Assassination Rights

Assassination is as American as apple pie. The record-breaking case of assassination targeting is Fidel Castro.  The 1976 Church Committee report on “Alleged Assassination Plots on Foreign Leaders” listed “at least” seven attempts to kill Castro, but the book by Fabian Escalante, the Cuban former official in charge of protecting Castro, claimed that the number of tries ran into the hundreds.  In 2006 Duncan Campbell pointed out that Luis Posada Carriles was still living in Florida after his failed effort to murder Castro (among his other terrorist actions), and Campbell noted sardonically that Florida is “a place where many of the unsuccessful would-be assassins have made their home.”1 It would be a mistake, however, to think that Florida is the terror center of the world—that honor falls to Washington, D.C. and its environs; Florida is just one branch of the center, just as Guantanamo is just one branch of a D.C.-centered torture network.

Aggression Rights

It is, of course, well established that the United States has aggression rights, and that international law applies only to others, although clients like Israel also have such exemptions by virtue of their clienthood, tail-wagging-dog capabilities, and power of their protector.2  U.S. aggression rights were made perfectly clear with the U.S. attack, invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which was as clear a violation of  the UN Charter as Saddam’s invasion-occupation of Kuwait in 1990. In the latter instance, the UN rushed to condemn Saddam on the very same day his tanks and troops rolled into Kuwait, and that great law-enforcer, the United States, rushed to oust him by massive force.

On the other hand, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, this was merely a case of tolerable “birth-pangs of a new Middle East” (Condoleezza Rice), so that when the UN came into the picture it was more to protect poor little Israel from future pea-shoots from Lebanon than to protect Lebanon from current and future attack and invasion by a state that had already aggressed against it twice.  Even more interesting was the invasion of Rwanda by elements of the Uganda army in October 1990, just two months after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Here, as in Lebanon, the invading forces were supported by the United States, so the UN imposed no impediment or penalty, and in various other ways aided the invading party and facilitated a genocidal process that followed later in the 1990s (and extended into the Democratic Republic of  the Congo).

Assassination Rights

Assassination rights follow in the same manner, flowing from military and economic power, arrogance, self-righteousness, and client status. As of this moment (early September, 2011), it is not clear whether Moammar Gadaffi is dead or alive—or, if alive, will long survive—but it has been openly acknowledged that the United States and its NATO allies have more than once bombed Gadaffi’s compound in Tripoli in an effort to kill him, the first incident occurring as early as March 20, the second day of the war.  This is by no means the first time that the enlightened West has tried to assassinate Gadaffi.  The British and French both tried, and the United States made an earlier effort in 1986 when it bombed Gadaffi’s residence in Tripoli, missing him but killing his baby daughter and many nearby civilians.

Assassination of civilians violates numerous international  prohibitions of such killing beyond military necessity; and it violates a stream of U.S. executive orders that declare, for example, that “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination” (F.O. 12333, 1981 [Reagan]). This is regularly ignored by U.S. leaders, hence by the media and by any potential-theoretical national or international law enforcement bodies.

The rationales for ignoring law and executive orders can be funny.  We can go after Gadaffi because he is “commander-in-chief” of the Libyan armed forces, hence a military target.  (Obama would, of course, be a legitimate military target for the Taliban, or Libyan armed forces, as I’m sure the editors of the New York Times would agree.)  One exposition of assassination law notes that “it seems fairly obvious that eliminating Gadaffi will go far toward bringing attacks on civilians to an end.”3  This might be especially true if his elimination would have ended NATO attacks on Libyan civilians, which, along with those of the NATO-supported insurgents, seem to have far exceeded those of Gadaffi and his forces.

Bringing a war to a quicker end has long been a rationalization for attacking civilians. During the bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999 the stepped up attacks on Serbian civilian structures and civilian occupants was explicitly designed to force a quicker surrender; and the bombing of the Belgrade state broadcasting station (16 killed) was explained on the ground that the station served up state propaganda and was therefore a quasi-military target whose destruction would hasten an end to the war.  Then, of course, U.S. wars are always a matter of self-defense, against the threat of weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds rising over New York harbor, or some other threat to the pitiful giant. So assassination prohibitions never come into play—for us.

Israel‘s Assassination Rights

Or for our pitiful little client in the Middle East, which is a kind of pioneer in “targeted assassinations” and “preventive strikes.”  Israel has been killing Palestinians in extra-judicial actions for many years, both in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. The Palestine Centre for Human Rights estimates 604 targeted killings of Palestinians between September 2000 and March 2011, plus another 256 “collateral damage” bystanders killed. B’Tselem estimates 228 executions carried out by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) between September 2000 and October 2006, plus 154 non-targeted civilians. This, of course, just scratches the surface of the forms of violence carried out by the Israeli state and its settlers against the untermenschen who stand in the way. The IDF uses only rubber bullets in Israeli protests, but live ammunition in dealing with the Palestinians. The assassination programs are built on the foundation that Israel is confronted with “terrorists,” who can be dealt with summarily. That the dispossessing IDF is the operative body of a system of wholesale terrorism that daily violates international law is unrecognized not only in Israel but throughout the Free World.  Similarly, the Israeli wars of aggression in Lebanon and the genocidal war on Gaza in 2009 do not elicit sanctions or war crimes tribunals or discredit the Israeli state or leadership. Its right to aggress and assassinate remains intact.

In 2006 the Israeli assassination program received the imprimatur of the Israeli Supreme Court, which found that the assassinations of “terrorists” who had not been tried in any court of law were legal.  “We cannot determine in advance that all targeted killings are contrary to international law,” the court ruled.  “At the same time, it is not possible that all such liquidations are in line with international law.”  But the court did make it illegal to carry out an assassination attack where more than one sure victim was unidentified and was possibly an innocent.4   Of course, the non-innocence of the properly liquidated targets had not been determined in a court of law, but this extra-judicial decision-making, which flies in the face of  international law, was acceptable to the court. The court also required that if feasible the terrorists should be arrested rather than simply assassinated.  Of course, if the target resisted their arrest killing them would be acceptable, and assassinating them where an arrest was not practicable was also acceptable.

This was a de facto “license to kill,” that would only put the killing establishment to some minor pains to keep the record clean and lawful.  “Targeted Assassinations—a License to kill” was, in fact, the title of an article published in Haaretz on November 27, 2008 by Uri Blau, using some IDF internal documents that described well how the Israeli Supreme Court’s assassination-approving decision would only slightly inconvenience the IDF’s assassination program. Blau shows that the Israeli military regularly carried out assassination operations, planned in advance as targeted killings, under the guise of planned arrests.  Blau cites evidence that top Israeli officers approved in advance the killing of Palestinians defined as “wanted.” This has been a scandal in Israel, with the alleged leaker of documents (Anat Kam, a then 23-your-old former IDF soldier) under arrest and Blau a refugee in England fearful of returning to Israel.  Needless to say Blau’s “License to kill” and  its findings have not been widely disseminated in the Free Press, nor has the freedom of speech scandal gotten much attention.

The United States: From Assassination Rights to Global Free-Fire-Zone Rights

Of course, with its vastly greater capacity to kill on a global scale, the U.S. “license” far surpasses client Israel’s. And, despite its serious domestic problems and resource scarcity for its civil society needs, the U.S. permanent war establishment is upping-the-ante in pursuing its villain choices across the globe.  The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill testified before the House Judiciary Committee in December 2010 that the U.S. Special Operations Forces and Central Intelligence Agency have steadily expanded their ongoing “shadow wars” around the world, conducting missions in 60 countries during the Bush administration, and as many as 75 under Obama’s.  As Scahill added, the Obama “administration has taken the Bush era doctrine that the ‘world is a battlefield’ and run with it.”

Based on press reports dating back to June 17, 2004, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (U.K.) estimated that by the end of August 2011, between 2,309 and 2,880 persons had been killed in the U.S. “Covert Drone War” in Pakistan, with air strikes by these remote-controlled aerial killers under Obama outnumbering Bush’s 243 to 52.   These researchers found the reported civilian death-toll to be between 392 and 783—though the actual civilian toll is likely far greater, as the press reports which form the basis of this research tend to repeat the U.S. and Pakistani government line that every strike kills “militants,” and only in exceptional cases are civilian fatalities acknowledged in the reports.5

A photographic exhibit in London last summer by the Pakistani Noor Behram, titled Gaming in Waziristan, detailed the wreckage caused by the U.S. drone war.  Behram’s theme, in his own words, is “that far more civilians are being injured and killed than the Americans and Pakistanis admit.”  As he told the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont: “For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant.  I don’t go to count how many Taliban are killed. I go to count how many children, women, innocent people, are killed.”6

A lawsuit filed in Islamabad against the retired C.I.A. lawyer John A Rizzo on behalf of two surviving family members of drone attacks accuses him of having played a role in determining targets for the attacks, and thus deciding who should die.  This and similar evidence in other U.S. free-fire zones such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere (Libya, for example, until the overthrow of the Gadaffi government in late August), stands in dramatic contrast with the reassuring words of White House’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan, who said in answer to a question on June 29 that the “types of operations that the U.S. has been involved in in the counterterrorism realm—nearly for the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”  During the same speech, Brennan previewed the United States’ strategy in its Global War On Terror for the years ahead.  Unsurprisingly, remote-controlled drones and U.S. Special Forces Operations moving in-and-out of different countries against which no official U.S. declaration of war has ever been made were featured prominently.7

Brennan was, of course, lying about the sure-sightedness of this method of kill, and six weeks later, the New York Times helped him get-off-the-hook when he “adjusted the wording of his earlier comment on civilian casualties,” no longer saying that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” in the past year, but that “American officials could not confirm any such deaths.”  In an amazing gloss on the argument over drones, Georgetown University Pakistan expert C. Christine Fair also told the Times: “This is the least indiscriminate, least inhumane tool we have.”8

Given the monumental scale of the violence and of the death and the destruction caused by U.S. military attacks against multiple countries around the world (formally or informally, in uniform or by hired-hands), the reported deaths in Pakistan to date are indeed relatively small, when compared to the deaths of 1 to 2 million Iraqis caused by the United States and its allies from August 1990 to the present.  But perhaps the most important point to note is the institutionalization, growth, and normalization of the work of the U.S. military machine. The CIA has grown in size and especially in its killing activities, featuring its drone war management, which Gareth Porter contends is unstoppable because of bureaucratic imperatives and power.9   It is, in the words of one CIA official, “one hell of a killing machine,” but it is probably exceeded in its death-dealing by the semi-secret Joint Special Operations Command, which “has killed even more of America’s enemies in the decade since the 9/11 attacks.” 10

These, along with the Pentagon, have made the entire globe a free-fire zone in which people are assassinated without trial at U.S. discretion. NATO has been integrated into this process, expanded greatly since the break-up of the Soviet Union, whose alleged threat was the rationale for building NATO, and with NATO now stressing “out of area” operations that gear well with the U.S. “projection of power.” It was noted recently in a reflection on 9/11 that America’s wars have greatly increased rather than decreased since the demise of the Soviet Union and the ending of that supposed threat to international peace and security.11   But that seeming paradox rested on the belief that it was the Soviets who needed to be contained, rather than the United States and its allies. The latter still do.  And as during the Vietnam war where U.S. policy—free-fire zones, chemical warfare, massive killings of civilians in napalm and bombing raids—created a steady stream of recruits to keep fighting the aggressor, so today the U.S. (and Israeli) killing machine continues to produce recruits and resistance to its “out of area” advances. As this is a permanent self-fulfilling enemy- and war-generating process, it is ominous and may be an Armageddon March.

•  Article first appeared in Z Magazine, October 2011

  1. “638 tries to kill Castro,” Guardian, August 3, 2006 []
  2. Herman, “Aggression Rights,” Z Magazine, February, 2004 []
  3. “Assassination under International & Domestic Law,” on the IntLawGrrls website, May 2, 2011 []
  4. “Israeli court backs targeted killings,” BBC News, December 14, 2006 []
  5. Chris Woods, “Drone War Exposed,” and David Pegg, “Drone Statistics Visualized,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, August 10, 2011 []
  6. US drone in Pakistan claiming many civilian victims, says campaigner,” July 17, 2011 []
  7. “U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy; Ensuring Al-Qaida’s Demise,” Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C., June 29, 2011 []
  8. Scott Shane, “C.I.A. Is Disputed On Civilian Toll In Drone Strikes,” August 12, 2011 []
  9. “CIA’s Push for Drone War Driven by Internal Needs,”, IPS News, September 5, 2011 []
  10. Dana Priest and William Arkin, “’Top Secret America’: A look at the military’s Joint Special Operations Command,” Washington Post, September 2, 2011 []
  11. Greg Jaffe, “On a war footing, set in concrete,” Washington Post, September 5, 2011 []

Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media. Read other articles by Edward.