities, would make a difference. Short of war, however, "assassination has no place in America's arsenal," to quote a report written more than 10 years ago by a Senate investigating committee. It was a conclusion supported by CIA directors testifying before the committee, one reiterated by every President since. And for good reason.

Assassination is a slogan, not a solution. Easy to say, tough-sounding--a macho posture meant for the media: simple, seductive, full of promise, like any good TV commercial. Endless efforts to gather intelligence, tireless police work, countermeasures that are necessary but often pedestrian, difficult diplomacy, hard policy choices rewarded with occasional silent victories--these, not paper pistols, are the guts of counterterrorism.

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