A U.S. License to Kill


While I was chronicling, last week, the CIA’s hit squads—and Donald Rumsfeld’s plans for similar hunting expeditions for the Special Forces units under his jurisdiction—I came across a December 30 Associated Press report from Jerusalem that Israeli attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein had instructed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “to use the practice of killing suspected terror suspects [i.e., targeted assassinations] only as a last resort.”

In the past, the Bush administration has criticized Sharon’s having Palestinian terrorists targeted for summary execution—with occasional collateral deaths of innocent Palestinians caught in the line of fire.

But in this country, George W. Bush (as the December 15 New York Times reported) has authorized the CIA to kill terrorist leaders on an administration list—with, hopefully, minimum civilian casualties. Apparently, Sharon will no longer be admonished on this matter from Washington.

On the Shamash Web site (the Jewish Network) on December 20, there were excerpts from newspaper commentaries in 25 countries regarding, among other Bush directives, his “granting CIA authority to use lethal forces against suspected terrorists.”

From the conservative Spanish publication La Razón, December 16: “It is alarming to see that the fear existing after 9-11 in the most powerful nation has blinded its leaders to such an extent that they would see as a good a crime of the state and to consider legal the execution, without previous trial, of people accused, by a discredited security service, of terrorism . . . ”

In Pakistan, the center-right Nation editorialized on December 17 that the Bush administration’s handing over “to the CIA a list of individuals, considered to be terrorists, with authorization to eliminate them physically . . . will relieve the CIA of the bother to seek approval to kill in each individual case. . . . Terrorism cannot be eliminated through terrorist methods.”

The original New York Times report on the CIA’s list of targets noted that “the presidential finding authorizing the President to kill terrorists was not limited to those on the list. The president has given broad authority to the CIA to kill or capture operatives of Al Qaeda around the world, officials said.” Quoted in the report was Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale, and an official in the State Department during Bill Clinton’s administration:

“The inevitable complication of a politically declared but legally undeclared war [against terrorism] is the blurring of the distinction between enemy combatants and other nonstate actors. . . . The question is, what factual showing will demonstrate that they had warlike intentions against us, and who sees the evidence before any action is taken?”

On January 11, Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a long analysis of this new expansion of the CIA’s lethal authority (“A U.S. License to Kill”). He asked a crucial question:

“If the CIA kills more suspected terrorists in more countries, will it have the unintended effect of ‘legitimizing’ terrorist attacks against U.S. military officers in foreign countries or even at home?” (Emphasis added.)

Furthermore, McManus continued, “where possible, the U.S. is seeking permission of local governments before carrying out targeted killings on foreign soil—although officials suggest that Bush is willing to waive that rule if necessary. Launching a targeted killing in another country without its assent is normally a violation of international law, legal scholars say.

” ‘There may be some cases where we can’t make it conform to international law,’ one official said [to McManus]. ‘In that case, let’s just make it conform to our law.’ ”

Also quoted is Porter Goss (Republican, Florida), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who is concerned that the killing guidelines, the decision-making process, isn’t yet clear enough. “That mechanism,” he says, “still needs to be set up.”

But the fundamental question, as McManus says, is whether Americans are ready “to accept targeted-killing missions . . . that kill clearly innocent civilians?”

I would add a further question: How will we know how many of these killing missions will take place, including how many of the dead are innocent civilians?

The congressional intelligence committees will presumably be informed of these missions, but in how much detail? And to what extent, if any, will American courts be involved in these targeted executions? At least one American citizen, in a CIA operation in Yemen, has been terminated in one of these CIA missions, as I detailed last week. He was considered “an enemy combatant,” but was never charged with any crime, nor was he brought into any court before his instant decease from a Hell-fire anti-tank missile fired from a pilotless Predator aircraft operated by the CIA.

Hardly reassuring is the news (New York Times, January 29) that the president is creating a Terrorist Threat Integration Center that will “merge units at the CIA, FBI and other agencies into a single government unit intended to strengthen the collection and analysis of foreign and domestic terror threats.” In charge of this spook fiefdom will be CIA director George Tenet. For the first time, the CIA, which has often been its own private government in the past, will have “full control over the collection and evaluation of all information relating to terrorist threats in the United States and overseas”—as well as control over responding to them.

Said an FBI official: “We just don’t know what this [CIA hegemony] is going to mean.” Neither do I. Who’s going to tell the citizenry? Not Tenet or Bush. And will Tenet be able to rein in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who (as the January 8 New York Sun reports) is planning to provide more funds, troops, and equipment to the Pentagon’s shadowy Special Operations Forces, letting these commandos “run their own operations,” including (as the January 6 Washington Times notes) the authority to “kill or capture terrorists around the world”?

Both the military and the CIA will greatly increase their already unprecedented powers in this borderless war, including at home. The Constitution calls for civilian control of the military, right?