J. Scott Applewhite
CIA Director Leon Panetta speaks with reporters at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va., on
Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009.

Are Al Qaeda Assassinations Justified?

July 15, 2009 06:22 PM
by Liz Colville
Some pundits are focusing on the CIA's failure to carry out the eight-year-old plan, the assassination plans that are still active today and in what cases, if any, assassination is justified.

Some Assassinations Still Permitted, But Is System Flawed?

John A. Farrell suggested in U.S. News & World Report that the CIA's plan to assassinate al Qaeda leaders, which was reported July 11 as having been withheld from Congress, may have suffered from what he calls the agency's long-term shortcomings: an "over-reliance on technology, lack of knowledge about the habits and customs (and language) of the targets, and an inability to get (human) spies in close." 

Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican, suggested to The Wall Street Journal that the assassination plan, hatched in 2001, had been "tossed around in fits and starts," costing only $1 million before it was cancelled by CIA Director Leon Panetta in late June 2009.

Farrell narrows in on that aspect, saying that the U.S. military has been "shooting cruise missiles at al Qaeda for years." The news is that the U.S. also had, under the CIA's direction, "specially-trained teams of assassins on the ground," according to Farrell. But the "tough question that Congress needs to be asking is: Why didn't it work? Not: Why weren't we told?" Farrell writes.

But beyond Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, there are many other al Qaeda operatives active today, Walter Shapiro points out in Politics Daily. "[H]ow senior does the al Qaeda official have to be to justify no-questions-asked assassination?" Shapiro asks. Echoing Farrell, Shapiro points out that despite Panetta's cancellation of the project, "America continues to practice de facto assassination by targeting terrorist leaders with deadly accurate Predator drone missiles."
The Obama administration reviewed this practice when the president took office, Shapiro notes, but "the major White House concerns were the civilian casualties from the Predator attacks and objections from our erstwhile ally Pakistan over the continuing violations of its national sovereignty."

Shapiro concludes that assassination should "almost never" be sanctioned "away from the battlefield," because the potential inaccuracy of the operation is too great a risk for the U.S. to justify, especially when viewed by future generations.

Outlining several reasons for debate of the CIA's plan, Marc Ambinder adds in The Atlantic that "a small program designed to give the CIA an assassinations capacity against enemies of the state isn't controversial," but a program that targets al Qaeda members not in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq—in other countries and "without express permission from the host government"—would be reason enough to cancel the project.

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